July 29, 2019

Talking to Strangers On the Street is a Good Thing

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Research has shown that walking is good for your physical and mental health, and building cities and spaces that are connected and walkable provide increased opportunities for social interaction. Transportation expert Jeff Tumlin has a TEDx Talk on Sex, Neuroscience and the City pointing out how vital these links are.

NPR.com’s Paul Nicolaus explored current research on every day interaction on the street.  Elizabeth Dunn and Gillian Sandstrom from the University of British Columbia studied the impact of customers talking to staff in coffee shops, with half of the people asked to interact with staff, and half not to interact. They found that those that had limited interaction with the coffee shop staff  increased their general mood and increased happiness.

“The same researchers found that these seemingly trivial encounters with the minor characters in our lives — the random guy at the dog park or the barista at our local coffee shop — can affect feelings of happiness and human connection on a typical day.”

Studies also found that when walking brief eye contact “increased people’s sense of inclusion and belonging”,  and can trigger the neural release of the peptide hormone oxytocin, called the “cuddle chemical” in Jeff Tumlin’s TEDx talk.

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.” And while people may not necessarily want to talk to everyone they meet on the street or in the coffee shop,  psychologists have ascertained that even brief eye contact increases the sense of inclusion and belonging.

As University of Chicago’s behavioural scientist  Nicolas Epley describes it “The mood boost of talking to strangers may seem fleeting, but the research on well-being 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. We just sort of have to keep pumping it up a bit to maintain it.”

You can take a look at Jeff Tumlin’s TEDx talk on the benefits of  social interaction on the street here.



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