When a friend from college told Melissa Chan that he was coming to visit her in New York City, she was thrilled. It was 2018; she hadn’t seen him in four years, when they had studied abroad in Vienna together. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is a big deal. Let me throw you a party,’” Chan remembers. This friend didn’t know anyone in New York, but that didn’t matter. Chan invited a bunch of her friends, and told them all her usual encouragement to “just bring whoever.” Leading up to the party, her friend mentioned that he had chatted a lot with the two young people in his row on the flight over. “He was like, ‘Oh, is it weird if I invite them to the party?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, that’d be so fun.’”
And it was fun. Having two strangers who were totally unconnected from anyone, save for the serendipitous flight seating plan, made for a great icebreaker, and it sparked a lot of dynamic conversation. Although Chan didn’t keep in touch with the pair, she and her visiting friend remember that night fondly. It sort of encapsulated Chan’s general philosophy when it comes to parties and socializing: Be free and easy with your invitations. “When there’s more of a melting pot at an event, it’s just a more interesting environment and way more conducive to diverse conversations and making new friends,” she says.
The idea of hosting or even attending a large social event where there will be plenty of strangers, or people from disparate friend groups, can generate a lot of anxiety for some. It can be easy to overthink about who may not get along, or catastrophize the potential awkwardness of talking to groups of people with whom you have little in common. Research, though, suggests that a reluctance to reach out and connect is unwise, that we underestimate others’ interest in connecting, and that people like Chan are really onto something. Of course, you cannot invite everyone to everything; an intimate game night will by definition include only a few people, and your dinner parties will be constrained to your number of place settings. If you are able to include more people, though, research suggests you should, and that it could benefit all involved. Especially in a purported epidemic of loneliness and isolation, putting yourself in a place to form new and surprising connections could lead to revelations. So why not broaden the invitation?
Broadening the invitation means more than just including new acquaintances or strangers at social events. It can also mean reaching out to people you haven’t spoken to in a while, welcoming neighbors who you haven’t really socialized with before, or just encouraging your friends to bring plus-ones.
Inviting someone to an event where they may not know others can feel awkward, especially if it’s been a long time since you last spoke or if you just don’t know them very well. But research shows that you should take heart — chances are that person will be way happier to hear from you than you expect. One study found that people we know are consistently happier to hear from us than we anticipate, especially when the overture is more surprising and unexpected. “People are much more reluctant to reach out to old friends than they should be,” says Lara Aknin, a professor of social psychology at Simon Fraser University in Canada who studies how relationships affect well-being. But despite the research, “It’s surprisingly hard to get people to move the needle on this.”
Another thing people commonly find challenging is reaching out to people when it seems like they aren’t very close. Still, asking to hang out with those beyond your closest circles of friends can reap so many other rewards, Aknin says. “I think it’s intuitive to us that our strong relationships matter. But we overlook all these possibilities for contact with people who are all around us all the time,” she says.
For example, one study found that people who mingled with more loose acquaintances or strangers in a day reported better moods and a higher sense of communal belonging. Similarly, a paper assessing people’s “social portfolios” found that people whose regular social interactions ran the gamut of closeness (all the way from family members to coworkers to strangers) reported higher life satisfaction and better quality of life than those with less diverse social lives. Researchers have also documented what they call “the liking gap,” where after conversing with a stranger, “people systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company.” Some introverts may expect to feel worse after a social interaction, but even they benefit; all but the extremely introverted tend to feel happier and more energized after socializing.
Interacting with a wide circle of loose friends and acquaintances is also valuable because each person provides more information about the world outside your bubble, says Robin Dunbar, a psychologist and author at the University of Oxford. A lot of important context gets to us “through the information percolating through the friends in your network,” he says. This can be anything from the next fashion fad to a different worldview or philosophy.
In other words, even people with little regular presence in your life can have a big impact on your happiness. So for people who tend to have diverse but disparate friend groups, this means that hosting events where you bring all your worlds together not only benefits yourself, but also “could reasonably be interpreted as a kind of service to others,” says Aknin.
“Generally, the more connected our networks are, with lots of tendrils and different camps, the better individuals feel and the higher they report their well-being to be,” she says. And there’s “a ton of work about how just belonging to multiple groups is strongly associated with health and happiness.” Researchers have linked belonging to multiple social groups — like recreational sports teams or book clubs — with higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression.
Auburn Scallon, a writer in Jackson Heights, New York, loves socializing with diverse mixes of friends. For her, hosting these events brings an added ease of scheduling: “If I met up with everyone I loved only one-on-one, I’d see each person once a year,” she says. Getting everyone together in a big to-do means “I can see the people I love more often.” Not everyone you invite will be able to attend everything, but that’s okay, Scallon says — she makes it clear her invites are low-stakes, and she doesn’t take a “no” personally. She remembers a friend in the early 2000s who, after turning down the fifth invite in a row said: “But please keep inviting me! I’ll make it eventually.” That sort of response is totally welcome, she says; she’d love to see them, but if not now, there will always be next time.
It can also be cool to observe how people are when they’re talking to people whom they likely wouldn’t have met otherwise, says Scallon. It’s another thing she loves about mixing her friends: “You see a different side of people.” And it’s always thrilling when people end up connecting and tell her, “I enjoyed meeting so-and-so,” she says. Science, again, backs her up. Research from 2014 found that playing friend matchmaker increases happiness and well-being. And the more unlikely the match, the more rewarding facilitating that connection is.
If you have two friends who you think might get along, it can be easier to introduce them in a larger, more casual group setting, says Chan. Counterintuitively, it seems like larger groups can put people more at ease because it takes the pressure off of every little interaction, she thinks. Regardless of whether those bonds turn into long-term relationships, “it’s still a moment of human connection enjoyable in the moment, and that’s inherently enjoyable.”
If two friends do hit it off, that opens up doors for you to invite them both to something smaller and more intentional, Scallon says. It can be trickier and more awkward to invite two people who don’t know each other to hang out when it’s just the three of you. But if they’ve already met and got along, then you’re in the clear.
Regardless of the size and scale of your social planning, Scallon says it’s important to stay mindful of certain things. She remembers living in Seattle and asking a friend along to a function — it was only when they got there that Scallon realized her friend was “the only person of color in a room full of white people.” She felt so apologetic and now tries to think about these things in advance. If she invites someone shy to a big gathering, “I try to be intentional about introducing people and providing context for who they’re talking to.” She’ll host things with open-ended time periods so that friends with work- or family-related time constraints can come whenever they prefer, and she’ll try to communicate as clearly as she can what vibe people can expect.
Part of communicating that vibe includes Covid-safety expectations. Scallon is still extremely Covid-conscious, so social gatherings for her have been few and far between ever since 2020, and it’s been several years since she’s organized a large social event. These days, if she does socialize, it’s as a guest — “it’s easier to be safe on my own than to impose precautions on my own guests,” she says. But it’s not the same. Taking precautions while it seems that others have resumed socializing with abandon is isolating, says Scallon, and over the past few years she’s felt a slight shift in herself; she thinks she’s become a little more reserved and introverted as her social muscles grow cold from disuse. But “I do miss it,” she says — the hosting and organizing and bringing friends together. It’ll be exciting when the time comes to resume the practice and reconnect.
Socializing in big groups of people is intimidating. And people are terrible at predicting what social situations will make them happy, says Aknin. “Honestly, I also think we have overly pessimistic views of other people,” she adds. It comes from a reasonable place: “We’re trying to avoid the worst-case scenario which could be a big flop, an awful conversation. But many times we are really positively surprised by other people, by their kindness, by their warmth, by their appreciation, and by our own abilities.”
Thankfully, the research suggests that the more we practice interacting with strangers in novel situations, the easier it becomes and the more positively we begin to view future interactions. “The more we’re exposed to something, the more we like it,” says Aknin.
Being more open to mixing your social groups and extending invitations to people even if you don’t know them very well is about giving yourself, and your friends, more opportunities for connection. You simply cannot make friends with someone if you never cross paths with them, or if you don’t allow for time to converse and find common ground, says Aknin.
Yes, broadening the invitation can mean embracing unknowns, Chan says, but who’s to say those potential unknowns won’t be great? By extending invitations beyond your inner circle, beyond what is known and familiar, you at least give yourself the possibility to make a new or interesting connection. If you don’t, those possibilities are zero, and that would be the greater shame, she says: “People are more capable than you give them credit for.”