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Minimal Social Interactions with Strangers Predict Greater Subjective Well-Being

Abstract

Past empirical work has repeatedly revealed that positive social interactions including expressing gratitude and socializing are associated with greater happiness. However, this work predominantly focused on prolonged interactions with close relationship partners. Only a few studies demonstrated hedonic benefits of forming social connections with strangers. The present research investigated whether minimal social interactions with strangers—just taking a moment to greet, thank, and express good wishes to strangers—contribute to happiness of individuals who initiate these interactions. Study 1 (N = 856) provided correlational evidence that commuters who reported engaging in minimal positive social interactions with shuttle drivers experienced greater subjective well-being (life satisfaction and positive affect). Moreover, hedonic benefits of positive social interactions went beyond relatively more neutral social interactions, Big-Five personality factors, and age, speaking to the robustness of the effect. Study 2 (N = 265) provided experimental evidence that commuters who greeted, thanked, or expressed good wishes to shuttle drivers experienced greater momentary positive affect than those who did not speak with drivers. These findings add to the burgeoning literature on hedonic benefits of interacting with strangers by showing that even very minimal social interactions with strangers contribute to subjective well-being in everyday life.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    There were two participants who were big outliers on age (20 and 10 SD above the mean). When we excluded these outliers from the data analytic sample, frequency of positive social interactions still significantly and positively predicted subjective well-being, (B = 0.101, SE = .020, p < 0.001, 95% CI [0.061, 0.140]). This effect held when we included frequency of neutral social interactions (B = 0.101, SE = .020 p < 0.001, 95% CI [0.061, 0.141]), personality factors (B = 0.044, SE = .018, p < 0.016, 95% CI [0.008, 0.080]), and all covariates (age, gender, commuting frequency, and all five personality factors; B = 0.047, SE = .018 p = 0.01, 95% CI [0.011, 0.083] as additional predictors.

  2. 2.

    When we included all covariates (gender, age, commuting frequency, and all five personality factors) in our analyses, positive social interactions with shuttle drivers again significantly and positively predicted the subjective well-being composite, B = 0.044, SE = .018, p = 0.016, 95% CI [0.008, 0.080] and its components (life satisfaction B = 0.050, SE = .023, p = 0.028, 95% CI [0.005, 0.095]; positive affect B = 0.038, SE = .019, p = 0.047, 95% CI [0.001, 0.075]).

  3. 3.

    To keep research assistants blind to condition assignments, envelopes containing instructions sheets were given to research assistants in a larger, numbered envelope that did not reveal condition assignments for the commute. An excel sheet was used to randomly assign participants to conditions and to keep a record of condition assignments for commutes (i.e., to track which number corresponded to which condition). After data collection was completed, the information in the excel sheet was checked against instructions sheets collected from participants following completion of the second survey. For one commute (including six participants), condition assignments indicated in the excel sheet and those indicated in collected instructions sheets did not match due to experimenter error, so the excel sheet was updated to reflect actual condition assignments of these participants. The information in the updated excel sheet about condition assignment was then combined with participants’ data. When we kept the initial condition assignments of these six participants, the main findings still remained the same. Specifically, commuters who engaged in minimal social interactions with the driver (vs. not) experienced greater positive affect following the commute, both with (F(1, 262) = 18.449, p < .001, η 2p  = 066) and without (F(1, 263) = 10.278, p = .002, η 2p  = 038) baseline positive affect as a covariate.

  4. 4.

    We also conducted linear mixed models in SPSS to predict momentary positive affect from condition. Given that there was no significant evidence that the level-2 intercept varied randomly we used a fixed intercept in these analyses. Results showed that commuters who engaged in minimal social interactions with the driver (vs. not) experienced greater positive affect following the commute, both with (B = .313, SE = .077, p < .001, 95% CI [0.161, 0.466]) and without (B = .397, SE = .150, p = .009, 95% CI [0.101, 0.693]) baseline positive affect as a covariate.

  5. 5.

    The survey also included a question to assess physical fatigue (“How fatigued or refreshed are you feeling right now?”, 1 = Very fatigued, 7 = Very refreshed). For exploratory purposes, we examined whether positive social interactions even helped overcome physical fatigue. Results showed that participants in the positive social interaction (vs. control) condition experienced lower fatigue when we adjusted for baseline fatigue, F(1, 262) = 7.507, p = .007, η 2p  = 028, but not when we excluded baseline fatigue from the analysis, F(1, 263) = .304, p = .582, η 2p  = 001. Moreover, the difference across conditions in post-commute positive affect remained significant when we included baseline fatigue as an additional covariate, F(1, 261) = 17.272, p < .001, η 2p  = 062.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Emre Selcuk for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Gul Gunaydin.

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Data collection was approved by the Bilkent University Ethics Committee for Research Involving Human Subjects.

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In Study 1, participants read an online consent form and clicked on a button to indicate their agreement to participate. In Study 2, participants indicated their consent by reading and signing a written consent form. During the consent procedure, participants were assured that participation was voluntary and that the information they provide would be kept confidential.

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Gunaydin, G., Oztekin, H., Karabulut, D.H. et al. Minimal Social Interactions with Strangers Predict Greater Subjective Well-Being. J Happiness Stud 22, 1839–1853 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00298-6

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Keywords

  • Minimal social interactions
  • Subjective well-being
  • Positive affect
  • Life satisfaction
  • Gratitude expression