I challenge you to become happier with the Small Talk Challenge.
I challenge you to become happier with the Small Talk Challenge.

I recently read an NPR article that said forcing yourself to engage in small talk with strangers leads to increased levels of happiness. As a lifelong disciple of the school of becoming happier, I had to give it a try.

Here's how I set the parameters for what I now call the Small Talk Challenge:

  1. Talk to at least one stranger a day for one week.
  2. Write down how it affects your overall happiness.
  3. Challenge someone else to talk to strangers, too.

That's it. That is the Small Talk Challenge. If you'd like to try it out, please do. Just let me know how it goes.

Here's how forcing myself to talk to strangers for a week went for me:


becoming happier at grocery store by talking to strangers

I am excited to see how talking to strangers affects my mood. I am a naturally shy person and dread talking to strangers. Small talk is one of my most frequent night terrors. So, I'm under no impression that this will be easy. In fact, I'd be surprised if trying to conquer my underlying dread of small talk will lead to anything other than increased levels of anxious sweating. But if becoming happier is even a remote possibility, I'm 100% in.

So, off we go.

I go to the grocery store with my toddler. Normally, I just keep my head down and focus on wrangling her. She's super into pushing her own cart, so it's not hard for me to avoid talking to strangers. Wrangling is a full time situation.

I make it through the entire food collecting process without a single moment of banter. In order to not fail before I even start, I get desperate and decide to talk to the cashier. She has cool looking tattoos. Could I open with that?

No, that's dumb.

Luckily, she opens the small talk door with, "I know how it is with kids."

Normally, I wouldn't have returned her volley, but I want to nail this challenge, so I say, "You have kids?"

Yes! I small talked!

She tells me she has three, and then I'm sincerely intrigued and genuinely want to know more.

We talk about the pros and cons of having multiples, and I leave the store feeling elated. Not because I did well with the Challenge (I did), but because I talked with a nice person about a common interest.

Suddenly, I feel a deep sense of existential dread about the possibility that I have missed out on almost four decades of similar experiences.

I put away the groceries.



Today starts with the playground. Usually, I just watch the toddler go down the slide over and over, but today I have small talking to do.

We're the first ones there. As usual. So for now I'm off the hook.

She goes down the slide eight times.

A kind looking couple walks in with twin toddlers.

This small talk practically scripts itself.

I confidently say, "Twins. I don't know how you do it."

Internally, I kick myself for saying such a stupid thing.

The stupid thing hangs in the air.

But then the husband says, "It's really tough."

It's happening! Becoming happier seems somehow possible now.

We talk about the challenges of raising kids and how you just figure it out.

Emboldened, I see another mom with three older children. I ask her about their ages.

She eventually tells me about how magical it is to see the relationships form between siblings.

This seems somehow profound. I don't know this woman, but she is handing out genuine truth bombs about something I actually care about.

I feel happy that I have received such a truth bomb.

Then the dread sinks back in. How many truth bombs have gone unlaunched because I was too afraid to talk to strangers?

The toddler goes down the slide 47 more times before we check out the adjacent petting zoo.


Have big plans to go the the local children's museum this afternoon, but the toddler wakes up cranky AF from a long nap, pushing our departure time close to the museum's closing time.

So we're back at the playground.

As soon as we get there, I see a mom and toddler that went to the same music class as us last year. You know, a colleague. But my mind starts playing tricks on me.

She's not wearing the same sort of clothes as last year. And her make-up is different, so I start convincing myself that she must be the mom's twin, the boy's aunt, so if I small talk her with something about the music class she will just look at me all confused and annoyed.

Plus, she's hanging with another mom, so it's tough for me to find an in.

I push my paranoia aside and encourage the toddler to play closer to the mom in question. Finally, I decide to just go for it and find my in.

I ask, "Are you still going to music class?"

Much to my relief, she is indeed the correct mom and not some evil, twin aunt. We chat about class and raising kids. I find out about her small business and how well it's going and am genuinely happy for her. Am I becoming happier already?

I leave the chat emboldened.

I have smaller small talks with more moms and start to realize that all my small talk involves how old children are and about the minutia of raising them.

My existential dread returns. But I do leave the playground feeling like I am becoming a happier person more generally.


I don't necessarily want to talk about it, but we're back at the exact same playground. What has my life become?

I look around and notice moms on phones and a mom sitting with a scowl on a bench and decide this will be a tough crowd for small talk, but I remain resolute.

I say something about how I like scowling mom's choice for her son's name. Yes, starting with a compliment to win over the tough crowd.

She smiles for a brief moment then goes back to scowling.

I say similarly banal things to another mom and dad about their kid. The conversation goes no where, but I still somehow feel more connected to all the people in the playground. I feel a sense of community where before there was none.

Then I have a revelation: it doesn't matter that I keep talking about the same senseless parent drivel. I am connecting with others, and it makes me feel a strange sense of belonging and interconnection.

My spirits are so lifted, I swing on the monkey bars and do some pull ups. Besides, these are my people at this playground. We are all one!

Then I crash. Not literally, but I do feel a bit alone again once the small talk dries up.

I find another mom to chat with. She has two very young babies. Again, we talk about the same mundanity, but the conversation has some legs. We eventually exchange names and say we hope we will see each other again.

This is the beginning of a relationship! One that wouldn't be possible without small talk!

I even offer to throw something away for the busy mom of two, saying that she has her hands full. I feel altruism, and I blame it all on the small talk.

Four days of small talk and I feel I'm truly becoming happier and more open to others. I'm looking at strangers as potential conversations instead of as threats or obstacles.


Back to the grocery store. Inconsequential chit chat with the cashier.

Similar, mindless blabber at the wine store, but here I realize something I feel is important.

I hear one man say his name is Clay, and I respond that my name is also Clay.

He doesn't seem at interested in talking with me in the slightest.

Then, my turn to check out.

I ask the cashier how his summer is going, and he responds with the obligatory curt, "Fine."

I leave feeling happy anyway.

It didn't matter that these interactions didn't go anywhere. What mattered was that I opened myself up to others. I noticed them and paid attention to them.

In short, I saw and heard them instead of ignoring them.

This seeing and hearing others feels good.

In the afternoon, it's back to the playground. I start questioning the repetitive nature of my existence and ask parents the same old questions about their kids.

I think my demeanor must change when I'm engaging in small talk. My resting bitch face must lessen because a mom from across the playground approaches me and says she thinks we met once before.

We end up talking while our kids play together for a half an hour. The conversation doesn't get deep, but there's a familiarity and ease to it that really makes my day.

I'm starting to be sold on this small talk thing.


The weekend shows mixed results with the Small Talk Challenge. On Saturday, husband, toddler, and I check out a local lake and get some ice cream. In both instances, strangers say something polite about the toddler and we respond in kind. Both instances were too brief to really affect my mood in any way.

But then Sunday happens. We all go to the husband's favorite, super-curated kitchen goods store. The shop owner asks us how our summer is going. Totally normal small talk fodder, but then things take a different turn.

We use specifics and end up saying we were in Croatia. This ends up being common ground. He tells us all about his trip to Croatia, and we then learn we have mutual friends and live nearby each other.

Giving specifics seems to have really helped propel the conversation forward and allow us to make a better connection.

We all leave in a great mood.


Becoming happier is just some small talk away.
Becoming happier is possible when we're looking for people to talk to instead of people to avoid.

The take-away:

  1. Small talk did make me feel happier and more connected to others.
  2. It was better when I said more than one sentence to people. I felt happiest when we chatted for awhile.
  3. It didn't matter that I was repeating the same mundane questions. What mattered was that I was talking to people instead of standing in my own little world. Small talk doesn't have to be creative or interesting. It just has to be.
  4. Small talk made me actually want to know more about the people I was talking to.
  5. Compliments help propel small talk. Keep it positive.
  6. Including specific information propelled conversations forward faster.
  7. I now see strangers differently. Instead of just being strangers, cheesily, they are friends I haven't met yet. I'm genuinely looking forward to engaging in small talk with strangers even after the challenge is over.

I challenge everyone to the Small Talk Challenge. For one week, make small talk with a stranger at least once a day. Write about your experience. How did it affect your overall state of happiness?

Tag others. Copy and paste this post. Email friends. Then, comment below telling me how the Small Talk Challenge went for you.