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Talk to a friendly stranger. You’ll feel a lot better after

Researchers have found that conversations with strangers are more enjoyable than we think they will be, and create a greater sense of connection

Close friendships are good for our health. But what if you don’t have close friendships?

In that case, make time for what one researcher calls “weak” social links. They too can be beneficial – maybe more so than we generally realise.

Weak social ties means interactions with people in shops, stores, other services, people living on your road, or people at work.

Researcher Gillian Sandstrom PhD, quoted in the Monitor on Psychology, found that casual, friendly exchanges with a hotdog stand operator in Toronto helped her feel connected and grounded while she was there doing a master’s degree.


The experience prompted her to look more closely at weak social ties and what they do for us. The more of these weak interactions we have, she found, the happier we are, compared to those who have fewer. On days when we have more than our average number of these interactions, our happiness rises further.

Other researchers have found that regular interactions with acquaintances such as a local coffee barista and make us happier. If you don’t have a barista handy, your convenience store will do, I guess.

All of this suggests that we need to place a value on casual interactions and not dismiss them just because they aren’t serious relationships.

Sandstrom even suggests and encourages talking to strangers. This is an art at which I must admit I am pretty poor, tending to retreat politely into my shell when interrupted by people I don’t know. However, Sandstrom says: “We learn surprising things when we have unplanned encounters and conversations with people.”

Researchers at the University of Chicago say conversations with strangers are less awkward and more enjoyable than we think they will be beforehand, and create a greater sense of connection than we expect.

I’m still sort of in my shell on this one, I have to say. Still, I recall that small interactions standing in a queue on the stairs for a Ryanair flight recently lightened my mood, and I remember what was said.

Of course, what we value most of all are what we might call quality relationships. A long-term study of nearly half a million residents in the UK, reported in Heart journal in 2018, found loneliness increases the chances of heart attack, stroke and premature death. A separate analysis of research found that loneliness increases the risk of early death by as much as 26 per cent.

The fundamental message of all this research is that we need to value and cultivate friendships, acquaintanceships and other relationships because they can keep us well and alive

Research in the US suggests that the number of people without close friends is increasing. And no, it’s not all down to the pandemic, according to the Monitor on Psychology article. Social companionship and social engagement among friends, family and others have been falling steadily for two decades.

Some researchers blame “social disconnection” on smartphones and on social media. For instance, one international study found an increase in loneliness among second-level school students in the majority of countries surveyed.

When I walk past a group of students, all with their heads in their phones, it’s hard to disagree with this. And yet, it has always seemed to me that smartphones have also increased social interaction.

What’s going on often, after all, is communication with somebody else – though maybe the problem is that what’s going on isn’t always or even usually a real communication.

Still, it’s hard to deny that some sort of connection exists between a group of teenagers sitting together on their phones – they are, after all, sitting together.

The fundamental message of all this research, though, is that we need to value and cultivate friendships, acquaintanceships and other relationships because they can keep us well and alive. If we are lucky enough to be in close friendships, let’s remember what a difference they can make to our health and general wellbeing.

And next time you encounter a friendly face behind the counter in a store, a post person who chats, or a neighbour who remarks on the weather, give them the attention they deserve. That encounter is good for you too.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Acceptance – Create Change and Move Forward; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (