Want to Be Happier? Talk to Strangers

When I think back to my life before being on a smartphone all the time was the norm, I realize my interactions with people were much richer.

I didn’t get a smartphone until eight years ago, after I was married and had my first child. This means that I lived all my single years without a device to turn to during moments of downtime.

You know what I’m talking about.

You’ve ordered your coffee, and you instinctively pull out your phone to check email or scroll through Instagram. Someone gets on the elevator with you, but you don’t bother starting a conversation because you’re finishing a text. You arrive before your friend to the restaurant and peruse your phone so you don’t feel awkward sitting alone.

When I think back to my life before this was the norm, I realize my interactions with people were much richer. I’d often chat with the barista making my drink (in fact, I married one of them!). I’d discover connections with people in the elevator or in line at the grocery store. I’d strike up conversations with strangers I happened to encounter at the gym or the auto shop.

The good of strangers

I hadn’t really given much thought to what I’ve lost through fewer interactions with strangers until I read this article from NPR:

Several years ago, University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and her colleague Gillian M. Sandstrom tested whether short conversations with strangers could lift moods. They asked participants to enter a busy coffee shop and grab a beverage — half would get in and get out, and half would strike up a conversation with the cashier.

“We found that people who were randomly assigned to turn this economic transaction into a quick social interaction left Starbucks in a better mood,” Dunn says. “And they even felt a greater sense of belonging in their community.”

The researchers discovered that coffee shops weren’t the only place these interactions bolstered happiness. Anywhere random interactions occurred — even eye contact and a smile — people left feeling happier and more fulfilled.

As I think more about it, this lines up with my experiences both when I was single and now. I’ll often report back to my husband, Kevin, about a fun conversation I had with a cashier or someone in line at the store. And when I was single, I think I depended on these social touchpoints more than I knew to feel value and belonging.

Fighting through fear

In another study, Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago behavioral scientist, found that though these interactions increase basic happiness, the modern person tends to avoid them. The primary reason? Fear. We worry that others won’t want to talk with us when the reality is that these small encounters bring joy. Even the simple act of making eye contact has been shown to increase feelings of inclusion and belonging. It communicates: I see you and you matter.

Perhaps that’s why seemingly minor interactions hold such power. And science backs it up.

The mood boost of talking to strangers may seem fleeting, but the research on well-being, Epley says, suggests that a happy life is made up of a high frequency of positive events, and even small positive experiences make a difference.

So the next time you’re at the gym, store or coffee shop, leave your phone in your pocket. Make eye contact. Smile. Go crazy and start a conversation! You’ll likely make someone’s day — it may even be your own.

Copyright 2019 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Suzanne Gosselin
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, who is a family pastor, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.

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