The Benefits of Friends
If you are an Expat, making new friends is something you have probably given considerable thought to. Rightly so.
Humans are social animals, so it makes sense that being socially connected is beneficial. Research has shown that social isolation is detrimental to health and that increasing the number of good relationships can positively impact many aspects of our physical and mental health such as through a reduced blood pressure and risk of dementia.
A comparative review of research on social connectedness and health reported that strong social relationships can even reduce your odds of dying early. And the effect is significant; social connectedness impacts life expectancy more than quitting smoking or doing more exercise. In fact, having good friendships actually increases the likelihood of living longer more than losing weight. Was there ever a better reason to take a friend out to dinner!?
Researchers had previously found it difficult to determine whether a lack of friends caused poor health or poor health caused isolation. However, recent longitudinal studies have provided evidence that social ties really do influence health. Being in ill health can make you isolated, but if you are lonely or have fewer friends, you more are likely to become ill.
Having good friends has been shown not just to improve health but also happiness and general life satisfaction. Some of the leading researchers in social science have shown that people have significantly higher life satisfaction when all of the following social criteria are met:
· Strong social networks
· Frequent use of supportive networks
· Trusting those among who they live and work
· Feeling a sense of belonging in their community
These four points highlight the significance of quality as well as quantity of friendships and provide a tangible way assessing our social connectedness.
Making New Friends
Making new friends as an adult can be difficult. Outside of school or university, the opportunity to meet large numbers of people in one location, who are also looking to make new friends, is reduced. Consequently many people stick to their long established friendship groups, either from a lack of opportunity or desire to make new friends.
Expats however, have a great opportunity to make new friends. Moving and being forced out of existing geographical social networks provides the impetus for making new and more beneficial friendships.
New expats have many easy ways they can access potential new friends. Established expats are great at setting up opportunities to meet and there is likely to be a Facebook expat group for your area. Some people have an aversion to Facebook (myself included) but it’s a valuable source of local information. It’s a key research tool for expats to find practical information related to the host country, recommendations for local services that speak your language and a calendar of local social events.
There are also dedicated organisations who specialise in creating social and networking opportunities for Expats. Sojoourn for one provides a wide variety of events and workshops designed to meet the diverse needs of expats – a primary need being to make new friends.
Many people find it difficult to make new friends as an adult not just because of lack of opportunity but because they find it difficult talk to strangers or build relationships above a superficial level. Being aware of your social style can help you choose which events or gatherings will be most enjoyable or the least stressful for you. Events with no formal structure are great for those who are typically more extrovert or enjoy meeting and speaking to lots of people. Larger events also give you a natural way to bump into the same people and develop relationships over time.
If you find it daunting trying to strike up conversations with strangers, you might prefer going to events where there is an activity or a focus other than drinking and chatting. Networking events, skill learning events or language classes are great for meeting people with similar interests and it provides a focus for conversation when the opportunity to chat arises.
Quantity vs Quality
It appears that having good quality friendships is as important as having lots of friends. This doesn’t mean that having lots of really close friends should be the goal. There is thought to be a threshold number of social connections that an individual can maintain effectively. Evolutionary psychologists argue that this number, Dunbar’s number, reflects the typical size of tribe our ancient ancestors would have lived in. It is thought to be around 150 people but can vary from 100-200. However, it’s actually thought that having just 15 close relationships, which can include friends and family, is the optimum number for maintaining good mental and physical health in today’s society.
As an expat it’s important to consider where these close relationships are located. Keeping in touch with long distance friends via social media, Skype or WhatsApp is great, but it can’t replace the tangible benefits of ‘real life’ connections. A new expat has the privilege of becoming part of an established, welcoming and supportive community of other expats. This community understands the frustrations, the hardships and the novelties of moving to a new country, and specifically the nuances of moving to a specific town or city. These people have been through the experience and are a great source of advice and support. Having been through the experience of setting in and living to tell the tale, the overwhelming majority of expats are also incredibly empathetic and kind.
Additionally, everyone needs to have people who live close by, people who can water your plants while you’re away for the weekend or help you if you get locked out of your apartment. Other expats understand these local connections are tricky to establish and are often more willing to help you out, even if you’ve not known each other long.
Befriending Expats doesn’t just mean other people of the same nationality. All expats have their current location in common, but their nationalities, backgrounds and reasons for moving are diverse. Making friends with people who have different backgrounds and experiences to you has been shown to provide the same type of benefits to individuals as diversity has to organizations.
Challenging your beliefs, taking different perspectives, learning about other ways of doing things are hugely beneficial to personal development. Making friends with other expats is a safe and fun way of practising these things and you can expect to be more empathic, open-minded and think more critically as a result. Making friends with Expats in this sense is an efficient strategy, promoting both personal growth and mental and physical wellbeing simultaneously.
Mixing with the locals
For some expats, socializing with the locals, learning their language and becoming part of the local community is the number one goal. Making friends with other expats can seem counterintuitive to this, but it doesn’t have to be.
New expats are likely to be under a great deal of stress and making friends and receiving social support is one of the best ways to manage this. If you don’t already speak the native language, of course do your best to learn it, but finding others that speak your language is of real importance. Having people you can communicate with at a high level, sharing feelings and feeling that you are being listened to and understood is a key component of social support. This can provide much needed familiarity and reassurance while navigating the first weeks or months of relocation.
And while seeking out and meeting other Expats that speak the same language, you’re likely to meet natives who want to speak that language too. Local inhabitants often attend Expat events as a way to practise or improve their foreign languages. If you can help someone else speak your language, when you’re up to it they are also likely to help you practise theirs.
And outside of language learning, locals often attend expat events for all number of reasons. Often it can be to promote local services but it can also be to make new friends. If locals have been away from the area themselves they may also wish to re-establish some social connections. I’ve heard countless times from local inhabitants that expats are ‘just more interesting’ and so meet-ups are a great way to interact with different and interesting people for locals too!
Once you make one local friend, over time you’re likely to meet their local friends. With the benefit of a mutual friend, someone who can introduce you to others this opens the door to an exponential amount of new local friend making possibilities. It just takes that first connection (which can be easily be established at an Expat event) to set off this positive chain of events.
As an Expat it’s tough leaving friends behind, especially when you want to share all your new life-changing experiences with those you know and love. But being an Expat provides a unique opportunity to join a diverse and wonderful community. Making the most of this new community can easily help meet at least a few of the criteria associated with a higher overall life satisfaction. And the best part of all is that being a better, happier person makes you a better friend to those back home and to the new people you’re going to meet.
Thank you to our contributor: Philippa Crichton
Philippa is social psychologist MSc with a corporate background. She works with companies to help them understand social issues challenging their development, working with them to communicate effectively and create a positive change in the behaviour of their employees and clients. She is an experienced in multicultural communication and has worked internationally as well as living in Italy and France. She’s passionate about raising awareness of mental health in expats.