After seeing the results of a clever psychological study, I’m considering making a major change to my daily commute

Shana Lebowitz


As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I’m an expert at ignoring people.

Nowhere does that skill come in handier than on a crowded subway, where my limbs are often entangled with those of other riders, our faces close enough for me to smell the latte on their breath. The key, I’ve learned, is to pretend they don’t exist.

Seriously – don’t acknowledge the physical intimacy, don’t try to crack a joke about it, and definitely don’t use it as an opportunity to ask where they’re headed.

It’s a way for everyone to maintain their sanity and happiness until they de-board. Or is it?

I recently spoke with Nicholas Epley, a psychologist, professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and author of the 2014 book “Mindwise.” In the book, Epley highlights a study he conducted with Juliana Schroeder, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, which found that people are much happier on their commutes when they engage another passenger in conversation.

The study featured a series of experiments, which took place in Chicago trains, buses, and cabs. For the train experiment, researchers recruited about 90 passengers and told them them either to have a conversation with a new person on the train, keep to themselves, or do what they would normally do on their commute.

Everyone was asked to complete a survey about how happy and sad they felt after their commute, and how pleasant and productive their commute was compared to usual.

Results showed that passengers had a much more positive commute when they talked to a stranger than when they sat alone or did what they usually did. Perhaps surprisingly, those who talked to a stranger didn’t report being less productive than usual.

Here’s where things get really interesting.

In another experiment, researchers asked a different group of participants to predict how pleasant and productive their commute would be if they talked to someone, enjoyed their solitude, or went about their usual business. Those participants said they would have a much less positive and productive commute when they interacted with a stranger.

The results of another experiment shed some light on why people feel this way: They generally think that other passengers don’t want to talk to them.

starbucks customerMaking conversation with the barista could leave you happier.Alex Wong/Getty

Those last two findings don’t surprise me at all – I don’t think I’ve ever taken the initiative to strike up a conversation with a fellow commuter, at least partly because I assume I’d be bothering them. But if these study findings are any indication, I could be doing myself and them a favor.

This research doesn’t stand in isolation, either. A 2013 studyfound that customers at Starbucks who had a social interaction with the barista felt more positive than those who had a more efficient transaction. (That particular study didn’t measure how the baristas felt about the interactions.)

The big takeaway from these studies is that we aren’t always the best predictors of what will make us happy. As for me, I’m going to try (keyword: try) to overcome the feeling that other people aren’t interested in talking to me, and ask what they think about the sunshine, or compliment their swanky bag.

As long as I don’t comment on the fact that their armpit is currently resting on my ear, everything should be totally fine.

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