Small Talk With Strangers Could Make You Happier, Study Finds

Feeling lonely is almost a universal experience but often, when we’re surrounded by hundreds or thousands of strangers, the impulse is to withdraw — not to reach out.

Take, for instance, one of the most loathed parts of modern life: the daily commute. Each day, more than 1.7 million train or bus rides are taken on Chicago public transit. These riders, like the rest of us on our commutes, are tired, stressed and doing their best to tune out their environment.

But when researchers recently conducted a series of experiments to study what happens when these people connect with those around them instead of sitting alone listening to music or reading, they found something interesting. Despite the fact that the commuters predicted they would be happier riding in solitude, those who reached out to strangers during their rides reported a more positive experience on their commutes.

"Connecting with strangers on a train may not bring the same long-term benefits as connecting with friends," said a co-author on the study, Nicholas Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "But commuters on a train into downtown Chicago reported a significantly more positive commute when they connected with a stranger than when they sat in solitude."

And it wasn't only those making the connection who experienced the benefits. The researchers say that the enjoyment arising from the social interaction “seems contagious.” Those who were reached out to on the commute also experienced a more enjoyable trip.

So next time you're hating your morning subway ride, strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. It might make all the difference for you both.

The study was published this month inThe Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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