Recently I was reviewing the daily listings I had recorded in my gratitude journal during January, and I noticed something I didn’t expect to see. Nearly every day my list of three or four “gratitudes” included at least one interaction with another person:
Catching up with Summer over coffee.
Stopping on the bike path to pet Kona and chat with Mary Jo.
A friendly conversation with the Hobby Lobby cashier.
Laughing with friends at Trivia Night.
Reconnecting with Kelli.
Chatting about the cold snap with the guy at the birdseed store.
I was surprised. The truth is, I’m not the most social person you’ll ever meet. Given the choice between time spent with others and time spent alone, I’ll typically opt for solitude.
Yet in examining the pages of my journal, it was obvious that even the briefest interaction with another person, including a stranger, had been less an empty exchange of pleasantries and more a legitimate bright spot in my day. It was clear from the variety of people and the types of interactions that neither the topic nor the duration of the conversation were as important as the simple act of connecting with another human being.
That said, I was also a little dismayed. Was my life so dull, I wondered, that making small talk with a stranger was enough to qualify as an entry on my gratitude list?
Turns out, a growing body of research supports the notion that small talk benefits us more than we might think.
In a 2014 study published in the “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,” researchers revealed that daily interactions with casual acquaintances or even strangers contributed to day-to-day satisfaction and contentment. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, contends that people who reach out to strangers feel a significantly greater sense of belonging.
“It’s not that talking to the barista is better than talking to your husband,” said Dunn. “But interactions with more peripheral members of our social network actually matter for our well-being.”
Other social science researchers note that small talk with acquaintances and strangers increases our empathy, helps us find common ground and bonds us with others.
Examining my gratitude list for January reminded me that we need each other not only during difficult seasons, but also amid the ordinary comings and goings of our daily lives. We need to see others and to be seen. We need to be present to others and know that others are present with us. We need to listen to others and to be heard.
These simple interactions might seem trivial on the surface, but they are important because they remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves – individual threads woven together to create a vibrant tapestry.
Last week my neighbor, Marian, stopped by my house to drop off a book. We chatted for a few minutes in my living room, our conversation meandering from topic to topic: books we’d read recently, her future travel plans, my dog’s languid disposition and, of course, the weather. It wasn’t a long conversation – in fact, Marian didn’t even take off her coat as she perched on the edge of the wing chair – and yet, after she left, I felt an inexplicable lightness in both my body and my spirit. Later that night, before I clicked off the bedside lamp, I penned a few more entries into my gratitude journal. Sure enough, "Afternoon chat with Marian made the day’s list."