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Abbot Peter NovokoskyReach out to strangers

One of the themes of Pope Francis pontificate is his emphasis to reach out to people on the peripheries. He encourages bishops, pastors and ordinary parishioners alike to reach out to those on the peripheries of church and society, because that’s the model God sets for us. Though we were estranged from him, God continued to be faithful and sent his Son to die for us.

We are to follow God’s example of not excluding anyone as an outcast or beyond our hospitality. This is central to the new evangelization Pope Francis wants all of us to adopt.

It seems there’s another advantage to reaching out to strangers — beyond that of making them feel welcome. According to studies in the behaviourial sciences, when we interact with strangers we become happier ourselves. 

This finding goes against conventional intuition, whereby people want to protect their private space and allow others their own space. Most people prefer not to break through this personal bubble.

A recent study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business looked at the emotional impact of talking to strangers while commuting. They recruited commuters on subways and buses in Chicago. Then the participants were split into two groups. One half was instructed to commute as usual, complete with earbuds and smartphones. The other half, in return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, was instructed to chat with the person who sat down next to them.

“Everybody said, ‘That’s a terrible idea, I don’t want to do it, it’s going to be a disaster,’ ” said Harvard business professor Michael Norton who studies how people can make themselves happier. “But when (the researchers) called (the participants) later, people who did business as usual with their earbuds in and texting the entire time were not as happy as the people who forced themselves to chat with a stranger.”

By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a significantly more positive commute than those who had sat in solitude. Interestingly, those participants who did engage with strangers had predicted precisely the opposite experience. This demonstrates a widespread misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of even casual social engagement with strangers.

In addition, the stranger sitting next to them was much happier as well after their conversation.

“Humans are social animals,” says Juliana Schroeder, coauthor of the University of Chicago paper. “(R)esearch shows, again and again, that connecting socially with others makes people happier and even healthier.”

In another set of experiments, the Chicago team found that people often misinterpret other peoples’ silence. “It turns out that people are interested in talking to others, but they interpret other people’s behaviour (that is, not talking) as evidence that they don’t want to talk,” says Schroeder.

In other words, people across from you on the train aren’t silent because they don’t want to talk — they are silent because they take your silence as a cue that you don’t want to talk. 

The researchers’ advice is to start a conversation with that person on his iPhone across the aisle. He may be just as eager for some human contact as you.

That may be the motive as well for Pope Francis’ advice to reach out to those on the peripheries. They may be just as eager for some human (church) contact as you. And you’ll both be happier.