There is an intriguing phenomenon that may seem antithesis at first glance, but when thought out makes sense. In fact, you have probably experienced it in your life. Imagine yourself stopping for your favorite hot beverage one morning—you strike up a friendly, brief conversation with the barista. You leave the coffee shop feeling connected and happier. Or let’s try another morning. You enter the same store knowing you have a busy day ahead of you. You feel rushed and are responding as efficiently as possible. So you quickly place your order, anxiously wait for the hot beverage, pay and leave the store without making eye contact. That favorite coffee doesn’t make you feel as content as you hoped. You feel isolated, hurried, and slightly overwhelmed.
The mood difference you have experienced in these two interchanges could have to do with that casual, yet friendly conversation with the coffee shop attendant. A research article written by G. Sandstrom and C. Rawn indicates that we feel happier and overall more connected when we strike up conversations with—drum roll—strangers. Turns out we are happier when we treat people we do not know as if they are a casual or ‘weak’ social tie, even though reaching out to start a conversation with a stranger may feel awkward. (journals.sagepub.com)
This effect broadly covers a variety of settings, including classrooms. The same researchers studied students and found that those students who interacted more frequently with peers also reported enjoying the class more and thus had overall improved satisfaction with their classroom experience. The effect changed daily for individuals depending on their amount of interactions with others that particular day. The researchers suggest that educators should think about encouraging these peer-to-peer exchanges for the benefits they provide.
Another study by researcher K. Williams and others, found that even simple eye contact succeeds in making an individual feel included, while the withholding of eye contact does the opposite, making the individual feel ostracized. The German’s have a phrase for the feeling this evokes—wie Luft behandeln—meaning to be looked at as though air. The responses to eye contact holds true even if the ‘withholder’ of eye contact is a stranger. (journals.sagepub.com)
The researchers hypothesize that, because we are social creatures, human beings developed a keen ability to detect acceptance or lack of acceptance early on as a form of self-protection. The happiness factor comes into play when we experience the affirmation of acceptance through a friendly glance, smile, or sociable conversation. And, the greater the frequency of these interactions throughout the day, the greater the feeling of well-being and contentment.
So, how does this research translate into our daily lives? The solution to a prevailing sense of happiness may be closer than you think. Next time you are waiting in line or on an elevator, leave the cell phone in your purse or pocket and acknowledge someone standing near you. Or, if you are feeling particularly adventuresome, come on over to the Sedona Community Center and join our daily lunch or a class. I can almost guarantee you will receive some eye contact and smiles and have ample opportunity to give some back. The Community Center is located at 2615 Melody Lane and monthly menus and calendars are online at www.sccsedona.org.