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These Psychologists Think We'd Be Happier If We Talked to Strangers More

Though you should definitely take this on a case-by-case basis.

smithsonian.com

A daily subway commute can leave you with a lot of time to feel alone, even in a way-too-crowded space. A pair of psychologists suggest that we might all be happier if we removed the irony of the situation, and actually engaged with the folks around us.

In different iterations of an experiment, psychologists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder tapped people who were taking the bus, the subway, or who were waiting in a waiting room. They tasked some of the participants with starting a conversation with a stranger, told some to stay silent, and left some to just be their normal selves. Across the board, Discover reports, the people in the chatty group felt the happiest about how they'd wiled away their time. 

So if chatting with strangers makes us happy, why don't we all tend to do it?

The researchers asked the study participants to estimate how interested they thought strangers were in talking to them. The participants said that they assumed that they weren't. The New York Times says we're missing out:

By avoiding contact, we’re all following a collective assumption that turns out to be false. When the middle-aged woman starts playing Candy Crush Saga after she sits down next to the hipster scrolling through his iTunes library, they both miss out on an opportunity for connection.

According to Discover, the assumption that strangers don't want to talk to us is all a big misunderstanding: 

[The researchers] say we clam up around strangers because we misunderstand the consequences of engaging with someone we don’t know.

But maybe the women just wants to play Candy Crush, and not play stranger-roulette with her peace of mind? On of the things about engaging with strangers on the subway, especially for women, is that not all interactions are good interactions. Earlier this year, the New York Times collected stories of street and subway harrassment:

“Like many women who live here, I’ve been harassed too many times to count,” said a commenter identified as Madeleine.

“The fact that street harassment gets brushed off as a ‘fact of life’ is something that needs to be changed,” said another commenter, Caroline G.

So, sure, offer a conversation starter to your fellow commuter. But stop there if she doesn't engage back. Despite what science says, some people on the subway really are akin to contestants on a reality TV show: they're not there to make friends

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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