Reach out to strangers for unexpected joy


“There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met.”

— William Butler Yeats


Lillian Lorraine Yonally put her best face forward. Her smile lit up the Home Front Café when we met this month in Altamont. She turned 92 on May 5 but spoke with a youthful vigor.

Later, we looked up pictures of her piloting a plane during World War II — the same smile radiated from the cockpit.

She was one of 1,074 women who made it through rigorous Air Force training to be a pilot so that male pilots could serve combat duty; 38 of the women died in service. At age 21, Yonally did not hesitate. She left behind everything she knew and answered the call.

We met in a third place, the way Ray Oldenburg describes it in his book The Great Good Place: not a home, which is the first place; not the second place, where many of us spend most of our waking hours, at work; but a third place, so important for a civil society.

Cindy Pollard’s café — inspired by her mother’s 1940s kitchen — accommodates the regulars and the newcomers; it becomes a home away from home where people can talk across tables and generations. Over the years, we’ve listened to conversations there where old soldiers have told children stories of war — of hardship and horror but also of survival and camaraderie.

Pollard greeted Yonally warmly as she is wont to do, treating her diners like guests in her home. She is someone who warmly hugs a stranger and whispers softly in her ear.

We are becoming a society where human interaction — especially among strangers — is becoming more rare. As we interviewed candidates for library trustee last week, we heard, again and again, that the library is important in the age of the Internet because it is a meeting place for the community, a place where people can come together. A third place. While we expected to hear about the need for more computers or electronic books, we, instead, heard about the need for person-to-person connection in our hurry-up, insular modern world.

Just how essential is human interaction to our well-being?

The question led us to do some research. We began with studies cited by Elizabeth W. Dunn and Michael Norton in a recent New York Times opinion piece.  “Rather than fall back on our erroneous belief in the pleasures of solitude, we could reach out to other people,” they wrote. “At least, when we walk down the street, we can refuse to accept a world where people look at one another as though through air. When we talk to strangers, we stand to gain much more than the ‘me time’ we might lose.”

“Psychologists have found consistently that connecting with others is the most important determinant of happiness,” states Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. He wrote for the Chicago Tribune about studies he had done in light of surveys that found commuters wanted “quiet cars” on trains.

Epley did experiments where Chicagoans were asked to predict how much they would enjoy different kinds of commutes. They predicted they would find a commute where they sat alone more pleasant than one where they were asked to strike up a conversation with another passenger.

In his experiment, Epley asked one group to refrain from speaking to other commuters and enjoy their solitude. Those in a second group were asked to talk to another passenger. And those in a third group got no instructions.

The results were the same among introverts and extroverts alike: The commuters who conversed with other passengers reported having the most pleasant commute. They weren’t snubbed, and those they talked to seemed to enjoy it, too. The commuters who had been asked to enjoy their solitude reported the least pleasant commute.

Most social psychology studies have centered on interactions with close friends and family. But studies by Dunn and Gillian M. Sandstrom, at the University of British Columbia, show that interactions with weak social ties — that is, acquaintances — contribute to well-being.

Students carried clickers all day long to tally their interactions with people close to them, known as strong ties, and with weak ties. Introverts and extroverts both felt happier on days with more social interactions, and interactions with weak ties correlated as highly with happiness as interactions with strong ties.

Dunn and Sandstrom also did a study that showed treating strangers like acquaintances makes us happier. Customers who smiled, made eye contact, and had a brief conversation with a barista when they bought a cup of coffee were happier than those who did not.

In another study, at the University of Pennsylvania, Cassie Mogliner, Zoe Chance, and Michael I. Norton, conducted four experiments that revealed “a counterintuitive solution to the common problem of feeling that one does not have enough time: Give some of it away.”

They found that, although the objective amount of time people have — 24 hours in a day — cannot be increased, people’s subjective sense of “time affluence” can be. The researchers compared spending time on other people with wasting time, spending time on oneself, and even gaining a windfall of “free” time; they found spending time on others increases one’s feelings of time affluence, driven by a boosted sense of self-efficacy.

Finally, a paper published by Dunn and her colleagues in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Misunderstanding the Affective Consequences of Everyday Social Interactions: The Hidden Benefits of Putting One’s Best Face Forward,” documents how meeting strangers can lift our mood.

“Would you rather spend the next few minutes having a casual interaction with your romantic partner or having your personality evaluated by a stranger?” the authors ask at the start of their paper. “Which interaction would make you feel better?”

Most people assume the first would because, the authors write, they underestimate “the positive affective consequences of self-presentation.”

“The great thing about strangers is that we tend to put on our happy face when we meet them, reserving our crankier side for the people we know and love,” as Dunn and Norton put it so well in their opinion piece. What the research shows, and what most people are blind to, is putting that best face forward actually lifts our mood and makes us feel better — and the stranger, too.

“Simply contracting facial muscles into a smile can facilitate corresponding emotional experience,” say the authors, citing copious research.

That brings us back to Lillian Lorraine Yonally and her contagious smile as she ordered Lunch at the Waldorf in the Home Front Café. The lunch date was set up by Judy Slack, an Altamont resident who reaches out to strangers. She met Yonally as they were seatmates on a recent commercial flight.

The two women with ready smiles did not sit side-by-side in silent bubbles; they talked. The strangers became friends.

That’s a model more of us should follow.

While at the café, Yonally commented on a large painting by Helderberg artist John Williams. Williams, who writes our weekly Old Men of the Mountain column, knows well the value of human interaction and records it every week as old timers in the Hilltowns gather each Tuesday for breakfast at a third place — sometimes the Home Front Café.

His café painting is of a World War II fighter plane, a Bell-69 Airacobra, being serviced by mechanics. Williams told us he was inspired to paint the scene when he saw it in the background of a larger picture in a flight magazine.

“It was about the size of two postage stamps,” he said. But it struck Williams that the mechanics’ work was essential to the safety of the pilot while, in turn, the pilot put his life on the line to protect the mechanics and their families.

“It’s about everybody being dependent on everybody else,” said Williams of the painting.

Not a bad vision for life.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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