21 days to a new you: Strengthen your social network

Strong social connections are good for your health. Take steps to nurture existing friendships as well as to expand your social circle.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

You probably already know that spending quality time with your friends and family makes you feel better (assuming you all get along, that is). Research has actually shown that people who have strong social connections -- regular and positive interactions with good friends and family members -- are much happier and healthier overall than more isolated folks.

By Anne Hurley for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 23 A group of friends (George Doyle/Getty Images)

Day 1: Plan a dinner party

The dinner party is almost a lost art these days, and that's a shame. There's no better way to interact and have fun with your favorite people over something everyone loves: great food. Invite no more than 10 people so that everyone has a chance to visit. Mix up the invitees from different circles of friends, but make sure that they have similar interests. No need to make it fancy unless you want to -- a potluck is fine. Then encourage the group to keep the tradition going, with everyone taking a turn at hosting.

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2 of 23 Dinner party invites (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Day 2: Join, or start, a book club

See if you can find a group of friends who either already has a book club or who'd be willing to start one with you. Getting together with the same group once a month to discuss a book you've read is a great social activity, and helps expose you to books you might not otherwise have chosen to read. Make it a potluck event at a different person's home each time. Some clubs let the next month's host select the book; some have everyone vote. And if you all have fun together, consider taking the book appreciation to the next level: My book club read the "Twilight" and " Hunger Games" books, then we went together to see the movie versions.

3 of 23 Book club (Leonora Hamill/Getty Images)

Day 3: Make an exercise buddy (or two)

This helps get more visits with your friends on your calendar, along with something you both want to do already -- exercise more. Consider having a standing power walk date once a week, either in the same place or in different neighborhoods to mix things up. Two friends of mine made a pact to take a challenging hike together every Sunday during the summer, and as they ticked off great trails, they ended up meeting and making friends with other outdoorsy types; by the end of the summer, there were nine "regulars" in their new hiking club.

4 of 23 Exercise buddies (Tom Merton/Getty Images)

Day 4: Arrange a doggie play date

If you have a dog, you know he needs time with other dogs as well as regular exercise and fun with you and your family. So get some play dates on your calendar for the pooch, too. You can meet a dog-owning friend at an off-leash area or at the local dog park. Or take your dogs with you on long, fun walks in different neighborhoods. Doing the doggie-date thing is a great way to get to know acquaintances and friends better. You'll probably find out that you have lots more in common besides just your pooches.

5 of 23 Dog park play (Beate Zoellner/Getty Images)

Day 5: Bring an online friendship offline

Facebook and other social media sites are fine as far as they go, but they don't go very far. If you haven't seen one of your online friends in forever and she lives in the same town, stop "liking" her posts and meet her for lunch. Make a promise to yourself to do this every month or so with someone you know you like, but haven't seen in person for a long time. Reconnecting in person is invigorating -- and reminds you of why you became friends in the first place!

6 of 23 Friends (Plush Studios/Bill Reitzel/Getty Images)

Day 6: Write a letter to faraway friend

No, not an email. A handwritten letter or card, sent by snail mail. Enclose some photos if you like, maybe a magazine or newspaper clipping that made you think of him. Your note doesn't have to be long, but just make sure it's personal and heartfelt. It can be a birthday or anniversary note, a silly card you know he'll laugh at, or just a plain piece of stationery on which you say "hello," "just thinking about you," or "looking forward to seeing you and your family next summer." This goes double for older relatives, who especially treasure hand-written letters and notes.

7 of 23 Writing a letter (Guido Mieth/Getty Images)

Day 7: Surprise a friend with concert or theater tickets

Take the initiative to plan and then do something out of the ordinary. You can buy cheap seats --you don't need to go broke having fun and being thoughtful. What matters is that you thought of her and her interests. And sharing a concert or performance together will be something you both will remember for a long time.

8 of 23 Concert tickets (Rubberball/Mike Kemp/Getty Images)

Day 8: Volunteer at a retirement home

Been thinking about ways you might be able to "give back"? Consider volunteering at a local retirement or nursing home. Older and disabled residents love having company and often need assistance in doing things throughout the day. See what the needs are, and then figure out a match to your availability and interests. I once worked with an older lady who had dozens and dozens of hand-written notes from a brother who had been killed in World War II. I typed them on a computer and saved them as Word documents, so she could share them with her family. I felt humbled to be able to help honor the memory of someone who gave his life for our country. Some folks may ask you to read their favorite op-ed columns to you or help them organize their photo albums. Soon you'll both be looking forward to your visits, which will enrich both of you.

9 of 23 Friends smiling (Abel Mitja Varela/Getty Images)

Day 9: Try a Meetup

In some cities like Los Angeles and Miami, Meetup groups are really taking off. There are groups and events for pretty much every interest you have, and some you didn't know you had. Take a friend with you on an outing to your local zoo, to try ice skating or to indulge in an "oyster happy hour." It's an out-of-the-ordinary fun thing to do with your friend, and the bonus is that you'll meet other people interested in the same activity. You'll definitely come away with some new pals. Check out Meetup groups in your area.

10 of 23 Ice skating (Olivier Renck/Getty Images)