Always Talk to Strangers

“Oh, I wish I could dance! Will you teach me?”

“No. I’m a professional dancer, so that would just be too much for me.”

“I understand! Work-life balance. I just wanted to introduce myself because I heard it’s good for my health to know my neighbors.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, come in, then. I was going to go to the gym, but let’s just talk instead.”

“Perfect. We’ll both decrease our risk of future heart attacks.”

“Lovely.”

“My name is Adam, by the way.”

“I’m Evelyn. But my friends call me Eve. Nice to meet you, Adam.”

“Nice to meet you, Eve. Nice to finally meet you.”

Well, I don’t know if the Adam and Eve bit makes sense. What if it was John Lennon and Paul McCartney? No. Then we’re just dealing less with allegory and more with factual error. The point is, serendipity, talk to people.

Kim suggests that the cardiac prosperity he documented may come through people checking in on one another and noticing health problems, sharing health-related information, lending money and sharing resources, and “eyes on the street”—sociologist Jane Jacobs’ famous sociological principle that people protect people. "Since I'm a psychologist,” Kim said, “I also really believe in how helpful emotional support can be in buffering against the toxic effects of stress."

The field of psychology has since the beginning, primarily focused on dysfunction. Researchers who identify as positive psychologists like Kim—a set that broke ground with eminent University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman’s 2002 bestseller Authentic Happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment—look at benefits of things like optimism and a sense of purpose in life. Kim and colleagues have specifically looked at the effects of “positive” dispositions on health.

New Yorkers crowd onto 42nd St to see "Manhattanhenge," July 2014 (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

"We're finding things like that increased optimism is associated with reduced risk of heart failure and stroke,” Kim said.

"Is optimism something one can learn?" I asked, doubting that it was.

"Yeah, the great thing is there's already randomized control trials showing that optimism and life satisfaction can actually be reliably enhanced," Kim said.

"If we find enough of these correlational studies,” he continued, “maybe we can use the existing interventions and tailor them as health interventions. But that's kind of our five-year vision.”

It's difficult to build tight-knit communities, but it's less difficult to help people feel connected. A major point in this study is that it didn’t measure actual social cohesion, just the subjects' sense of it. The journal article concludes: "Higher perceived social cohesions may have a protective effect against myocardial infarction." Emphasis mine. Does it matter if you have something, or just that you believe you have it? Everyone will define and understand cohesion differently. What do you consider trustworthy? Friendly? Does helpful mean calling 9-1-1 if you believe your neighbor is being murdered, or do you have to bring them soup whenever they look sad?

In a scathing but very funny take on this line of research, writer Barbara Ehrenreich has called positive psychology “a crock.” Her 2010 book Bright-Sided: How positive thinking is undermining America makes a case that cultivating positive emotion actually just another Calvinist mechanization of happiness as a means to an end in a brutish world. Immersing ourselves in positive thoughts is akin to John Calvin’s notion that we should immerse ourselves in work. 

Seligman conceded in Authentic Happiness, "When an entire lifetime is taken up in the pursuit of positive emotions, however, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found." He distilled six virtues to which one might aspire: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence. Confusing on its face, he implored readers to "strive for more gratifications, while toning down the pursuit of pleasure." Ehrenriech called out Seligman for advocating “higher” forms of pleasure like "playing three sets of tennis, or participating in a clever conversation, or reading Richard Russo,” where things like watching sitcoms, masturbating, and inhaling perfume he deemed base "pleasures."

“This seems unnecessarily judgmental,” Ehrenreich notes in the book, “and not only because Richard Russo is not exactly Marcel Proust.” Sizzle.

“Courage, for example, could take one very far from the ‘positive emotions,’” she wrote, describing an interview with Seligman while were walking through the Monet gallery, “with their predicted positive effects on health and success, and into dangerous and painful situations, just as spirituality could lead to social withdrawal, fasting, and self-mortification. In fact, I blathered on, the conventional notion of ‘character’ seems to include the capacity for self-denial, even suffering, in pursuit of a higher goal.”

So, there's a lot that goes into cultivating positive emotion. Maybe Kim's five-year projection is optimistic, but we’ll see.

Recently a guy came to my apartment to change out the window air conditioner, which had become basically a heat circulator. And, making conversation, he was like, “Looks good in here.”

“Thank you.”

“The guy before you, he was stinking up the joint.”

Even knowing the one thing I knew about the previous tenant, I assumed the repairman was talking about me not letting the place smell bad. “Well, I try to keep it clean.”

“No,” he said. “He was dead.”

What is it with people wanting to tell me this? But it's good to know that even if Stephen hadn't told me, I would’ve found out anyway. And it may be good for my heart to have had some social connection with the neighborhood handyman. But still, neuralyzer.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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