Happiness is talking to a stranger

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images/File.

If you want to be happy, talk to your fellow commuters.

NPR Morning Edition’s report this morning is a bit of an eye-opener, especially if you — like me — experience mass transit vicariously, through the tweets of people relaying their thoughts about the apparently-unsavory characters who ride the bus or train with them.

But, no, NPR says. Those people are the key to happiness.

The story is actually not a very new one. In fact, the New York Times reported on it and others last April.

It’s simple, really. The particularly Minnesota-trait of avoiding eye contact is dooming you to unhappiness.

Even fleeting glances can make a difference. Many of us have had the experience of what the Germans call “wie Luft behandeln” (“to be looked at as though air”). The social norm of avoiding eye contact seems harmless, but it might not be.

In an experiment conducted at a large Midwestern university, a college-age woman walked by people on campus and either made eye contact, smiled at them while making eye contact, or directed her gaze “beyond the ear of the passer-by,” deliberately avoiding eye contact. She was trailed by another researcher, who surveyed people in her wake. Those who were looked at as though they weren’t there reported feeling more disconnected from others.

Simply acknowledging strangers on the street may alleviate their existential angst; and being acknowledged by others might do the same for us. (One caveat: Another set of studies has shown that people are motivated to flee from strangers who stare at them intently.)

The benefits of connecting with others also turn out to be contagious. Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder found that when one person took the initiative to speak to another in a waiting room, both people reported having a more positive experience. Far from annoying people by violating their personal bubbles, reaching out to strangers may improve their day, too.

This is to say: it’s not just mass transit-types that can get a lift from talking to a stranger.