Why a stranger's hello can boost your well-being: The power of weak social ties : Goats and Soda Researchers are exploring the impact of interactions with strangers and casual acquaintances. Their findings shed light on how seemingly fleeting conversations affect your happiness and well-being.

Why a stranger's hello can do more than just brighten your day

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Loneliness and isolation are a major public health problem, according to a recent advisory from the U.S. surgeon general. These feelings of social disconnection can increase people's risk for mental and physical health problems. For our series Living Better, NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee explores how people can increase their sense of belonging through all kinds of social interactions.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Before Gillian Sandstrom was a psychologist, she was a computer scientist. So when she switched careers and started graduate school in psychology in Toronto, she felt lonely and out of place.

GILLIAN SANDSTROM: I was, you know, 10 years older than all my fellow students. And so walking around campus, it just, you know, didn't feel super comfortable. I wasn't sure I was meant to be there. I didn't instantly feel like I was a part of that community.

CHATTERJEE: But that changed when she began running into a woman working at a hot dog stand.

SANDSTROM: I never bought a hot dog, but every time I walked past, I would smile and wave at her and she'd smile and wave at me. And I realized after a while that it just made me feel really good.

CHATTERJEE: And on the days that this woman didn't show up.

SANDSTROM: I felt sort of off and lost in a way when she wasn't there.

CHATTERJEE: Years later, Sandstrom was putting together a research project on what makes people happy. And it struck her that this woman at the hot dog stand, whom she didn't know and never had a long conversation with, had made her happy and helped her get through a difficult time.

SANDSTROM: And so this relationship that I had with her really got me thinking about how we have so many people in our lives. We're only close to a small number of them, but all of the other people seem to matter a lot, and maybe a lot more than we realize.

CHATTERJEE: So she decided to find out if this kind of encounter with strangers and people we know but not too well had a similar effect on other people's happiness. So she recruited over 50 students and gave each person two clicker counters.

SANDSTROM: I asked them to count every time they talked to someone during the day.

CHATTERJEE: With one clicker, she asked them to count every time they spoke with someone they were close to. With the other, they counted interactions with strangers and other people they didn't know well, relationships that researchers call weak ties.

SANDSTROM: In general, people who tended to have more conversations with weak ties tended to be a little happier than people who had fewer of those kind of interactions on a day-to-day basis.

CHATTERJEE: Now, growing up, Sandstrom didn't enjoy talking to strangers. But now that she understands how beneficial it can be, she talks to strangers all the time.

SANDSTROM: It is something that gets easier if you practice a lot.

CHATTERJEE: And here's the thing. Other research shows that it's not just talking to strangers and acquaintances that make us happy, it's the entire collection of different relationships we connect with every day. Hanne Collins is a graduate student at Harvard Business School. She and her colleagues looked at this in recent studies using data from eight countries.

HANNE COLLINS: We looked at who they talk to in a day, in their lives. So we want to understand what portfolio of interactions, so who they're talking to, and the balance of those interactions and how that relates to their overall well-being.

CHATTERJEE: What they found was that the richer the mix of different relationships in someone's daily conversations, the happier they felt. For example, a person who has spent their day talking to all kinds of people - colleagues, family, friends, strangers, acquaintances - they're more likely to feel happier than someone who only spoke with, say, colleagues and friends.

COLLINS: When you have connection with lots of different people and lots of different relationship types, it might kind of build the sense of community and belonging to kind of a larger social structure that might be very powerful.

CHATTERJEE: So get out of your shell. Talk to people, wave, smile, and see if you, too, don't start to feel happier and more connected to those around you.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.


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