Humans are some of the most social creatures on this planet, but step into an elevator, train or public bus and something strange happens: we fall silent, stare at the wall and ignore the strangers surrounding us. But in doing so, we might be missing out on an easy way to make ourselves happier people.
Through several experiments, behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder demonstrated that we view solitude as a better option than engaging a stranger, not because we like being alone, but because we mistakenly think others don’t want to talk to us. As a result, we miss a chance to make our morning commutes more pleasurable, or even make a new friend.
The scientists started their investigation by recruiting over 100 commuters at a train station in Homewood, Illinois, and splitting them into three groups. One group was given instructions to strike up conversation with a stranger, another told to stay silent, and the third to simply carry on like they normally would. Then, after their commute, participants filled out an assessment that asked them to rate how productive, pleasant and happy their commute felt.
A second experimental group simply filled out a survey that asked them to predict their happiness levels in each of the three situations. However, they weren’t asked to take action.
In the first experimental group, those who struck up a conversation with someone — across the board — had a more pleasurable commute, and even felt more productive. On average, they spoke for 14 minutes. But interestingly, those that were asked to predict their moods went in a completely different direction: they assumed that talking to a stranger would make their commute less pleasant, less productive and leave them less happy.
It turns out that we are such social creatures that we would actually like to talk with people, even when we do not want to talk with people.