Saying hello to strangers boosts life satisfaction
Talking to strangers can be awkward at first. But it benefits both parties. Photo: Getty
A few years ago, I watched a very depressing documentary about people throwing themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Some of them survived. To the obvious question – what were you thinking? – the survivors routinely confessed that as soon as they jumped, they changed their mind about dying and regretted it.
You’ve probably read that somewhere. It’s pretty well known.
Some of those survivors also shared a powerful point: If someone had simply asked how they were, even just said hello, they would have changed their mind.
It’s a shocking thought, isn’t it?
After seeing that cheerless film, it became a habit of mine to say hello or “how are ya?” to just about everybody I passed in the street when out for my long walks.
Initially, you feel quite self-conscious. What if they say nothing back? What if they glare and walk on grim-faced? How embarrassing, right?
Of course some people ignore my wave and G’day. But plenty don’t. I get a lot of nods, smiles. Now and then the person stops and tells you about something they’ve just seen and tickled them. Something they wanted to share with … anyone.
Over time, of course, I start to recognise these people. The grunters tend to graduate to a smile. Those who smiled might now say a warm hello. Something has happened.
It’s all very cute, right? It’s more than that
In July, we reported that Australia has been hit hard by a loneliness epidemic.
The issue came to prominence during COVID-19 lockdowns, but wasn’t confined to them. It’s more the case that COVID served to expose an entrenched problem.
Last month, the World Health Organisation recognised and elevated loneliness as a global public health priority.
It’s a big, and in some ways, confounding problem.
In this broader context, it was inevitable that researchers have been looking at the value of brief exchanges with strangers – small talk as balm, a pleasant hello as a tonic.
The idea isn’t new
A London-based project called Neighbourly Lab works at promoting social connectedness through small interactions.
They write: “Did you know that these minimal interactions can lead you to live a longer, happier and healthier life, so we think they should be more actively encouraged.”
In an explainer on their website, the Neighbourly Lab crew reference a 2014 experiment on Chicago’s public transport – strangers were asked to talk to one another on their commutes.
“In doing so (the researchers) found that passengers were happier and had a more enjoyable commute than those who did not engage with others, though passengers did not expect this outcome, demonstrating how they undervalue the effects of these interactions.”
The new study
A new study – widely reported around the world – looked at the behaviours of 60,000 people, 40,000 of them from the UK.
Those who habitually had conversations with strangers and weak ties (people you don’t know well), as well as simply greeting and thanking them, “predicted greater life satisfaction”.
The paper concluded that “momentary interactions, greeting and thanking” can increase wellbeing by establishing a sense of belonging.
The research was led by Dr Esra Ascigil of Sabanci University, near Istanbul in Turkey, and conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex.
Dr Ascigil said: “Having a sense of belonging involves feeling like you are accepted and valued by other people – it is often considered a fundamental human need.”
Simply saying “good morning” can give you all that.