After a week focused on health and wellness, the coming one will see the University of Chicago Booth School of Business host its annual “Navigating the grey” series. In this context, professor of behavioral science Nicholas Epley set for himself the task of convincing Booth students that they should seek happiness in social connections rather than by more self-centered means.
During his talk, Professor Epley made the point that humans, often, underestimate the power and effect of social connections on their mental and physical health. As a result, and Booth students are no exception to this, they tend to avoid creating new connections unless necessary. We have all experienced long elevator or train rides where people stick their nose in their phone or newspaper in an attempt to ignore other people. We also generally avoid creating connections with the poor fellow in the middle seat on a long flight. Is this the best course of action?
In the purest Booth tradition, Professor Epley presented several scientific experiments that supported the idea that we are biased against creating other connections. As a result, while it is excessive and unnecessary to try to connect with every new person ones meet, it is also a pity and a waste when we never do so with anyone. In an attempt to avoid awkward conversations, we end up being less happy and fulfilled than we could easily be.
This brings us to professor Epley’s second point, which is that awkwardness and shallowness are not inherent in conversations with strangers, but rather in our way of conducting them. We tend to avoid meaningful subjects when meeting new people and prefer to stick to superficial subjects. We prefer to talk about class schedule rather than happiness, of job search rather than family and successes rather than failures. We have programmed ourselves to avoid appearing vulnerable, especially in our first interactions with strangers. We overestimate how much people are going to judge us when we put ourselves out there and expose our vulnerabilities. Research seems to suggest that, contrary to our beliefs, people generally tend to feel entrusted with that new connection and reciprocate in kind. This results in more meaningful and less awkward interactions.
While we can certainly discuss the magnitude and extent of this phenomenon, the fundamental idea behind it appears powerful and credible. Given that meaningful social connections or the lack thereof can have such a disproportionate impact on our welfare and wellbeing, it is certainly worth giving a try to the latest findings of behavioral sciences.
Ziad Abouchadi is second year student and soon to be ex Chibus opinion editor.