As December gets into full swing, in the Northern Hemisphere the urge to stay in and hibernate often grows stronger. At the same time, we navigate a deluge of work, friend and family gatherings. After two years off, socializing is back. Here I’ll explore why to say yes to social events that energize you.
On the Myers-Briggs 16 personality types test, I personally fall just on the extroverted side of the extrovert-introvert spectrum. Social events can either energize or exhaust me, depending on how much rest I’ve had and the specific event! If you have introverted tendencies, you likely feel energized by time spent alone, rather than with lots of other people. The social overwhelm of the festive season may feel particularly acute.
Our personal tendency for introversion or extroversion, can actually fluctuate depending on how often we flex our social “muscles”. This could explain the rise in social awkwardness many people felt after pandemic lockdowns. A recent study also found that acting in an extroverted – or more “talkative, assertive, and spontaneous” – way can boost our happiness.
Most of us experience positive social relationships as key for our mental well-being. Spending time with inspiring and loving humans is a natural way to relax and have fun; even to become better versions of ourselves.
Science also supports what we intuitively know. An 80-year long Harvard study found that close personal connections are a key marker for life happiness and longevity. Positive relationships encourage oxytocin production, which boosts our immune system. They help us to heal quicker and make us less likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression.
On the other hand, loneliness (defined by UK mental health charity Mind as “the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met”), can result in reduced brain function, increased stress, cardiovascular disease and stroke risk. It’s critical to nurture a supportive social circle to carry us through difficult times, give us a stronger sense of belonging and even better health.
In his book “The Luck Factor“, Psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman shares research on fortunate people – and practical tips to emulate them. One aspect of luck involves being open to new experiences. This can include how often: we speak to people we don’t know, try new activities or explore novel places. After all, the more we are open to new experiences (like social events), the more likely we are to meet a new best friend, romantic partner or business connection.
Exploring a range of environments also helps us get to know ourselves better and what we enjoy. We can gain confidence and resilience from exposure to different situations. As our stories accumulate, we arguably also become more interesting people to talk to!
Using your intuition and experience to discern between the invitations and people is however, key. We often gut-feel know as soon as we meet someone whether or not we align with them. This can show up as feelings of comfort and happiness, physical sensations (like in your stomach), ease or unease.
You’ll likely be able to tell beforehand if a social event you’re invited to is something you will be energized or drained by. Start noticing this before you go, and comparing it to how you actually felt afterwards to increase your discernment. You can learn more about hearing and following your intuition here.
You can also recognize how much alone time or nights in you need. This is totally personal to you. Making sure you have enough rest, sleep and space between social events to feel energized and healthy is important. You can read up on the impact of sleep deprivation, including mood, memory and a host of physical side effects. Research suggests healthy adults need 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. I use sleep and activity trackers like Oura ring to tell me in stark numbers when I’ve been pushing things too much.
Now we’ve examined why social events and circles are important, here are suggestions to keep (or get) your social life going.
Include interesting acquaintances and existing friends you want to stay in touch with. As demands on our time increase, we need to proactively keep juicy social connections alive. New contacts can join your life as it changes and you grow. For long-time friends, nostalgic conversations support our social bonding and even self-esteem. Even being friends with your co-workers can make you happier.
Create, and then annually update, a list (on a spreadsheet or note book) of people you want to proactively prioritize staying in touch with. You can see it as personal Customer Relationship Management (“CRM”), perhaps Friend Relationship Management! If there’s a geographical spread, add a column for where they live so you can hit them up when you travel there. Also include a column for the date you last connected to keep things flowing.
Stay on the look out for an interesting new hobby, class, culture activity, travel location, volunteering or club to join. These are great ways to meet new people you have shared interests with. You could check out nearby events online, or ask friends if there’s anything they would recommend trying out.
Going solo somewhere new can feel a little intimidating, however it’s also a great way to meet new people. You might also get that new experience-related luck boost! Try going out of your way to be friendly: smile, make eye contact, say “hi” or introduce yourself. Release expectations, but open the door to opportunity. Channel your inner labrador if it helps! Say yes to fun-sounding invitations where you can, or start up a new meet-up yourself. Socialising is a foundational basic need, you can even see community building as an act of self care or development. You’re likely to find people you resonate with doing activities you enjoy.
Try (where possible) to spend time connecting those who help you feel happy, supported and inspired. This also applies to the events and hobbies you say yes to. We all have a limited amount of free time, and the people we spend that time with can influence our habits and beliefs – choose them wisely where you can! Practicing meditation can help you become more aware of your thoughts and how you feel throughout the day. This includes around other people. You can try meditating with apps like Calm or Insight Timer or attend a local in-person class.
Alternatively, the following is an easy quick-start meditation guide. Set a timer (start with five or 10 minutes), silence any distractions and sit comfortably. Then either scan your body with your awareness from your head to toes; notice your breath without changing it; send your awareness to the middle of your forehead; or inhale, hold, exhale, hold for four counts each (16 counts total per cycle). Notice thoughts going by in your mind like clouds in the sky. Don’t get attached or judge yourself if you are distracted, but bring yourself back to your meditation when you are notice this.
When you’re connecting socially, try to minimize distractions from the likes of smartphones. Many of us dislike speaking to someone who constantly appears to look at their phone (or over our shoulder at who else they might talk to)! After all, being a good listener is a highly likeable trait that can help you connect better. Practice being fully present with someone who is talking by: asking insightful questions that genuinely interest you; subtly mirroring body language and voice; rarely interrupting; and thinking of what you want to say after (not during) their points. Remembering names and details that people share with you is also a great way to bond. I’m trying the LoveBrain course in London to help me get better at this!
Having boundaries and friendships that flow both ways is important, but keep in mind the ways you might contribute. Maybe there is a work connection you could make for someone; a gift they would love; a problem you can support with; or a friend they would like. I try not to turn up empty handed at a friend’s house, for example, but to bring something they would personally enjoy.
As well as supporting them and releasing feel-good neurochemicals, helping others has been found to increase our own health, mental well-being and even longevity. Volunteering for a cause you care about is also a great way to meet like-minded people, learn new skills, and has similar physiological effects. If you’re feeling low, helping others is a great way to boost your mood and get out of your own head.
Reading books like the classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (by Dale Carnegie) or widely-acclaimed Nonviolent Communication (by Michael Rosenberg) can give insights into confidently building positive social connections. You can also increase your confidence communicating in groups by checking out public speaking societies like Toastmasters International.
Remember that social anxiety affects many of us, even those who seem confident externally. If you are feeling unable to cope or anxiety is significantly affecting your life however, consider speaking to a mental health professional who can support your specific needs.