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.

Gratitude Can Save Your Life…

…or at least help lessen suicidal thoughts, says a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Across a four-week period, 209 college students answered questions to measure depression, suicidal thoughts, grit, gratitude, and meaning in life. The idea was to see if the positive traits—grit and gratitude—mitigated the negative ones. Since depression is a large contributing factor to suicide, they controlled for that variable throughout the study.

Grit, said the authors, is “characterized by the long-term interests and passions, and willingness to persevere through obstacles and setbacks to make progress toward goals aligned or separate from these passionate pursuits.” It stands to reason that someone with lots of grit wouldn’t waste much time on suicidal thoughts.

But what about gratitude? That entails noticing the benefits and gifts received from others, and it gives an individual a sense of belonging. That should make life living—and, indeed, the researchers found that gratitude and grit worked synergistically together to make life more meaningful and to reduce suicidal thoughts, independent of depression symptoms.

As the authors note, their study has huge clinical implications: If therapists can specifically foster gratitude in suicidal people, they should be able to increase their sense that life is worth living. This new finding adds to a pile of new research on the benefits of gratitude. Saying “thanks” can make you happier, sustain your marriage through tough times, reduce envy, and even improve physical health.