The Happiness of Strangers

Yes, strangers can bring you joy.

Caregiving can typically start with a stranger. In the best-case scenario, this person can become a dear friend or akin to extended family.

Now research studies are showing that even brief interactions with strangers can lift a person’s mood and lead to greater happiness.

A 2019 study found that—surprise!—when people are looking at their smartphones, they are less likely to smile at each other. Researchers in 2013 tested if brief conversations with strangers in public could improve moods and found that, yes, they can.

“People who had a social interaction with a barista (i.e., smiled, made eye contact, and had a brief conversation) experienced more positive affect than people who were as efficient as possible,” the authors of “Is Efficiency Overrated? Minimal Social Interactions Lead to Belonging and Positive Affect” wrote. “Further, we found initial evidence that these effects were mediated by feelings of belonging.”

Their conclusion? “These results suggest that, although people are often reluctant to have a genuine social interaction with a stranger, they are happier when they treat a stranger like a weak tie.”

Another study had train and bus commuters break into groups with one group making an effort to talk to a stranger during the ride, and the other group keeping to themselves without making chit chat with other riders. In the end, those who made small talk enjoyed the ride more than those who did not talk to strangers along the way.

These little connections can add up and that’s important as there is now a “loneliness epidemic” hitting people of all ages, but particularly those who are elderly and physically isolated due to illness or age and abilities. A Cigna survey in 2018 found that 46% of Americans always or sometimes feel alone and 47% feel left out. Furthermore, 54% said that they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. This is not limited to the United States as similar surveys in England found even higher percentages of people with these feelings of isolation and disconnection.

These lonely feelings can turn into physical ailments, scientists have discovered, and it can be connected to everything from depression and anxiety to heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Conversely, the sparks of connectivity between strangers can lead to improved well-being over time.

For those feeling a little shy, these moments of connections can start with just making eye contact at the market and simply putting down the smartphone when out in public.

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