How I discovered the stranger I was talking to worked where I once did, and why I started talking to him in the first place.

I’ve been listening to a fascinating podcast called The Happiness Lab by Dr. Laurie Santos. She is a professor of Psychology at Yale University and a great story teller. Based on scientific findings, her show focuses on some of the more surprising and counter intuitive facts about happiness. We may think we know what will make us happy, but we are often wrong.

For example, one of my favorite episodes is called “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude.” The common belief that we will be happier if we don’t interact with strangers isn’t true. Dr. Santos explains that even introverts are happier if they talk with people while waiting in line or riding the bus. Most people believe the opposite is true, which is why a commuter train full of people is so quiet.

Warren Lake, Colorado. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

As a serious introvert, I was skeptical. I’m uncomfortable in social situations with strangers, but after listening to this episode, I promised myself I would be friendlier in general, and try to talk to people when I got the chance. The chance came sooner than I expected and proved Santos right in a surprising way.

Dory and I went for a walk by the lake Thursday afternoon. I took my binoculars along so I could count the birds I saw for an eBird report. As we were heading home, I could see a man approaching. He had binoculars around his neck, and I told myself I would talk to him if I could.

He broke the ice with the number one question birders ask each other: “Have you seen anything interesting?” I told him about the bald eagles and red-tailed hawk farther down the shore. He wondered if eagles might start nesting at our lake and we talked about how keeping the ice open all winter had made a big change in the numbers and types of birds we saw.

A few of the bald eagles that have been hanging around this winter. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

While he knew about the area, he admitted he wasn’t a local, just a regular visitor. Since he was clearly a serious birder, I mentioned the flock of cackling geese I’d seen on the lake the day before. (Most non-birders have never even heard of cackling geese.)

“I recorded a flock of about 200 cackling geese here one time,” he said, pointing to the water by the dam. “They were bathing so there were splashing noises as well as calls.”

A flock of cackling geese (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Kurt and I are both interested in natural sounds and hoping to get into recording for fun and I said as much. Then I explained that we had both worked at the Lab of O in the past.

He looked surprised, then said, “I did some work for the Lab. Recordings for Bird Songs of the Rocky Mountain States and Provinces.”

I was both stunned and excited. Some of my favorite people at the lab were the members of the Macaulay Library. We introduced ourselves, and I made an effort to remember his name (Bob Righter) and the name of the CD. We talked some more about the birds at Warren Lake. We parted ways with the hopes we might run into one another again some time.

For the rest of my walk, I was smiling, so happy to have met him. Once home, I was able to look up the CDs he’d helped with and verify the spelling of his name. It’s silly how happy this little moment made me. I can’t stop thinking about it.

My encounter with Bob really proved the point Santos makes in her podcast. Connecting with a stranger made me really happy. It’s a joy I am still feeling days later.

I have wondered if it was because of his being a celebrity in my eyes that made our little talk special, but I don’t think that’s it. Really, it was meeting someone else who had worked at the Lab, and talking to someone who loved birds. We were sharing stories that the other could appreciate, building on the “it’s a small world” moment the Lab of O connection gave us.

The “it’s a small world” feeling is pretty easy to get no matter who you to talk to. You can always find something in common. You’ve lived in the same state or even town at some point, or gone to the same school, or done the same kind of work, or enjoy the same hobby. These connections are all around us, just waiting to be made. Once they are, you have common ground that makes it possible to have an enjoyable chat.

So my new advice counters what we were told to kids. Talk to strangers. You might be surprised who you meet and what you learn. Best of all, it will make you happier.

Do you go out of your way to talk to people or to avoid them? Have you had a surprising encounter because you bothered to say more than hello to a passerby?

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