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Making New Social Connections: A Conversation with Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD

Food bank volunteers organize donations

Recently, I published an interview with one of my biggest mentors, Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD, who is the Poler Family Professor and Chair of Psychology at Amherst College, a popular public speaker, and the author of bestselling books like The Positive Shift and Why We Act. We talked about the two kinds of human connections that we all need in order to be happy: intimate connections and social connections.

However, if you’re missing out on either or both of those kinds of human connections, what are you supposed to do? Making new friends and acquaintances can be easier said than done — especially if you’re out of practice.

Dr. Sanderson had very useful tips and insights to share, and I’d like to pass these on to you!

Where to Begin

Julia: A lot of people know they could use more friends or social connections, but they don’t know how to go about finding them. Where do you start?

Dr. Sanderson: If the idea seems overwhelming, I suggest that you build up to it slowly at your own pace.

I often use this analogy: You don’t just go and run a marathon one day out of the blue. No one has ever done that!

Maybe you start with a 5K. Then eventually you do a 10K. You gradually build up your stamina and skills to the point where a marathon becomes a possibility.

It’s the same thing with making friends. Baby steps. Right? Take little steps that make you feel comfortable in getting to know someone. Like striking up a conversation with someone even though it makes you nervous, or asking an acquaintance if they’d like to get together for coffee sometime.

You don’t need to try to make a lot of friends or connections at once. Do things that feel okay to you, and do them slowly. That will help you get back into the game.

Make New Friends…

Julia: Where can you go, what can you do to make new friends?

Dr. Sanderson: One piece of advice I regularly give is to join something.

Join a book club, either a virtual one or in person.

Join a political campaign. Support a candidate. Write letters. Go to a march. Whatever your political affiliation or view is, you’ll be able to bond with other people who feel the way you do.

Take a class. Learn how to paint! Learn how to quilt! Learn how to do photography.

Volunteer, virtually or in person, with almost any kind of organization. Rescue or walk dogs that are waiting to be adopted. Plant flowers or do gardening. Tutor and mentor children. It gives you a real sense of purpose and accomplishment. And sometimes you can make both intimate and social connections when you volunteer, too!

Whatever you join, you’re going to find people who share your passion.

…And Keep the Old

Dr. Sanderson: Sometimes it can be intimidating to try to create new connections. Maybe you don’t have to! If you’re feeling isolated, you can also work on rekindling old relationships that aren’t as strong as they used to be. It could be with a family member, a child, a long-lost neighbor, a cousin, or a former best friend.

Deliberately take steps to rebuild and maintain these relationships. Call that cousin you haven’t been in touch with. Write a letter to a friend who moved to the west coast. Spend some effort doing that. It’s not only a way of having more people be part of your life, it’s also a way of reconnecting with your roots.

Let’s Talk About Small Talk

Julia: For a lot of us, our communication skills have gotten a little rusty during this pandemic. What if you meet someone, and you don’t know what to say?

Dr. Sanderson: Lonely people are sometimes not very good at small talk. They’ll try to start a conversation by saying things like, “What is your most embarrassing moment?” That’s too much, too fast.

So it’s helpful to practice, maybe with some low-stakes kinds of interactions first. It could be with a cashier, a waiter or waitress, or a package delivery person. You also need to have a few simple strategies for introducing yourself, for putting yourself out there, for saying hello. Like, “How is your day going?” or, “What do you recommend I order for lunch?”

Lonely? You’re Not Alone

Julia: Some people feel ashamed of being lonely. They think it means they’re not loveable, or they’re a failure. What would you say to someone who felt that way?

Dr. Sanderson: Recognize that other people often feel lonely, too. It is not just you.

It’s awful feeling lonely and believing we’re in that boat alone. But a lot of people are in that lonely boat.

You can feel lonely even in a crowd. Right? One of the loneliest times in life is the first two weeks of college. You’re literally surrounded by people, yet you still feel lonely. And so do they!

Loneliest day of the year? Valentine’s Day. You are not supposed to be alone on Valentine’s Day. (Or Christmas. Or New Year’s Eve.)

Loneliest day of the week? Saturday. No one is lonely on Tuesdays because [on] Tuesdays we have low expectations. But [on] Saturdays we feel like we’re supposed to be doing something fun with someone.

But think about it: if you’re feeling lonely on a Saturday night…do you have any idea how many other people are feeling that way, too?

Loneliness is normal. It’s part of the human condition.

But loneliness isn’t a reflection of who you are. Loneliness is just a function of how you’ve been spending your time. And if you’re ready to make a change, there are lots of things you can do about it.

I encourage you to try and make social connections with different people and in different settings! Don’t feel discouraged if the first person you reach out to isn’t receptive to your coffee date invitation or if they don’t respond. Just remember, we all have things going on in our lives. This year has been so hard on all of us, so give people a little grace, and try again. And try connecting with other people, too.

Loneliness Isn’t a Sign of Weakness

Isn’t she great? I hope you can appreciate why Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD, made such an impression on me when she was my professor at Amherst College.

Sometimes loneliness needs to be addressed in additional ways. Just remember, admitting that you’re lonely isn’t a sign of weakness. Everyone needs help from time to time.

If you’re feeling isolated and depressed, take action. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues shouldn’t be ignored — your mental and behavioral health are just as important as your physical health. And help is available. So don’t hesitate to reach out for it if you need to.

Independence Blue Cross (Independence) offers its members a variety of ways to seek help that don’t require you to leave your home. These include options offered by our mental health provider, Magellan Healthcare. We also hold a variety of events for seniors through our Age Fearless series.

Julia Weatherly

Julia Weatherly is a Lead Government Market Stars Program Analyst. She is a graduate from Amherst College and the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Public Health program. Julia is originally from Silver Spring, MD and spends her free time playing with her Great Pyrenees, Macy, cooking with her family, and exploring Philadelphia.