The other day at a restaurant, my 9-year-old daughter did a magic trick that never fails to amaze me: pulling friendship out of thin air. One moment, she and another girl were at separate outdoor tables with their separate families, eating dinner. The next (abracadabra!) they were racing up and down the grassy canal bank across from the restaurant, chatting between sprints as if they’d known each other for years instead of minutes.
I looked on with envy—and not just because of their ability to digest cheeseburgers while running at top speed. As a kid, I, too, used to form bonds faster than Krazy Glue. Now, like most grown-ups, I’m much more guarded around strangers. And I wish I weren’t.
More and more, scientists are convinced we should stay in touch with our unreserved inner children.
“Based on our data so far, it appears that talking with strangers can be at least as important to our daily happiness as talking to our close friends and family,” says Michael Norton, Ph.D., a social science researcher and professor at Harvard Business School. People who chatted with strangers in recent studies—on buses and in waiting rooms, in taxis and at Starbucks—not only tended to enjoy the experience, but also wound up in a better mood afterward than those who didn’t chat.
“We predicted that only extroverted people would have this reaction, but that’s not the case,” says University of Chicago behavioral scientist Juliana Schroeder, who has been involved with several of the studies. “It seems like people with any personality type will be happier if they talk to somebody.”
You’d think I wouldn’t need science to tell me these things. Talking to strangers is, after all, a big part of my job. Journalist’s notebook in hand, I’ve approached people in five countries and 18 states. (Taking care, of course, to avoid dark alleys, windowless vans and certain congressional offices.) Nine times out of 10, the conversations have been fascinating. So have the glimpses of strangers’ homes and communities. I’ve been treated to dances in Mexico, a wedding reception in Vietnam, a California tutorial in Dumpster-diving. Best of all, I’ve learned to appreciate ways of living and thinking that were foreign to me. As my wise friend Faith Boninger, an Arizona life coach, puts it: “What you’ve got when you interact with strangers is the development of empathy.” You begin to understand people you’d probably never meet otherwise.
And yet, off duty, I’ve seldom swapped more than a few words with a stranger in public. (Strangers at a party, a kid’s school or a conference are a whole other story, as you might expect.) Is it that I prefer getting lost in my own thoughts? That I was trained, as a kid in Brooklyn, N.Y., not to make eye contact on the street? Maybe, like a lot of people, I suffer from “pluralistic ignorance,” wrongly assuming that those around me are less interested than I am in connecting, Schroeder says.
Whatever is behind my aloofness, I’m determined to ditch it—and happiness and empathy aren’t the only reasons. By boosting our moods, talking to strangers may also help our bodies.
“There is absolutely research showing that happier people have better health outcomes,” Schroeder points out. “On a moment-to-moment basis, there’s even some evidence that your mood can ward off illness”—a cold, for instance. And the perks may not end there. “If you’re feeling happier, the next person you talk to might get happier.”
In sum, talking to strangers may well be a prescription for spreading cheer and health far and wide—and unlike most prescriptions, it’s free. “We’re surrounded by strangers every time we walk down the street, making them a readily available, but untapped, source of happiness,” Norton says.
A couple of weeks ago, I was out walking when I saw a man standing and gazing into our local reservoir. The water level, I noticed, was much lower than usual. “Hi,” I said, resisting the impulse to barrel right past him. “Do you know why it’s getting so low?”
Did he ever. The man—short, potbellied, with an Indian accent—turned out to be Upstate New York’s No. 1 fan of reservoirs, versed in everything from their history to the icky residue that ends up inside them. He told me all about how ours was being drained for cleaning and refilling.
“I love being near water,” he said. “It just does something to me.” I said it did something to me, too. For a moment, I had the feeling that this guy and I had known each other for years instead of minutes.
We grinned. I held out my hand.