If striking up small talk with a stranger sounds daunting, you might be relieved to hear that even something as simple as making eye contact offers benefits.
No one likes feeling invisible when someone walks past. The Germans even have a term for it — wie Luft behandeln, which means “to be looked at as though air.”
Kipling Williams, a Purdue University psychologist, studied how people felt when a young woman walked by them and either made eye contact, made eye contact while smiling, or completely ignored them. Even brief eye contact increased people’s sense of inclusion and belonging.
“Just that brief acknowledgment, that brief glance — with or without a smile — made them at least temporarily feel more socially connected,” Williams says. And it works both ways. Those that had been “looked through” felt even more disconnected than the control group.
So, how can we dodge the risks of loneliness and stop short-changing our own happiness?
It might be easier than you think.
“It takes very little to acknowledge somebody’s existence,” Williams says.
Start with folks like the cashier in a grocery store or the barista at your local coffee shop, Dunn says. You’ve got to interact with them anyway, so you might as well make an effort to turn it into a friendly exchange.
And be mindful that using your smartphone sends a signal that you’re not interested in interacting with the people around you. Put it away and you easily remove that barrier, she says.
The mood boost of talking to strangers may seem fleeting, but the research on well-being, Epley says, suggests that a happy life is made up of a high frequency of positive events, and even small positive experiences make a difference.
“Happiness seems a little bit like a leaky tire on a car,” Epley explains. “We just sort of have to keep pumping it up a bit to maintain it.”
This doesn’t mean we need to set out on some grand quest to connect at every possible turn. Instead, he recommends paying closer attention to those times when the urge to offer a compliment or strike up a conversation arises.
Sure, there may be a bit of fear or reluctance holding us back, but it’s worth overcoming.
The next time you walk into an elevator, consider leaving the phone in your pocket, acknowledging the presence of that other person, and maybe even saying “hello” or “good morning.”
Who knows? It could wind up putting a smile on your face and theirs.
Paul Nicolaus is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer specializing in science, nature, and health.