PRACTICE HAPPINESS, commanded the sign on the parking-garage stairwell in Arlington, Virginia.

The friend of ours who encountered it was stopped in her tracks, suddenly awash in speculation about what it is that makes her happy. Once she’d told us about the sign’s effect on her, we, too, found ourselves paying attention to input from the universe on the subject.

We were thus primed to notice, and enjoy, this unlikely—but scientifically validated—happiness tip heard on National Public Radio.

Say you’re on a commuter train. You could talk to the stranger beside you or you could haul out your smartphone to signal “Do not bother me.” Which is more likely to make you feel better?

Of course (or it wouldn’t be a Talk Topic) it’s the counterintuitive choice: Chat up the stranger.

On NPR early this month, science correspondent Shankar Vedantam spotlighted an experiment in Chicago that randomly assigned train and bus riders to either talk to the stranger next to them or commute quietly. The result? “Even for introverts, silence leaves you sadder.”

Psychologist Nick Epley, of the University of Chicago business school, co-conducted the study. It showed, he told NPR, that “people were significantly happier when they talked to the person sitting next to them than when they sat there in solitude. . . . So many of us think that strangers will bore us or bother us, when in fact we are deeply social animals. And these social connections seem to press buttons inside our heads that make us happier.”

The usual silence between strangers, it seems, stems from humility; commuters told Epley that they were willing to talk, but they assumed that the person sitting next to them wouldn’t want to.

Epley has adopted a radical intimidation-reducer: he gave away his smartphone!

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