THE LOOP — Happy people talk to strangers on the train.
That's what University of Chicago researchers Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder found after conducting a series of social experiments aimed at figuring out why so many people — despite being the most social animals on the planet — will ignore each other at all costs.
"One of the most miserable things you can do to a person is put them in total isolation. And if that's true, then why do we ignore each other so much?" Epley said. "We were trying to understand that paradox."
Their research findings, "Mistakenly Seeking Solitude," published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology last month, studied the emotional reactions commuters on CTA buses and Metra trains, people taking cabs from Midway Airport and folks sitting in a crowded waiting room had when they chatted up complete strangers or isolated themselves from human interaction.
Before a single person talked to a stranger on a train, more than half of them said they believed they would have a negative experience trying to engage with the guy sitting next to them on the train — and all of those doubters were wrong.
"The reason people predicted it would be unpleasant to talk to strangers when they hadn't tried it before is that they thought other people don't want to talk to them or they won't talk to them," Epley said.
"Not a single person who said they tried to talk to someone said the other person didn't respond. Not one. Everybody will talk to you once you try, and if you engage them, even just a little bit, they will engage you back."
And people who talked to a stranger as part of the study reported they generally had a happier experience.
"These kinds of interactions don't make radical lasting changes in life all the time," Epley said.
"But evidence shows that in moment-to-moment changes [in emotions] talking to strangers makes people happier. What I know is that dull and unpleasant situations like riding a train or a bus or in a cab can be made better. And the solution is right next to you."
What the study didn't take into account is whether the stranger you're talking was also happy that you started yapping in her ear.
So I set out to conduct an unscientific study of my own at a bus stop, in a cab and on the CTA Purple Line train to find out if talking to me makes strangers happy.
As part of my experiment I predicted that about 75 percent of strangers would not be happy to have me sit next to them, look them square in the eye and say, "Hi, I'm Mark."
At a Streeterville bus stop I offered a pleasant greeting and introduced myself to Vivian Hughes.
"Hi, I'm Mark," I said, going on to explain about the study about talking to strangers on public transit and then asking, "Does it makes you happy when a stranger talks to you?
"Depends on the stranger," she said. "And what they want to talk about."
Then she laughed, happily, and climbed on the bus.
I walked a block and flagged down a cab.
"Hi, I'm Mark," I said.
Syed Imtias told me that it makes him happy to talk to the strangers who climb in his cab, even reporters who ask too many questions. A lot of times he's like their therapist and he doesn't mind one bit.
"So many people are depressed or frustrated. They talk to release something that's got hold of their heart and mind. So I give them company," he said. "Some people who don't talk to me, talk to themselves."
We had a good laugh about that.
Then, Syed dropped me off at the Merchandise Mart, where I jumped on a Purple Line train and sat next to two young ladies I was almost positive would not be happy to talk to this stranger.
"Hi, I'm Mark," I said, smiling through a long, rather awkward silence.
"Hi?" Amanda Chedin said, almost reluctantly.
Her pal, Katie Farrington of Lake View, couldn't help but laugh.
We chatted a bit. Katie and Amanda, who is visiting from Boston, were on their way to hang out at Millennium Park. Katie's said she's the kind of happy gal who talks to strangers on trains.
"When you're sitting next to someone for 45 minutes on a commute it just makes it not as awkward if you can relate to the person and find a commonality," she said. "And yeah, it makes me happy. I'm a happy person."
And when I got off the L, I was happy, too.
As things turn out our city is filled with happy people.
They're called strangers.
So if you wanna get happy, chat one up.
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