I know I tend to feel less connected than I am, and I’ve never been much of a social organizer. But in the spirit of constant self-improvement, I want that to change. Building a strong social support network and maintaining a busy social life are both skills you can learn and practice. A few friends I look up to and a book - ‘Never Eat Alone,’ by Keith Ferrazzi - have inspired me to stop complaining about loneliness or stress or boredom, and instead take control and create the social connectedness I want for myself.
Keith Ferrazzi writes primarily about career and business networking - how to form relationships with people who could become clients for your company, help you find a new job, refer you to others, etc. But he also points out that personal friends and business contacts don’t have to be, and really never are, mutually exclusive. All the same networking techniques can help us build strong social support systems and create happier, healthier, more successful lives whatever our goals are. I believe the three main things that undermine our efforts at healthier lives are habits, environment, and stress. One of the best ways to change your ENVIRONMENT is to surround yourself with supportive people who push you to reach your goals.
So how can we build the network we need to succeed in life?
Here are the main steps laid out in ‘Never Eat Alone’:
- Identify your goals
- Identify the people who will help you reach those goals
- Figure out how to connect with those people + be generous
Broadly, my goal was to build a stronger community, feel more connected, and have a busier social life. But I think it really helps to have a different goal to build that community around, (and this one’s also a better example, so please bear with me!!!)
Let’s say we have a fitness goal to workout three times a week for the next month, because we know it will help us deal with the stress of studying for an incredibly difficult exam. That’s a good, specific, timely goal, yay!
Who is going to hold us accountable for exercising? Is there a friend we can workout with at specific times every week? Or if we don’t have any fitness-loving friends, is there a group class or running club we can join? Meet-up.com often has a bunch of these, especially if you live in a city. What about advice and a workout plan? Can you find everything online, or do you need someone like a personal trainer to make sure you’re doing certain exercises right?
In addition to simply reaching out and asking for help (when? how?), step three is about being generous, authentic, and vulnerable so we can form more than just superficial relationships with the people we just identified. This shouldn’t feel manipulative - giving in order to get - it really means seeing contacts as more than just a means to an end. With established friends you might not have to think much about step three (and they’re probably also happy to have a workout buddy), but how can you turn your new Meet-up buddies/fitness classmates/personal trainer into friends too? Maybe by inviting them to hang out, or just asking them about themselves.
Hopefully this example illustrates that social support actually comes in several different varieties:
1. Informational support is the advice, suggestions, and explanations we need to successfully make a change and reach our goals.
2. Instrumental support refers to support for overcoming practical issues. A friend could lend us workout equipment or offer to drive us somewhere, for example.
3. Companionship support comes from the friends, family, and acquaintances we spend time with, who can provide a sense of camaraderie and hold us accountable to our goals.
4. Emotional support is the kind that tends to require (or establish) close relationships with people who encourage us, empathize with our problems, lessen our fears, and boost our self-esteem.
Going back to our non-fitness goal: what if we just want a better social life and to feel more connected?
First, I think it helps to be a bit more specific. Maybe we want to stay in touch with old friends more regularly, in which case we can schedule a time to contact them each week, or plan regular get-togethers. Or maybe we really want to spend more time with people who share similar interests. Once we know who we need to connect with, we can start forming a plan, and the same process applies.
Here are a few more suggestions from the book:
- Be systematic - Write down your goals, go through the list to brainstorm who you need to connect with, and check them off as you do. It might seem a bit weird to manage your social life like this, but it does work!
- “Clone" meetings - Aka make activities you do anyways into social events - workouts, sports, meals, etc. and meet with several people at once, which has the added benefit of introducing them to each other.
- Aim for in-person meetings - In-person > video chat > phone call > message on answer phone > text or message > liking a social media post. Any of my friends reading this who’ve recently noticed me randomly calling them just to chat, this is why :-)
You don’t need to take on the world on your own! No one can do that! Instead we can create the social support networks we need for ourselves, and intentionally connect with positive people who encourage us, lift us up, and make us better people.