We thrive on social connections. We love to hang out and spend time with our loved ones, friends, family and colleagues. They enrich our lives with a sense of fulfilment and great happiness. But did you know that we also thrive on random social connections? That is, talking and connecting with strangers; people unknown to us on the streets, at the shops and as we line up for a dinner order. Interestingly, these random social connections can make us happier, more empathetic and compassionate.
There is a memory I’ve held onto since I was about ten or eleven years old. Although it’s getting blurrier by the years, the meaning behind the memory is still impacting on my life today. As a young child my demeanour was quiet, timid and shy. It was the result of low self-confidence and self-esteem. My parents were strict so I stayed at home a lot and found sanctuary in reading books. I loved getting lost in another world especially when the heroine was a strong, confident female lead; I was able to live another life through them and they represented someone whom I inspired to be some day. On a particular shopping trip with my Mum, my eyes randomly locked with a middle-aged woman as I was looking around. As per my upbringing, I found situations like these to be awkward and so I started to quickly look away. However, the lady gave me one of the most genuine smiles I had ever received up to that point of my life. Her smile was gentle yet powerful. It lightened up her face, dimples were showing and her eyes crinkled with immense kindness. Somehow, even though we were about four or five metres away from each other, she gave me so much confidence with that gesture. In that moment, I actually felt like I could be who I wanted to be: outgoing, poised and self-assured like the female leads I had read about in my books.
Scientific studies have shown how talking to strangers and connecting with them can actually make us happier. Truth be told, this idea was much more natural and effortless in the older days where a sense of community had a stronger foothold in society. People would have town gatherings, community barbecues, small businesses were dependent on locals and they would talk amongst themselves whilst in the line for some bread and milk. Although I feel like it’s actually getting better, in the modern era, technologies such as self-serve checkouts, ATMs, check-in booths and the likes have made it harder to connect with our local friends. Not to mention our eyes are often glued to our phones, preventing even the start of a possible connection.
Personally, I’ve found that my days are much more rewarding when I put effort into my daily interactions with people. Saying hello to the checkout operator and asking how their day was (and actually listening to them) makes me walk out of the grocery store weirdly feeling happier. Waving to my neighbours when we coincidentally step out at the same time creates a bond that makes me feel more fulfilled. Smiling at the person looking at me as we pass each other at the farmer’s market sends all sorts of positive, wholesome, warm fuzzy vibes. This is of course, all compared with days when I don’t do these things (we all have these days) and weirdly enough, these days feel automated, robotic and empty.
Stranger talk has often been portrayed in a negative light due to the darker side of the world. While reasonable, it shouldn’t preclude us from being friendly to people we interact with on a daily basis. This practice, while it has independent benefits of increasing our happiness and fulfilment, it also allows us to develop values of compassion, empathy and openness. We’re more willing to accept people for who they are and when people are responsive, it reinforces the idea that we can be comfortable with who we are. When we smile at someone and they smile back, it’s such a powerful vote of confidence to ourselves.