Cast your mind back to days pre Covid-19, to when you may have found yourself sat next to a stranger on public transport. Would you have actively gone out of your way to avoid striking up a conversation with them by burying your head in a book or sticking your head phones in and avoiding eye contact at all costs? I would have done!! The thought of having to make small talk with a stranger filled me with abject horror but I've been listening to a podcast this week that has completely changed my perspective and made me realise all the opportunities I've been missing to improve my health and happiness!!!
How can talking to a stranger on the train improve my health and happiness, I hear you ask?! I'm going to share all of that in this post by giving you an overview of what the podcast 'The Happiness Half Hour' was talking about. And guess what, it's all backed by science!
Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking
Sounds like a bold claim but in a meta-analysis (a study that draws on the results of multiple studies) of 148 studies of over 300,00 people it was found that the health risks of loneliness and isolation are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day when compared to other risk factors. In fact, loneliness and isolation pose more of a risk to health than obesity, alcohol and high blood pressure. It's such a major concern that the World Health Organisation have even indicated social support networks as a major determinant of health.
Human beings are highly social animals that thrive on the company of others and so it's not really a surprise that our health can be seriously damaged with a lack of social interaction. Feeling lonely and isolated can be SO detrimental that they can even lead to premature death.
In a time where many of us have been made to reduce our social contact and increase our levels of isolation, it's critical that we understand the negative mental health and physical effects that it can have on us. Not only that, but it's crucial that we understand how we can improve it and take the opportunity to do so.
How can we be more social?
There are plenty of science backed studies that give us insight into how we can improve the social interactions in our lives but Professor Bruce Hood of the 'Happiness Half Hour' suggests that easiest way to gain the benefits of being social (after maintaining our existing relationships) is to just decide to interact with people more.
Sounds pretty simple and easy right? But you would be wrong! More often than not, we don't actually act on the opportunities to be social that are presented to us. So why is this? As a result of their study, behavioural scientists Nicholas Epley and Julian Schroeder suggest that this is because we profoundly misunderstand the benefits of social interaction. We either think that other people won't be interested in connecting with us or that we would be imposing ourselves on their solitude. This creates a vicious cycle where we never try to interact with strangers but then we never give ourselves the opportunity to find the evidence that contradicts this!
The evidence from the studies actually suggests that not only does the person who instigated the interaction feel more positive as a result but that the person on the receiving end also feels better too!
People like you more than you realise
One potential reason that we might not instigate conversation with others (aside from misunderstanding the benefits) is something called 'the liking gap'. This basically refers to how much we think people will like us versus how much they actually do.
As a general rule, we tend to be pretty negative about ourselves and will think that people will like us a lot less than we actually do. Studies show that those who think more negatively or critically about themselves during a conversation are most likely to wrongly predict whether the other person actually liked them.
It's true. We are are own worst critics.
Start benefitting from social interaction today
Of course, in times of Covid-19, it's not going to be possible to strike up a conversation with the person sat next to you on the bus but it is possible to ask how someone's day is going as they're scanning your items in the supermarket or to get in touch with an old friend over social media or zoom to see how they're doing.
Start finding the evidence that contradicts your thought that people won't like you or that they won't be interested!
One thing I really appreciate about the 'Happiness Half Hour' podcast is that the presenters set a challenge or task each week based on the topic. So for this episode, the task to improve your social interactions was to reach out to an old friend.
So I want to invite you to do this too. Who can you reach out to this week who maybe, you haven't spoken to in a while?
I don't know about you but understanding this has changed my perspective on how I interact with others and has given me a little more confidence to do it! I also hope you found it as reassuring as I did - people like you more than you think!
I hope this gives you another tool to add to your self-care toolbox and that it also supports you in passing on happiness through the conversations you're going to have!
Wishing you lots of happy conversations!
Amy is a UK Tarot reader and trainee counsellor. She is passionate about mental health, emotional support and living in a way that’s authentic and sustainable. She combines alternative tools like Tarot with tried and tested, evidence based strategies to give people effective self-help and personal development tools. Amy wants to support others in empowering them to take control of their mental and emotional health so they can be the experts on themselves!
The surprising benefits of talking to strangers
By Nicholas Epley & Juliana Schroeder
Campaign to end loneliness