British Columbia

Talking to strangers can boost your happiness level

Research suggests that talking to a complete stranger can boost your happiness level and instill a greater sense of belonging.

Director of UBC's Happy Lab explains why talking to strangers sometimes beats talking to friends

It might be a good idea to talk to strangers more often, according to Elizabeth Dunn, director of UBC's Happy Lab. (Getty Images)

When you think about the people you talk to each day, friends, family and spouses tend to top the list. But research suggests that talking to a complete stranger can boost your happiness level and instill a greater sense of belonging.

This weekend is Vancouver's third annual Say Hi to a Stranger campaign, which organizes events at locations designed to encourage strangers to talk to one another. 

The campaign aims to make the city a more welcoming place, and UBC psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn says there are additional personal benefits to be gained by participating.

The social phenomenon

Dunn's interest in this topic was sparked by her dating life as a graduate student and the behavioural patterns of her then boyfriend, Benjamin. 

When Benjamin was in a bad mood, he would act in one of two ways: He would either act cranky and sulky around Dunn, his long-time girlfriend "because he could get away with it," or if he bumped into a casual acquaintance or a random stranger, "he would perk up and act pleasant and cheerful," Dunn said. 

Dunn noticed that the latter would more often than not break him out of his funk.

"Being a social psychologist, I decided to bring in hundreds of romantic couples to dig deep into this phenomenon and figure out what was going on."

The experiment

To test her theory, Dunn recruited hundreds of heterosexual romantic couples who had been dating for at least three months.

For the experiment, half of the couples were randomly assigned to interact with their own partner, while the other half were instructed to interact with the opposite-gender partner of a different couple. 

Before beginning, participants were asked to predict how much they thought they would enjoy the interaction. Afterward, they were asked to record how much they actually did enjoy the interaction. 

While individuals accurately predicted feeling good after interacting with their romantic partners, they didn't expect to benefit from speaking with people they'd never met before.

"When people interacted with this random stranger from the other couple, they acted pleasant and cheerful, just like Benjamin had. This provided a boost to their mood that they failed to foresee ahead of time."

Dunn's research has found that this kind of social interaction not only boosts mood levels, but can also increase the sense of belonging in a community. 

The benefits of small talk

There's a great deal of variability in the degree to which individuals are inclined to chat with strangers, Dunn said. 

While extroverts typically recognize that it will feel good to chat with other people, introverts also get benefits, but tend not to recognize that beforehand, Dunn said. 

"They think that it will be more painful than it really is."

Dunn admits these casual interactions are unlikely to be particularly deep, meaningful or stimulating.

"But it turns out that just exchanging those random pleasantries with the people around us can actually uplift our moods in ways that we may overlook."

To hear the full interview with Elizabeth Dunn, listen to the audio labelled: The benefits of talking to strangers.