The best part of the dead spacey time between Christmas and new year is also often the most overlooked. For one week a year, or thereabouts, you’ll get to experience a rarity in London: strangers will say hello to you. More accurately, they’ll say happy Christmas or wish you a prosperous new year. Or if they can’t quite muster that level of frank Americana friendliness, they’ll at least offer a tight-mouthed smile of greeting as you pass by. Then, of course, January hits in earnest. The city, the country and the world are grey again and we all go back to resolutely ignoring one another. Is it any wonder we’re so miserable the other 51 weeks of the year?
This isn’t an anecdotal query: statistically speaking, we’re quite miserable. In fact, the Ipsos happiness index, released earlier this year, proves it. Research found that a third of Britons don’t feel optimistic about the future. Obviously, a lack of chats with strangers in the street isn’t the root cause of that unhappiness. It’s the bigger things through which we derive our wellbeing: our families have the biggest impact on how happy we feel (32 per cent) followed by our finances (27 per cent) and our romantic relationships (26 per cent). But these are big, complicated, thorny issues. We don’t ultimately have control over our relationships with others, and a spiralling cost of living crisis means financial stress is never far away – and not something we can undo ourselves either. The things we can control, the small acts we can do to make our lives better, are often the things we think of as trivial: the fleeting moments of human connection we can offer each other to make a bad day a little bit better.
Again, that’s not an anecdotal theory: it’s statistically true. Earlier this month, a group of researchers led by Dr Esra Ascigil found that it is momentary interactions, not huge gestures, which bring us the most happiness. Specifically, it was the small, throwaway interactions with strangers – like saying hello in the park, apologising when you bump into someone on the train, or thanking the person who makes your morning coffee – that were associated most closely with happiness. It was these seemingly insignificant acts that most increased people’s sense of belonging. “Having a sense of belonging involves feeling like you are accepted and valued by other people,” said Dr Ascigill when the study was published. “It is often considered a fundamental human need.” It’s worth noting that of the 60,000 adults the academics studied, 40,000 of them were British and living in London, the land – or in this case, the city – where people don’t say hi.
It’s not just a London problem, though – or even a British one. Across the world, we’re interacting with each other less and less, seeing one another and our social interactions as increasingly transactional. Think of all the times you’ve seen a viral tweet or a pissed-off TikTok from someone complaining about the ordeal of having to make small talk in the line for groceries or with the Uber driver taking you home from the bar at 3am. The fact that these posts are usually quickly (and correctly) derided for being snobby and anti-social doesn’t dissuade people from continuing to post them, again and again. And these are just the ones that appear online; you have to imagine there are still more people who have the good sense not to tweet about it but would baulk if a hairdresser dared to ask them where they were going on their holidays.
We’ve become a siloed, individualistic – not to mention increasingly classist – society, one in which we don’t have to talk to anyone who doesn’t benefit us outside of the service they are providing for money, Black Mirror style. And none of us are quite sure why that’s happened or what to do about it, if we can be bothered to fix it or if we even should fix it. It’s perhaps too easy to blame the pandemic – a missed opportunity to see ourselves as a collective that helps and protects one another. Instead, as lockdowns dragged on and vaccinations opened the world up in painfully slow increments, we began to resent others for the time we’d lost.
And technology, the thing that could have brought us together during the pandemic and outside it, is a double-sided coin, too. Although we’re more connected with our friends and loved ones than ever before, despite geographical distances, the way we talk on our phones has become increasingly cagey over the past year.
We live in an era of dating app screenshots and encrypted WhatsApps, where every new development – set to “read once", chat deletes after 24 hours, edit the message after it’s been sent – while intended to protect our privacy or allow us to communicate better, really only reveal how little we trust each other. We don’t send love letters any more – research from the Post Office earlier this year showed 50 per cent of Brits have never sent one – we just text. Earlier this month, reports heralded the sad death of the Christmas card; research by John Lewis found that most greetings will have been sent over WhatsApp this festive season.
Our politics and generational differences divide us, while an increasingly hostile economic environment has fostered a depressing atmosphere of every man or woman for themselves. Those divisions are beginning to translate into our everyday lives and weigh heavy on us. That’s why there’s always a report lurking around the corner about our supposed chronic loneliness: men are lonelier than ever, millennials are lonely, Zoomers are even worse. Elderly people are lonely, people living in rural areas are lonely, as are people in cities. Again, is it any wonder we’re so miserable?
The obvious riposte here is that it’s not the small things we do that make the world a less miserable place. It’s the big, structural things that make a difference: salaries, hostile environments, constant international crises, climate change, the ominous prospect that we don’t know whether we’ll be able to ever retire and whether there will even be a world to retire into. And that’s true, but again, those things are out of our control. We can only make small, individual changes that can cumulatively, hopefully, make up a slightly friendlier place. Speak to your Uber driver! Don’t post TikToks complaining about the barista asking how your day was! Smile apologetically at the person opposite you on the train when you bump knees! For the love of God, thank the bus driver!
It might seem gloomy – it is, to be fair, a particularly gloomy time of year – but we are not doomed. It’s a truism that you don’t know what other people are going through, and so you should be kind, but it’s also academically sound. I think of it more as akin to the Tumblr-friendly concept of “sonder”, a term that describes the reality that every human being, every random passerby, is living a life as complex and vivid as our own. Despite what the internet might tell us, we’re not the main character. We’re an ensemble cast.
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