How social science can make you a significantly happier commuter

It’s early Wednesday morning. You’ve already hit the snooze button as many times as you can afford, so you have no choice but to throw off the covers and get moving. You shower, you dress, you stumble down your front steps and begin the daily trek. And after a quick drive or a few minutes’ walk, still trying to shake off the drowsy fog, you roll up to your bus stop or train station and await your ride to work.

At this point, a spontaneous social connection is probably about the last thing you’re looking for. Sidling up to a stranger on public transportation and initiating conversation is kind of a bizarre move even at the best of times — and based on the way you feel and the way your fellow passengers on the platform look, it’s pretty safe to assume that neither you nor they would call 7:00am in the middle of a workweek “the best of times.”

Standard operating procedure is to literally keep our heads down. Maybe our eyes are glued to a smartphone we’re pointlessly refreshing; maybe they’re sleepily scanning that novel we keep meaning to read; maybe they’re shut tight for a few final minutes of fitful half-sleep. But there’s one thing it seems safe to predict that nobody’s eyes are doing: looking around for a stranger’s gaze to meet and hold.

But what if yours were? Imagine that some suspiciously chipper person, armed with a clipboard, pulled you aside on the train platform or at the bus stop just before you boarded. “We’re doing a research project,” she explained. “You can have this Starbucks gift card” — let’s be honest, you’re already sold — “if you promise to strike up a conversation with a stranger and then tell us how it goes.”  Say that you and your caffeine-craving brain leap at her offer.

How would your morning change?

This is exactly the stunt that two social scientists at the University of Chicago pulled with a bunch of commuters several years ago. So what did Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder find? Their study showed that people who spent their commute chatting with strangers emerged happier than the participants they told to simply “enjoy their solitude”:

Commuters asked to interact with other passengers reported having the most pleasant commute. Commuters asked to enjoy their solitude reported the least pleasant commute. The pleasure of conversation was not just restricted to friendly people; we found the same results among introverts and extroverts. All three groups rated their commutes as equally productive.

Do their results really surprise you? While it may seem like a whiny “first-world complaint,” commutes really can be a bleak and isolating part of our day. In a New York Times essay last spring, happiness researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton cited a 2004 study showing that “commuting is associated with fewer positive emotions than any other common daily activity.”

I can relate, and I bet you can too. My commute is not long or painful at all, but earlier this week, a happy coincidence meant I got to share it with a friend instead of making the trip alone. I could not believe how much more pleasant our simple back-and-forth made the routine experience. It made me realize how lame the experience ordinarily is.

But the happiness spike from socializing with strangers is not unique to commuting. Dunn’s and Norton’s essay highlighted a wealth of other research focused on this phenomenon. They even conducted their own version of the Chicago study, where they told some coffee shop customers to get in and out as quickly as possible and instructed others to initiate interaction:

We asked some customers to “have a genuine interaction with the cashier,” smiling and having a brief conversation. Others were told to be as efficient as possible: Get in, get out, go on with the day. Those who lingered left Starbucks feeling more cheerful. Efficiency, it seems, is overrated.

Men and women are social animals. A hunger for community and a thirst for interpersonal interaction is wired into our beings.

Given this, why don’t we reach out more? If breaking through our loner inertia and striking up a simple conversation would significantly improve our day, why does it seem like such an unfathomable task in the moment?

These questions deserve a closer look — and a future post. But for now, the next time you’re stuck on the subway and cursing your luck, try ungluing yourself from your iPhone and stepping into an interaction with the guy sitting next to you. You’ll probably be doing both of you a favor.