• Joss @Joss Malden - updated 7mo

    Hot Dog Revelation.

    "Before Gillian Sandstrom became a psychologist, she was a computer programmer. Then she decided to change tracks and pursue a degree in psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University. And she felt like she didn't fit in.

    "I was 10 years older than my fellow students," Sandstrom recalls. "I wasn't sure I was meant to be there. I didn't instantly feel like a part of that community."

    Enter the hot dog lady.

    On her daily walk from one university building to another, Sandstrom would pass a hot dog stand.

    "I never bought a hot dog, but every time I walked past, I would smile and wave at her and she'd smile and wave at me," she says.

    Sandstrom remembers looking forward to this daily interaction. This brief exchange with a stranger made her feel less isolated.

    "She made me feel happy," she says. "I felt better after seeing her and worse if she wasn't there."

    Years later, that type of brief but happy encounter inspired Sandstrom to design a study that looks at the benefits of social connections — encounters, even brief ones, with strangers, acquaintances and anyone outside our close circle of family, friends and colleagues.

    "This relationship I had with her really got me thinking about how we have so many people in our lives," says Sandstrom, who now works at the University of Sussex. "We're only close to a small number of them, but all of the other people seem to matter a lot and maybe a lot more than we realize."

    Her work is part of a growing body of research that looks at the value of social connectedness, not just to our happiness and well-being but our overall physical health. (In fact, social isolation hurts our minds and bodies so much that it's known to increase risk of premature death.)

    While much of the research on social connections has focused on the closest relationships in people's lives, Sandstrom and other scientists are now learning that even the most casual contacts with strangers and acquaintances can be tremendously beneficial to our mental health."

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