When I first moved home from college, I was shaken to realize that all of my close high school friends had dispersed from the area. For the first time in my life, I found myself without a solid community—a serious (and pretty lonely) bummer.
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In the years since that time, it’s been an uphill effort to rebuild a circle of friends and acquaintances, but the work has definitely paid off. I’m happy to say I now enjoy diverse friendships made through work, church, volunteering, and school. These days, when my husband and I host our annual Christmas party, we pack the house with 40 or more people, many of whom have connected with each other through us. We even keep a poster in our hallway that reminds us of the many ways we can keep giving (and receiving) within our community.
As I look back at how I’ve grown my network over the years, five activities stand out. If they’ve worked for me—an inveterate introvert—I’ll bet they’ll work for you, too!
Talk to your neighbors
There’s no denying how painfully awkward it can be to strike up a convo with that neighbor who’s been studiously avoiding eye contact since you moved in two years ago. But I’ve learned that getting to know your neighbors is one of the greatest ways to establish a community close to home. My across-the-street neighbors are practically my second family. They’re my kids’ godparents. We celebrate Thanksgiving and birthdays together. And it all started with a simple hello.
You don’t have to show up on someone’s doorstep with a plate of cookies or even host a block party to get to know your neighbors. Maybe you dip a toe in with a few comments about the weather when you cross paths in the driveway (or hallway or elevator if you live in an apartment) or invite them over for drinks on a Friday evening. Heck, you can even go traditional and ask to borrow a cup of sugar. Little by little, the mere fact of your close proximity may lead to a real relationship (or at least someone you can call in an emergency).
Take up a group hobby
Hobbies like photography or solo hiking are all well and good, but they don’t do much to connect us with others. When you’re looking to expand your friend group, try a multi-person pastime instead, such as joining a choir or band, taking an art class, or diving into a book club. Shared interests are the perfect springboard for meaningful connections. I’ve found like-minded people in my church’s music ministry and by teaching a cooking class for toddlers.
Working toward a shared vision has a way of bringing people together—which is why volunteering is another natural means of building a community. Even if all you can spare is a couple of hours a month, giving your time and talents to others (with others) helps you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.
For the last year, I’ve been teaching volunteer parenting classes at a local women’s aid center. Consistently contributing to the well-being of my community has given me a sense of investment and belonging. Plus, I’m gradually making friends with my fellow volunteers!
Interact in the real world (not just online)
These days, real relationships happen online, and social media is a super convenient way to keep up with friends. But there’s a lot to be said for face-to-face interaction, too. Both regular and spontaneous get-togethers don’t just get you up to speed with your pals’ latest career changes or adorable dog acquisitions – they can boost your mental health, too.
Since I work from home and don’t see people in the “real world” too often, I try to schedule lunch with a friend almost every week. Asking people over for a casual dinner or meeting up for a walk are other low-stress ideas for connecting in person.
Connect others to each other
A few years ago, some friends of mine were going through a rough patch and didn’t have a car. When I heard this, a little bell went off in my head: My neighbors happened to have an extra vehicle they weren’t using. Though I knew it was a big ask, I approached my neighbors to see if they’d lend their car to the family without one. Amazingly enough, they said yes — and a new relationship was formed.
Connecting the disparate dots of your friends creates a circle around you. Whether inviting people who don’t know each other to the same party or linking up friends who share a profession, helping others connect adds up to a stronger network for them and for yourself.