When was the last time you gabbed away at a party or asked an acquaintance to lunch? If it’s been a while, it may be time to start putting more effort into happy hour.
A June 2013 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that being extroverted in your youth can make you happier as you age. UK researchers asked more than 2,500 people personality questions when they were 16 and 26, then assessed their wellbeing and life satisfaction more than three decades later when they were 60-somethings. The results showed that those who were outgoing during their teens and 20s were happier with where their lives had taken them over the ensuing 40 or 50 years.
While much of personality may be hard-wired, there’s always some nudge room in how you act around others. “Personality is partly genetically determined and it tends to be pretty stable from early adulthood onwards, but some research shows that people who are satisfied with their relationships and their work tend to become a bit more extroverted with time,” says study author Catharine Gale, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at South Hampton General Hospital in England. Here are some ways to build better friendships and invest in a happier future.
Nail a First Impression: A quick body language trick you can use when approaching someone you are about to meet for the first time is to briefly flash your eyebrows upward when you’re about 15 feet away. “It helps you feel more open and receptive and tells the other person that you’re friendly,” says Patti Wood, author of “Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma.” This quick facial move is especially helpful for introverts who tend to freeze in place. (Practice your open-and-friendly look in the mirror first so you don’t slip into deer-in-the-headlights territory). Next, when you’re within about six feet, extend your arm firmly with your palm open to shake hands. “Hesitation about offering a hand can make it awkward,” says Wood. Sticking it right out there for a good, firm shake preempts the stress response and helps eliminate some of the anxiety.
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Make a Friend: One thing true extroverts are great at is taking the initiative to talk to people and make new friends. If that doesn’t come naturally to you, set a goal to engage one person every week. “A new friend will give you the opportunity to learn more about yourself and grow,” Wood says. Maybe she’ll introduce you to a great book, or more: “Countless studies have shown that friendships and social support have a beneficial impact on health. They make good times better and tough times easier to manage,” says Christie Hartman, Ph.D., a Denver-based behavioral scientist. “We’re all social animals—even introverts.”
Go in with a game plan: Open with meet-and-greet questions like “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” They may seem lame, but they actually serve an important purpose. “You’re searching for a commonality,” Wood says. It’s how you establish whether the person is like you. Things as simple as finding out where someone grew up and mentioning that your brother now lives there can create an instantaneous bond of shared experience. Bring up sports, movies, music or the latest Housewives drama. Even talking about the weather can work. If there’s something that perks the other person up, dig deeper. Try to get him or her talking for more than a minute. “It used to be much more natural for people to share stories, but we now have much shorter interactions that are more like e-mails or texts,” Wood says. “We need to put in the time for deeper and longer conversations.”
Balance the Conversational Scales: Whether you’re the silent type or a chatty Cathy, take this little test: After you finish a conversation with a friend, ask yourself whose voice you heard most during the conversation. If the other person didn’t share very much, you probably talked too much and listened too little, says Wood. If someone mentions something they did over the weekend, say “Oh wow, did you have a good time?” or “Had you ever done that before?” Try to ask a question each time before you make a comment. If you do this, the person will feel more understood and the relationship will grow stronger. Find yourself on the quiet end of the spectrum? Pipe up. Contribute more by raising your voice a little louder than usual and replying with “Yes, and” followed by your thoughts on the topic or a similar experience you had. “It works because you aren’t negating what the other person said. You are saying ‘yes’ and adding to it,” Wood says. “Extroverts don’t see this as an interruption, but as adding to the conversation. You need to jump in like a rabbit.”
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Chat at Work: No, we’re not talking about instant messaging. Find the spot at work where people tend to congregate and jump into the water-cooler chitchat, recommends Wood. Set a goal that you’ll go to the break room, bench or wherever it may be on Tuesdays for five minutes. (Shooting for Tuesday rather than Monday will keep you from agonizing over the weekend.) Start small and each Tuesday do something to be more social and friendly with your co-workers. If there’s someone that you’ve found some common ground with, ask them if they want to grab lunch with you.
End on a High Note: When you do go to lunch with a co-worker or new friend, try to skew the conversation toward positive stories as much as possible. “If you spend 15 minutes talking about your car breaking down, there will be a negative association with you,” Wood says. Instead, talk about a fabulous meal you enjoyed at a new restaurant in town, or your favorite yoga studio. It will make you seem more likeable while your friendship is still in a budding phase. “Fledgling relationships can’t handle negativity,” says Hartman. While there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of griping (bad moods happen to good people, after all), make an effort to always switch it to a positive topic toward the end of the meal. It can be as simple as, “It was great talking to you, let’s do this again.” Remember, like the sweet finish of dessert, the last thing you say will linger in the memory of the other person.
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