Could This Tiny Change Make You Happier?

Bad news for people who hate other people (like, um, me): Science thinks you (I) should get over your (my) fear of small talk, because apparently talking to people during your daily commute can actually make you happier. I mean, granted, I work from home, so I don't actually have a commute… but if I did, maybe I'd try to make it a goal to take my headphones out of my ears during it once or twice a week. Who knows? Maybe this study is onto something.

Study authors Nicholas Epley and Juliana Shroeder knew that previous research had revealed that social interaction gives our happiness levels a big boost, all those studies had mostly focused on existing connections that people already had: The ties between family members, friends, and loved ones. Epley and Shroeder were curious about whether these benefits held true for interactions with complete strangers.

The research isn't super new — it was first published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology back in October of 2014 — but it's making the rounds again, so I feel it's worth re-examining. Besides, tips and tricks about how to live a happier existence never go out of style, right? Here's how it went down.

The Experiment:

Epley and Shroeder assigned a group of bus and train commuters in the Chicago area to one of three groups: One group was asked to seek out a connection with a stranger during their commute; one was asked to stay as disconnected from others as possible during their commute; and third group — the control — were asked to behave however they usually did during their commute.

The Findings:

Although the participants had previously predicted that they would enjoy their commute more if they stayed disconnected, that actually didn't happen. In fact, people who were asked to strike up a conversation actually reported enjoying their commute much more than those who didn't.

The Takeaway:

Here's the interesting thing: Whenever we stay silent on our commutes, we're not just cut off randomly by outside forces; we're often actually sabotaging ourselves. In a December 2014 episode of Morning Edition on NPR, science correspondent Shankar Vedantam commented that even though humans are “deeply social animals,” we often avoid talking to strangers out of fear that they'll bore or bother us — or that we'll bore or bother them. Said Vedantam about the study:

“Commuters told [Epley] that they in general were willing to talk, but they thought the person sitting next to them would not be willing to talk. Now, if most people are willing to talk, but everyone believes others are not willing to talk, no one will start a conversation…. The challenge, in other words, is simply to get the conversation going because once the ice is broken, the rest turns out to be easy.”

The big takeaway is simple: Start talking to people. Human connection is good for us.

But While We're On the Subject…

We do, however, also need to talk about harassment. Talking to someone on your commute is awesome… as long as they want to talk to you, too. If you try to strike up a conversation and they communicate through words or body language that they're not interesting in talking, then back off. If they don't want to talk, they don't owe you a conversation. But! If you engage someone and they respond positively, then by all means, continue chatting. Maybe it'll lead to a beautiful friendship — as long as the initial interaction and all successive ones are respectful.

Happy commuting!

Images: Giphy (2)