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.
The benefits of friends
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.
Sojoourn 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.
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 fr