In an article in today’s New York Times entitled Hello, Stranger (4.25.14), Professors Elizabeth Dunn (Univ. of BC) and Michael Norton (Harvard Business School) describe how the casual social interactions we often avoid may lift our spirits and actually make us happier. This has definitely been my own experience. I share here selections from their article.
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If you’ve ever been on a subway or public bus, you know the rules. Don’t make eye contact, stay as far away from other people as the space allows, and for the love of God, don’t talk to anyone. But what if the rules are wrong?
The behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder approached commuters in a Chicago area train station and asked them to break the rules. In return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, these commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.
If the idea of talking to a random seatmate fills you with dread, you’re not alone. When Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder asked other people in the same train station to predict how they would feel after talking to a stranger, the commuters thought their ride would be more pleasant if they sat on their own.
Why are these commuters’ predictions and their experiences so at odds? Most people imagined it would be difficult to start a conversation. They estimated that fewer than half of their fellow commuters would want to talk to them. But in fact, not a single person reported having been snubbed. And the conversations were consistently pleasant.
According to a 2004 study published in Science, commuting is associated with fewer positive emotions than any other common daily activity. By avoiding contact, we’re all following a collective assumption that turns out to be false. When the middle-aged woman starts playing Candy Crush Saga after she sits down next to the hipster scrolling through his iTunes library, they both miss out on an opportunity for connection.
Individuals and governments pour money into making commutes slightly more bearable by investing in everything from noise-canceling headphones to more spacious seating. But what if the research showed that we would improve our commutes more by investing in social capital — interacting with the strangers sitting all around us?
The great thing about strangers is that we tend to put on our happy face when we meet them, reserving our crankier side for the people we know and love. When one of us, Liz, was in graduate school, she noticed that her boyfriend, Benjamin, felt free to act grumpy around her. But if he was forced to interact with a stranger or acquaintance, he would perk right up. Then his own pleasant behavior would often erase his bad mood.
One of the perks of being a behavioral scientist is that when your partner does something annoying, you can bring dozens of couples into the laboratory and get to the bottom of it. When Liz tested her hypothesis in a lab experiment, she discovered that most people showed the “Benjamin Effect”: They acted more cheerful around someone they had just met than around their own romantic partner, leaving them happier than they expected.
Many of us assume, however, that our well-being depends on our closest ties, and not on the minor characters in our daily lives. To investigate the validity of this assumption, our student Gillian M. Sandstrom asked people to keep a running tally of their social interactions.
She had them carry clickers — one red, one black — in their pockets all day. They clicked the red one whenever they interacted with someone close to them (a “strong tie”) and the black one whenever they interacted with someone they didn’t know so well (a “weak tie”). She found that introverts and extroverts alike felt happier on days when they had more social interactions.
More surprisingly, interactions with weak ties correlated at least as highly with happiness as interactions with strong ties. Even the bit players in our lives may influence our well-being….
Rather than fall back on our erroneous belief in the pleasures of solitude, we could reach out to other people. At least, when we walk down the street, we can refuse to accept a world where people look at one another as though through air. When we talk to strangers, we stand to gain much more than the “me time” we might lose.