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The Conversation That Can Make Your Day

Chatting on the subway boosts your happiness, research reveals

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by Janice Holly Booth

Relationships
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Humans are by nature social creatures, but you’d never know it if all you had to go on was observing their interactions on a subway commute. People have lots of reasons for keeping to themselves—they’re tired, suspicious, grumpy, or are trying to unlock Dreamworld on Candy Crush before arriving at work—but a recent study from the University of Chicago claims that these behaviors are not only anti-social, they prevent the kind of interaction that can significantly increase one’s positivity.

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We humans don’t understand the benefits of social connection, according to a new study by University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Professor Nicholas Epley and study co-author Juliana Schroder discovered that while people underestimate others’ interest in connecting, they nevertheless experience positive feelings by being spoken to and speaking with a stranger. “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” the paper Epley and Schroder published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, describes nine experiments in both field and laboratory settings that examine why people who benefit greatly from social connection nevertheless prefer isolation when they’re among strangers. Participants, all commuter train and public bus riders, were asked to talk to a stranger, to sit in solitude, or to do whatever they normally would do, then fill out a survey to measure the actual consequences of social engagement versus isolation.

 

Not surprisingly, participants who shifted into connection-mode reaped the benefit. “Most important,” says Epley, “participants in the connection condition reported having a significantly more positive experience than participants in the solitude condition"

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Ironically, the very participants who reported a heightened sense of well-being when they connected with strangers had predicted the opposite experience. Epley says this demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement. “This misunderstanding is particularly unfortunate for a person’s well-being given that commuting is consistently reported to be one of the least pleasant experiences in the average person’s day,” Epley says. “This experiment suggests that a surprising antidote for an otherwise unpleasant experience could be sitting very close by.”

So Mom was wrong after all. You should talk to strangers, every chance you get.

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