Thanks to Paul Nicolaus for a recent review examining scholarly research on the kind of happiness we might experience en route to the office each morning.
Nicolaus' online post for Oregon Public Radio, (“Want to Feel Happier Today? Try Talking to a Stranger”), reminds us that today’s culture appreciates minor chit-chat when riding elevators to higher floors—without fully embracing the call to raise society’s real happiness to higher levels.
Nicolaus acknowledged that “far too many of us,” when we share a vertical trip with another person, will fiddle with our cell phones rather than say “good morning” or even make eye contact. He cited studies favoring a different approach. They show minor social interactions with strangers we encounter can put us in a better mood and make the day more pleasant.
In other words, “we might just be short-changing our own happiness by ignoring opportunities to connect with the people around us.”
Experimenting with conversation
One research duo assigned experiment participants to enter a coffee shop and purchase a beverage. Half were told to “get in and get out,” and the other half were told to “strike up a conversation with the cashier.” The latter group “left Starbucks in a better mood… and they even felt a greater sense of belonging in their community,” according to the psychological diagnosis.
A behavioral scientist’s research with bus and train commuters concluded that those who interacted with fellow passengers had “a more pleasant ride.” They learned the initiation of a conversation tended to be more enjoyable than they had feared, Nicolaus reported.
Yet another researcher found that, when someone made simple eye contact with people, it made recipients of that “brief acknowledgement… feel more socially connected,” at least temporarily.
Nicolaus cited this conclusion from one scholar: “Happiness seems a little bit like a leaky tire on a car…. We just sort of have to keep pumping it up a bit to maintain it.” Offering a compliment or starting a conversation with a stranger “could wind up putting a smile on your face and theirs.”
What’s your reaction to the article?
What’s your reaction to the article? Here’s mine, drawing from Fr. Spitzer’s outline of the four levels of happiness:
- This research generally sets the bar low for human conversation and openness to real encounters. Nicolaus sees much of the data celebrating small talk for its personal, immediate gains at level one—a “pleasant ride,” or “feeling more socially connected.” Those reasons are fine on a bus, but let’s not stop there.
- Fortunately, the story does offer some important inspiration for baby steps we can take beyond level-one happiness. Recall the experiment that concluded one’s outreach to a stranger might also brighten the moment for the recipient, not the initiator alone. Consider Nicolaus’ insights about the optimal benefits—a sense of belonging, the start of a conversation. These reflect an intuition that some forms of instant-gratification behavior can open the door to short-term and long-term happiness perspectives.
- Realizing this, perhaps I’ve looked away from my smartphone and boldly risked rejection by saying “good morning” to someone. This particular wisdom in choosing real-life communication reflects Pope Francis’ warning about the dangers of our digitized culture. “Social media” paradoxically can leave us “orphaned” if we fail to notice and share in the blessings of our diverse “fellow travelers.” Smartphones offer many immediate and short-term advantages, but using them to control, or retreat from, a random elevator encounter contributes to isolation and disempowerment, rather than long-term happiness at level three.
Mere eye contact and pro-forma small talk are seldom sufficient anywhere. All of life is a journey during which we need to build authentic connections and dialogues. Society’s current trends toward distrust and polarization dry up the opportunities of shared happiness for everyone and even level-one pleasures of outreach for individuals. To paraphrase the famous Pogo cartoon quote: “We have met the stranger, and he is us.”
Feeling happier today and beyond
The message of Nicolaus’ headline holds true: try talking to strangers if you want to feel happier today. But what happens in the days that follow? We are reaching out to a dynamic human and spiritual ecology where higher levels of happiness need constant “pumping up.”
Advice from the recently reported research appeals to us at level one happiness, but it’s time for deeper study: what contributive possibilities might we create if the stranger we approach responds, starts talking, and invites us to listen?
That will be a better ride for the longer haul, marked by kindness that’s spontaneous, not strategic. Whatever we do with our smartphones, we’ll send the message that we’re not just commuting together—we’re accompanying each other.