Talk to a stranger: It'll make you happier

By Alice G. Walton     
December 02, 2014

From: Magazine

Riders on a Tokyo subway train, missing out on the pleasures of conversation. Photo by Dustin Whitehead.

An initiative begun in London this year called “Talk to me” encourages people to disconnect from their devices and reconnect with one another. On August 30, the group hosted its first “Talk to me Day,” organizing picnics and socials, and handing out buttons that read, “Talk to me, I’ll talk to you.” Supporters planned events in cities such as Paris, San Francisco, and Kiev, and thousands participated. “We want people to understand that simple conversations can create social change by reducing isolation, improving well-being, and strengthening communities,” the London group wrote on its website.

Research by Professor Nicholas Epley and PhD student Juliana Schroeder suggests that people would be surprisingly happy if they participated in “Talk to me Day.” They asked bus and train commuters in the Chicago area to either strike up a conversation with a person next to them, sit quietly in solitude, or continue their normal routine. Those who talked to strangers reported a significantly happier ride than those who kept to themselves—even though a survey of a separate group of commuters predicted the opposite.

“Humans are social animals,” Schroeder says. “But then, why are there so many situations in everyday life when people are surrounded by others and yet choose not to connect with them?” In another experiment, she and Epley found that survey respondents incorrectly assume that others simply aren’t interested in talking, and that their silence is proof. Yet in a separate lab study, research participants reported that it was also pleasant to have someone else start a conversation.

The person you speak to doesn’t need to seem especially fascinating; after all, the people in the lab study weren’t choosing their discussion partners.

“Participants were happier talking to anybody, not just selecting a person they thought might be interesting,” Epley says.

This means talking to strangers makes us happier whether we think we have anything in common with a person or not. That’s a good reason to schedule your next “Talk to me Day” for tomorrow.

Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, July 2014. Chart reprinted with permission from the American Psychological Association. Copyright 2014.