Smiling at Strangers Can Make You Happier, According to Science

Research shows there’s power in a meaningful connection — even if it’s a quick “good morning” to your local barista.

monkeybusinessimages/ Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/ Getty Images

Growing up, I loved going grocery shopping with my mom. It was one of my favorite activities — not only because I got to push the cart through the aisles, or find the Fruity Pebbles box with a prize inside — but because when we got to checkout, my mom always made a point to befriend the person behind the cash register. Their smiles, hellos, and casual small talk was brief, but those consistent friendly exchanges have stayed with me I’ve gotten older.

“The sociologist Mark Granovetter calls these low-stakes relationships ‘weak ties,’” writes Allie Volpe, in a new piece published in the New York Times. “[They] can have a positive impact on our well-being by helping us feel more connected to other social groups… and empower us to be more empathetic. We’re likely to feel less lonely, too.”

Volpe says she’s cultivated her own “low-stakes relationships” in different areas of her life, and explains that there’s science behind the joy we find in these small, nothing-to-lose connections. “A 2014 study found that the more weak ties a person has (think: neighbors, a barista at the neighborhood coffee shop, or fellow members in a spin class), the happier they feel,” she explains. “Cultivating low-stakes relationships can pay dividends.” I’ve certainly experienced that myself, and you can, too.

If the idea of approaching an unfamiliar face feels overwhelming, here are a few simple ways to cultivate those “weak ties” that actually reap incredibly strong benefits:

Ask a stranger how their day is going

Smiling at someone behind you in line can hold more power than you might think, and studies show that fostering small communities in your life can help improve your happiness and overall well-being. The next time you’re riding an elevator, ask the person next to you how their day is going, or simply start with a friendly “good morning” nod. The small gesture only takes a second, and you’ll both appreciate the quick moment of connection.

Recommend a book to a co-worker

Finding common ground with someone you typically see in a professional setting can allow you to connect in a different capacity, and research suggests it can even help you develop a better working relationship with them. If you think you don’t have much in common with your colleagues at work, try recommending a new novel, or a movie you saw recently. That one shared interest can lead to more conversations going forward, and might even extend to friendships with others around the office.

Rethink a typical conversation with a familiar face

If the idea of approaching an entirely new person is daunting to you, then don’t, Volpe says. Make it easier on yourself. “Give yourself permission to talk to familiar faces,” she urges — but try to ask a question you normally wouldn’t ask them. By conversing with someone about a topic you wouldn’t typically discuss, you can learn more about one another, and even surprise yourself about the new bond you’re able to develop with someone you already know. “By altering your expectations around the level of enjoyment these conversations provide, you’re more likely to engage in the first place,” Volpe explains.

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