Fort Wayne has been touted as among the happiest and friendliest cities. Travel writers who toured the city last month said they felt right at home here because complete strangers were as welcoming as old friends.
It turns out there's science behind why interacting with strangers provides for a positive experience. Here are three reasons why you should break your parents' cardinal rule and talk to the strangers you encounter around town this spring:
1. It will improve your mood.
Although it may have kept us safe as kids, avoiding interaction with people we don't know could be making us less happy than only interacting with people we trust. Actually, if we talked to strangers more often, we might notice our moods improve around those we love.
Elizabeth Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia, first noticed this trend when her boyfriend Benjamin felt free to act grumpy around her but would put on a pleasant face when he interacted with strangers or acquaintances. His happy impression actually improved his mood after the stranger left.
Dunn found that many people exhibit the “Benjamin effect” of acting more cheerful around random people than around their romantic partners or deeper friends. She also found that encountering strangers can actually lift our mood by forcing us to show a happy face.
“Interacting with a stranger ... can provide this unexpected source of boost to our mood,” she told the Huffington Post.
“People don't seem to recognize this benefit they get from interacting with a stranger as a result of just being their most-pleasant, cheerful self.”
2. Cutting conversation in the name of efficiency can make you less efficient.
In studying the positive effect that interacting with strangers has on our mood, Dunn and fellow researcher Gillian Sandstrom found that customers getting their morning cup of coffee felt more cheerful and more connected to their community when they had a genuine social interaction with their cashier.
Even in the stress of the morning rush hour, the participants in their study who were paid to smile and have a brief conversation with the cashier, treating them like an acquaintance, were happier than those who were paid to be as efficient as possible, treating them like a service provider.
So even if you feel like you don't have time to stick around and chat with the people you encounter when you're busy, you might be hurting yourself more by bypassing the social interaction altogether.
A study led by Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at Warwick Business School, found that employees who were happier were also more productive at work.
“Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings, while negative emotions have the opposite effect,” Warwick told The Guardian in 2010.
So if casual social encounters with strangers make you happier on the way to the office, you might actually be more efficient when you get there.
3. You don't need as much “me time” as you think.
Actually, studies show that even though we think “me time” on the morning commute or in line at the grocery store will make us happier than interacting with strangers, we're wrong.
Behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder gave commuters at a Chicago-area train station $5 Starbucks gift cards to participate in an experiment where some of the participants struck up conversations with fellow train riders and other participants kept to themselves.
Those who talked to strangers reported a more positive experience than those who didn't, even though they initially thought they would be happier sitting alone.
We often have unrealistic fears about interacting with strangers before we do it, such as thinking it will be difficult to start a conversation or assuming the stranger doesn't want to talk.
But studies such as Epley and Schroeder's show that most of the time, people want us to interact with them. Even if you feel like you have to force yourself to reach out to strangers, it will usually make you happier.