STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many of us have some way to occupy ourselves on our commute. We may sip a cup of coffee in the drink holder. We may listen to the radio. If you ride the train to work, you have other options. You can sit in solitude reading, looking at your phone or you can talk to the person next to you. So which would make you happier? NPR's Shankar Vedantam joins us each week on this program. He's here with an answer. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what's the answer?
VEDANTAM: Well, the answer is not what I would have expected because when I ride the train to work every day, I ride in silence. And I catch up on the news and check my email. I spoke with psychologist Nick Epley who tells me I'm doing it all wrong because if I want to be happy, what I really should be doing is talking to my fellow commuters. Epley works at the University of Chicago business school, and along with Juliana Schroeder, he randomly assigned train and bus commuters in the Chicago area to either talk to the stranger sitting next to them or to commute in silence. Here's Epley.
NICK EPLEY: What we found was that people were significantly happier when they talked to the person sitting next to them than when they sat there in solitude. So it doesn't seem to be that talking to a stranger is unpleasant. In fact, in this situation, precisely the opposite on average is what happened.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Who knows who that stranger is? That could be a horrible conversation.
VEDANTAM: Well, that's what I would've thought. And in fact, that's what the volunteers expected as well. When Epley asked them before the commute, they mostly said they would be happier if they commuted in silence. This might not have been every single conversation, but on average people reported being happier when they talked. And it wasn't just the chatterboxes. It included people who were more introverted.
INSKEEP: So why are even introverts happier when talking with strangers?
VEDANTAM: Well, I have to say in defense of Epley, that there's a lot of research suggesting that social connections are important to our well-being and mental health. So men, for example, who lose their partners are more likely to die sooner than men who are in relationships, or patients suffering from serious mental disorders seem to fare better when they have rich social lives. And therapists and political scientists have been warning us for many years about the risk of bowling alone. So many of us think that strangers will bore us or bother us when in fact we are deeply social animals. And these social connections seem to press buttons inside our heads that make us happier.
INSKEEP: Maybe the key issue here is starting the conversation. Maybe that's the thing that makes us tense and not want to talk to the person next to us.
VEDANTAM: I think that's right, Steve. And in fact, Epley found that this was a big fear. Commuters told him that they in general were willing to talk, but they thought the person sitting next to them would not be willing to talk. Now, if most people are willing to talk, but everyone believes others are not willing to talk, no one will start a conversation. And this is what Epley thinks is happening. The challenge, in other words, is simply to get the conversation going because once the ice is broken, the rest turns out to be easy. Here's Epley again.
EPLEY: One way to think about it is it's like having a speed bump at the top of a hill. Engaging with somebody is a little like that. You've got to (grunts) get over that initial speed bump at the top, and then after that it seems to go pretty smoothly. But if you don't get over that first initial bump, you'll never get started.
INSKEEP: And that initial bump is modesty or humility. Who am I to ask a question of this person? They don't want to hear from me. That's what you're thinking, and so you don't talk at all. But this is an argument that, yeah, you can go ahead because the person might want to listen.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And Epley tells me he is so convinced by the findings that he's actually given away his smartphone because the moment someone pulls a smartphone out, it sends a signal that they want to be left alone. Now, I'd don't know what NPR listeners are going to do with this information, Steve. But one potential way they can break the ice in conversation is to turn to the persons sitting next to them and say, hey, I heard on NPR that talking to strangers makes you happier.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. If NPR's giving that advice, what happens when the conversation goes wrong?
VEDANTAM: I guess they will just have to turn on NPR and listen to us, Steve.
INSKEEP: Well, Shankar, I'm glad I started talking you. I was just going to leave you alone there in the studio.
VEDANTAM: I feel much happier already, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. Follow this program @MorningEdition and and @NPRinskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.