Talk to Strangers!

One thing I love about modern neuroscience is that old tropes like “Don’t Talk to Strangers” get tested in labs, in this case by researchers Nicholas Epley and Julianna Schroeder. Their work, and other research related to it, was written about in the story “Hello, Stranger” in the April 25 New York Times.

They “approached commuters in a Chicago area train station…. In return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, these commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.”

Echoing one of Daniel Gilbert’s theses in Stumbling on Happiness, the researchers found that people are often poor predictors of what will make them happy. “When Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder asked other people in the same train station to predict how they would feel after talking to a stranger, the commuters thought their ride would be more pleasant if they sat on their own.”

The article goes on to examine another common assumption, that we should invest our emotional time and energy in those closest to us. Of course this is true, but Gillian M. Sandstrom found in a study that both introverts and extroverts alike had a better day if they interacted with more people–friends, acquaintances and strangers alike.

I’ve often bristled at the idea of some that Americans are “too friendly.” I have always said “Hi” to strangers because it just felt good and right. This intuition seems to have a sound scientific basis. Talking to folks on the train or in the supermarket certainly can’t hurt, and I believe the more we knit ourselves into communities big and small, friend and stranger alike, the more we’ll all thrive.

Wisdom of the Elders

What is wisdom, the illusive trait sought by the great minds from every era?

From National Geographic

From National Geographic

Here’s my simple (and purely speculative) starting point: A x I = W (Age x Intellect = Wisdom). Everyone gets wiser as they get older, right? And intellect has a “multiplier” effect. If you’re “smart” (I) and you learn from your mistakes and successes (A), then you’ll gain W amount of wisdom.

I doubt it’s that simple.

Wisdom is rightly associated with age. So how important is wisdom to aging gracefully, accepting the inevitable with some degree of peace?

A recent article in The New York Times, “The Science of Older and Wiser,” investigated the question “Will wisdom help you age and die with more equanimity and acceptance.”

The article examines the work of several scientists. One, Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist in Orinda, California, “scour(ed) ancient texts for evocations of wisdom, she found that most people described as wise were decision makers….She determined that wisdom consists of three key components: cognition, reflection and compassion.”

So I’ll modify the equation: A x I x (R+C)=W

While I don’t think that the unexamined life is not worth living–there are good people who aren’t capable of reflection, or who pretty much live in the moment–self-knowledge is a good thing, as is one’s understanding of everything outside oneself.

I think a modicum of acceptance is key, as does Monika Areldt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“’Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity.” Her research shows that when people in nursing homes or with a terminal illness score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of well-being. ‘If things are really bad, it’s good to be wise,’ she said.”

What I liked most about the article is seeing the scientific study of wisdom. This quality has mostly been examined through the lens of philosophy. I look forward to hearing more from science about wisdom. Maybe science can’t go that far in exploring and explaining wisdom.

What do you think are the components of wisdom?

Stumbling into a Better Future

Feeling down? Ennui? Do you lack verve and a feeling of purpose?

Then read Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (2006). This little book spells out how poor we are at predicting the future, including what makes us happy. Many people think that money, beauty, certain kinds of love, and “success” will bring meaning and satisfaction. Gilbert demonstrates that more mundane “achievements” are better ways to achieving our ends.

What gives us meaningful satisfaction? One thing is work. Most Americans I know think retirement will bring happiness, but the opposite is usually true. For every person who lives with joy, purpose and connection after the end of her career, there’s more than one person who slowly dies on the La-Z-Boy in front of his TV, more alone and depressed than when he punched the clock Monday through Friday.

The solution? Keep up with the Joneses (at least the ones who lived and died happy).

“The advice Gilbert offers is to use other people’s experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it.” Wikipedia

What? I thought I was the master of my fate, the captain of my soul! Well, I think the power of the individual to know what’s best for himself is highly overrated. In my own journey to a happy and fulfilling life, I have found that the goals I contrive have much less efficacy and success then tried-and-true ones like exercise, spirituality and cultivating community.

So do what the happy do and see what happens. It’s amazing how much we resist emulating other people’s success, but that’s where many answers to our problems can be found.