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Talking to strangers might make you happier, a study on 'relational diversity' finds

A recent study found that adding strangers to the mix of people we speak with might increase our happiness.
Gpointstudio/Getty Images/Image Source
A recent study found that adding strangers to the mix of people we speak with might increase our happiness.

Next time you consider striking up a conversation with a stranger in line at the grocery store or while waiting at the laundromat, keep in mind that it might be beneficial for your well-being.

A recent study by a group of researchers found that there is a link between happiness and a term that the researchers coined called "relational diversity."

Using public data from sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the World Health Organization, the researchers were able to analyze data sets and survey responses from people who had shared their daily habits, schedules and interactions. They noticed a clear relationship between relational diversity and overall levels of satisfaction.

Hanne Collins, a Harvard Business School doctoral student who co-authored the study, says that relational diversity is composed of two elements: richness and evenness.

Richness measures relationship categories, or how many kinds of people you interact with in a day. That could be your romantic partner, a family member, a neighbor or a stranger.

"The more relationship categories they talk to in a day and the more even their conversations are across those categories, the happier they are. And we find this in a large sample across many countries," Collins said.

Evenness relates to the distribution of conversations among those different relationship categories. Some people may find themselves interacting with colleagues at work more than, say, their family members.

"If you have a few conversations with colleagues, a few with friends, a few with a romantic partner or a couple chats with strangers, that's going to be more even across these categories," Collins explained.

Ultimately, Collins says, the study gives insight to the idea that humans are social creatures at heart. Having a support system is important, but it goes beyond your inner circle.

"It's about this mix. It's about connecting with people who are close to you, who are maybe less close to you, who connect you with other people, who provide different kinds of support," she said.

"Essentially, the idea is that the more diverse your social portfolio, the happier you are and the higher your well-being."

For New York City residents, the findings of the study ring true to their daily lives.

"One thing I love about living in our neighborhood is [that] you can go to a grocery store and have a conversation with someone, talk to someone at the coffee shop, on the sidewalk," said Ashley Bice, who lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint.

"I think especially after the few years that we've all been through, it's nice just to have interactions with people or to talk to someone in the park or meeting someone when you're walking your dog."

For Mike Jones, those interactions are like second nature.

"I go to the corner store, and I talk to somebody, and we'll be talking about basketball, talking about Bud, tequila, drinks. It don't even matter. We just spark a conversation," he said. "Then the next time I see them at a corner store, from there, we run into each other. It just goes from Point A to Point B, and you just end up chilling, you know, just vibing."

And what about Collins? Did her research impact her social habits?

"I'm definitely an introvert. I spend a lot of time with my cat. I joined an adult guitar class because I was, like, I'll see people. And I'll chat with them, and that will be nice. They don't have to be my best friends. But at least they're acquaintances, and they'll kind of add this diversity to my social life."

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.