Earlier this week I took the train from Boston to New York City.
When I walked on to the platform at the station, I noticed a little boy – probably around six or seven years old – standing there, next to his father. They didn’t have any luggage with them, and after a few minutes, I realized that they weren't going anywhere. They were simply watching trains come and go.
“Are you taking the Acela to New York?” the father asked me.
“I am,” I said, seeing a huge smile spread across the boy’s face.
“See, she is going to take one of those fast trains to New York!” his father told him, as the boy looked at me with admiration.
“Do you like trains?” I asked him.
“Oh, I love trains! I watch all these train videos on YouTube and I wanted to come here because there are many kinds of trains passing through this station,” he told me, literally jumping up and down.
“Are the tickets for Acela really expensive?” the father asked.
“They aren’t cheap, but if you buy in advance and go during the day, rather than in the morning, you can get a better deal,” I told him.
“One day I’m going to take you on the Acela!” the father told the boy excitedly, and I swear, the boy’s face became brighter than the sun.
“Ma’am, here it is, here comes your train!” he screamed suddenly, pointing far in the distance on the tracks. “Did you know that it can go up to 150 miles an hour!?”
My train arrived just a few minutes later. I said goodbye to the boy and his father and got on.
I sat down in my seat but I didn't want to take out my laptop or check my email. I didn't want to read my book. I just wanted to sit there and savor every moment of this train ride. The excitement the little boy felt about trains jumped right into me and I was filled with this deeply warm sense of appreciation for being able to take the fast train, for sitting in this comfortable seat, looking out the window at beautiful landscapes, and traveling 150 miles an hour to New York City.
I've taken the train for meetings in New York many, many times. But this was the first time I truly savored it.
The gentleman sitting next to me got up about an hour into our ride and I realized that I knew who he was. His name was Dan Lyons and a few weeks back I’d heard an interview with him on Fresh Air. He had recently written a book about working in a tech startup as a 50 year-old and I liked his sense of humor when I heard the podcast. (It's called Disrupted if you want to check it out.)
I didn’t say anything for most of the trip, but about 10 minutes before we pulled into Penn Station I turned to him and asked if he was, in fact, Dan Lyons.
“I am…,” he said, a bit surprised.
“I heard your interview on Fresh Air,” I told him quickly, so he wouldn’t think I was some weird stalker, “and I really liked it.”
“Well, thanks!” he said.
It took just a few seconds for us to find some common ground –- same people we knew at the startup where he worked, his wife speaking some Russian, his kids going to some of the same activities as my daughter and my friends’ kids who live near us in Boston. We also talked about my upcoming book and decided to grab coffee to compare author notes.
Talking to a little boy and his father on the train platform or the passenger next to me on the train is no big deal. Except it was a big deal, a huge deal, for me.
Because you see, I never used to talk to strangers.
It’s not that I was a mean curmudgeon; I’m pretty friendly, actually.
But for most of my life I subscribed to the “live efficiently” strategy when it came to dealing with people I didn’t’ know: I would never be rude, but unless it was necessary, I wouldn’t strike up conversations with them.
I just didn’t see the point.
I would never see these people again – people sitting next to me on planes or trains, people at rental car agencies or coffee shops, fellow shoppers at grocery stores or fellow diners in restaurants – so what was the point of talking to them?
I sort of cringe when I read what I just wrote.
For one, it’s hard to believe I was that person. (Every time my husband sees me initiate a conversation with someone I don’t know, he still says “Wow, you never used to do that!”)
But mostly, I regret living that way.
I missed so many moments of beauty, kindness, and just simple human connection with my laser focus on moving through life more efficiently. Now, these tiny interactions make up so much of the fabric of my days, which are brighter, more alive, and yes, happier because of them.
There’s a ton of research to back up the idea that small positive interactions with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers have a huge impact on our overall well-being.
In one study, researchers asked one set of commuters to have a short conversation with someone on their commute, while the other set didn’t talk to anyone. Those who interacted with fellow commuters reported having a more positive commute experience.
Another study asked some people to have a genuine interaction with a cashier at the coffee shop while others were told to be as efficient as possible. Those who lingered reported feeling more cheerful.
Research shows that tiny positive interactions we have with colleagues at work significantly improve how satisfied we are with our jobs. And by tiny I mean tiny: Pausing to say hello or simply smiling at someone as you pass them in the hallway.
In fact, research has found that small positive interactions we have with strangers have the same degree of impact on our happiness as those we have with friends or family.
I’m living and breathing this truth and I only wish it didn’t take me most of my life to realize it.
No amount of efficiency or busyness or the seclusion that our phones offer us can remove one of our absolute basic human needs: To connect to other humans, to feel acknowledged by them, to feel like we’re part of something bigger than just ourselves.
The amazing thing is that it takes so very little to fulfill this need. So little, in fact, that I think often we forget to do it -- for ourselves and people we interact with.
But it’s worth it, oh so worth it.
I write this as I sit on the train, on my way back from New York to Boston.
I’m still smiling thinking about the little boy and his excitement about trains.
I’m looking forward to catching up with a fellow author next week.
And I’m not-so-secretly hoping that reading this might inspire tiny positive human connections on many other train, subway, plane, boat, car rides and commutes.
Efficiency can chill out and take a back seat for a while. Don't you think?