On my Metro ride to and from work each day, I watch as hundreds of faces filled with contemplation, frustration, and annoyance look past one another. Although it is mildly entertaining to see the lengths to which some will go to avoid making eye contact – or worse yet, engage in actual conversation – it is also sadly ironic. The human contact that these commuters take such pains to avoid might also reduce the emotional baggage they carry.
In a world dominated by tweets and instant messages, meaningful conversation seems to be dwindling – and, as studies suggest, our happiness with it. But we’re suffering unnecessarily. Psychologists have found that happiness is positively linked to social connections that are substantial, not superficial. At a time when resources are scarce, we need to tap into a resource we already have in abundance: ourselves.
In these challenging times, there is much to worry about. Unemployment is staggering, and those who are employed lack certainty about their job security. Anxiety about paying mortgages or rent and raising and educating children is overwhelming for many. Politicians’ increasingly common half-truths and pundits’ oversimplifications – perpetuated by the media – continue to fuel the polarization and vitriol poisoning American political discourse. People feel confused, angry, and scared. But many are forced to bear these burdens on their own because they lack the outlets that would allow them to engage in meaningful discussion about them.
The gulf between us
And thus, cityscapes such as my daily commute are filled with strained faces with similar problems – people sitting inches away from each other but with a chasm of silence between them. Their behavior, of course, is encouraged by our societal norms. It simply isn’t acceptable to engage in meaningful conversations with the strangers around you. But it should be. Strangers can provide an unexpected forum for meaningful interaction— a place to share our thoughts, vent our fears, and even sort through some of the bigger questions in life. Unfortunately, though, it seems that our society’s technological overdrive only encourages the gulf between us to grow.
During the late 1990s, I witnessed first-hand how the shift toward electronic communications led to a decrease in meaningful interpersonal interactions in my own life and the lives of my friends, leading to a sense of alienation and unhappiness. Even though we communicated frequently by email or instant message, our digital communications were often shallow, and slowly began to supplant the meaningful conversations we had previously enjoyed.
Talking to strangers
Midway through college, the psychology major in me began to push back against this trend by devoting some portion of each day to interacting with new people – that is, talking to strangers. Sitting at a coffee shop or standing in line at the grocery store, I began attempting to engage every willing and interested participant in some form of a meaningful conversation.
Over time, I developed a special routine. After proceeding past the requisite introductions and establishing a comfortable rapport, I would pose the following three questions: 1) What’s on your mind? 2) What are the biggest challenges you are facing in your life? 3) What would you like to change in your life and/or in the world?
Although many strangers I encountered were hesitant to engage in the initial interaction, once they overcame their uncertainty, most welcomed the opportunity to discuss these questions. I discovered that the people I interacted with had a surprising amount they wanted to get off their chests, and were demonstrably happy about doing so. Of course, the topics of conversation were not always uplifting. I heard my fair share of heartbreaking stories and struggles, but they were always sincere and authentic. And in return, I received invaluable advice and guidance, and every once in a while, made a new friend. Most importantly, however, I came to see the intrinsic value in pursuing these fulfilling interactions.
Less small talk, more real talk
A recent study by four psychologists, entitled “Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations,” provides an empirical basis for the proposition that meaningful social interactions correlate with happiness. In the study, researchers monitored the conversations of a group of college students over a four-day period. They found that the happiest participants engaged in twice as many meaningful conversations and less “small talk” than the less happy participants. Based on the study’s findings, the researchers concluded that the “happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial.”
This research provides at least one explanation for why people still feel alone, isolated, and unhappy notwithstanding the fact that they regularly converse with others via email, instant messaging, text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook. When it comes to social interactions, it appears as though happiness is not a question of quantity, but one of quality. Despite this, however, each electronic innovation seems to be moving us further away from quality interactions. Indeed, with tweets and text messaging, our thoughts are reduced to mere blips on a page.
But twenty 140-character tweets cannot replace a twenty-minute real-time conversation. Moreover, as my own experiences talking with strangers demonstrate, people are more open to engaging in meaningful interactions and making new friends than one might otherwise think. Our online interactions may be here to stay, but with a little eye contact and a warm smile, the daily commute could capitalize on our most precious resource – each other.
Michael Serota is a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Law. He lives in Washington, DC, where he works as a federal law clerk and teaches a class on law and ethics through Georgetown Law School’s Street Law Clinic.