I recently wrote a column for the Carolina Journal, where I looked at some data trends regarding mental health issues among our nation’s youngest generations. In sum, our youngest generations are generally more unhappy than older generations and suffer from more mental and behavioral health issues. This is very concerning to me. I am curious about these effects on people’s overall health and the health care system in general. 

My argument in the column is that human nature compels us to want to be part of a group or feel connected to society in some way. This in practice is some times referred to as the accumulation of social capital: the scope of your social network and feelings connectedness to society or your community. I think the rise in technology and screen use has led to a decrease in social capital, especially among our country’s youngest generations. I believe this decline in social capital is contributing to the increasing rates of young people with mental and behavioral health issues. More time in front of screens means less human interaction. Less time spent connecting with others means fewer opportunities individuals have to feel connected with society. Unhappiness and mental health issues may follow. 

Happiness and feelings of connection can be crucial for one’s own overall health or well-being. A recent NPR article highlights some social experiments that help document this phenomenon:

Several years ago, University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and her colleague Gillian M. Sandstrom, tested whether short conversations with strangerscould lift moods. They asked participants to enter a busy coffee shop and grab a beverage — half would get in and get out, and half would strike up a conversation with the cashier.

“We found that people who were randomly assigned to turn this economic transaction into a quick social interaction left Starbucks in a better mood,” Dunn says. “And they even felt a greater sense of belonging in their community.”

The same researchers found that these seemingly trivial encounters with the minor characters in our lives — the random guy at the dog park or the barista at our local coffee shop — can affect feelings of happiness and human connection on a typical day.

Social anxiety, however, could be preventing these types of interactions, says Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago behavioral scientist.

His curiosity led to a series of experiments revealing that train and bus commuters who interacted with other passengers experienced a more pleasant ride — even when they believed they would prefer the solitude of, say, reading a book.

It is fear that the person sitting next to us won’t enjoy talking to us that makes us keep to ourselves, Epley found. But when we do talk to each other, those social interactions with strangers tend to be both less awkward and more enjoyable than most people predict.

If striking up small talk with a stranger sounds daunting, you might be relieved to hear that even something as simple as making eye contact offers benefits.

Kipling Williams, a Purdue University psychologist, studied how people felt when a young woman walked by them and either made eye contact, made eye contact while smiling, or completely ignored them. Even brief eye contact increased people’s sense of inclusion and belonging.

“Just that brief acknowledgment, that brief glance — with or without a smile — made them at least temporarily feel more socially connected,” Williams says. And it works both ways. Those that had been “looked through” felt even more disconnected than the control group.

These studies show that it could be small changes in our daily lives that can increase feelings of happiness or inclusion. Increasing these instances and our feelings of being connected to the community could be a factor in reversing some of the increases in mental and behavioral health problems that the youngest generations are experiencing. It might just take a simple “hello” or “how are you doing?”