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How a random chat with a stranger can bring joy — even if the stranger's a lizard

Laura Gao for NPR

Updated September 9, 2023 at 8:50 AM ET

That nod and smile from a person out walking their dog, the "how are you?" from the barista at a coffee shop, the complete stranger who stops to help you with directions – those kinds of connections are more than just momentary blips of joy.

NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee did a deep dive into how and why these often small exchanges can have a huge impact on our mental health.

People responded with great enthusiasm to the premise (well, except for a few isolationists who just want to be left alone). So we asked our readers to share their stories. And wow, did they answer, with many wonderful tales of people trying to bring a little light into someone else's day – even when that meant going out of their way or breaking out of their comfort zone.

The anecdotes revolved around an impromptu compliment, a surprise on a plane – and even lizards. Here are moments of casual yet meaningful connection shared by NPR readers. (And I do need to note that the vast majority of the submissions below come from Californians. Maybe the West Coast is the friendliest coast!)

Food often brings people together – usually planned and around a table. Here's a recipe for an impromptu happy meal.

On a two-lane highway through rural north Florida is a not-fast-food southern barbecue food truck. I stood behind an elderly lady who tried to interpret the portion size of menu items within her small budget.

I said, "Excuse me ma'am, today is my birthday and my mamma taught me to share my gifts with someone else. I'm going to pay for your lunch and I insist you order something delicious!" The lady was surprised and pleased; the clerk smiled.

It was not my birthday, mom never mentioned giving back specifically on a birthday and I live on a small fixed income. Joy is priceless.

-P.J. Tasha, Crescent City, Fla.

There are service people who choose that line of work because they enjoy making connections.

A few years ago, my husband left me after 36 years of marriage. I needed to do something to stay busy, so I decided to sign up to buy and deliver groceries for Instacart.

Over the last several years I have come to enjoy talking to many people – especially moms with kids and elderly people. I realized not only was I helping them, but I felt so good just with quick conversations and even laughing with them for just a few minutes. Now I'm hooked and keep doing this whenever I have spare time! For me it's been a true lifesaver!

Eleana Walters, Lake Elsinore, Calif.

Even for introverts or wallflowers, breaking out of your bubble can lead to a surprising — and meaningful — experience.

I am a firm believer in not talking to strangers, especially on airplanes, when one stray word could make me captive for the rest of the flight.

On an April 2012 flight from Raleigh to Boston, I commented to my husband that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction had not been awarded.

The woman next to me overheard me and said, "I had a dog in that race, you know." It turns out we were seated next to the short story writer Edith Pearlman, who had just published Binocular Vision with Lookout Press in North Carolina. We had a delightful conversation. After learning that she was returning to Cary, N.C., in the fall I asked if she would come and speak at my book club. Without skipping a beat, she agreed!

We stayed in touch, visited with her in Boston, met her charming husband and corresponded. And to think I would have missed out on Edith's friendship had I not talked to a stranger on a plane.

-Marguerite Kaplan, Greensboro, NC

A simple remark from a stranger could pull you out of the doldrums.

I was in line at a lunch place in Balboa Park in San Diego. There was a well-dressed man in front of my friend and me. I said, "Excuse me, sir, that is the most beautiful suit you are wearing! The fabric is beautiful and it looks perfectly tailored!"

The man turned and beamed and said, "Thank you! I just had this tailored. You made my day!"

Maybe I gave this man the confidence he needed for whatever task he was going to do after lunch.

I am 75. I think if I were a younger woman I would have worried that he'd think I was flirting, but my age gave me the freedom to say what came to mind and make that momentary connection.

-Peggy O'Neill, Crest, Calif.

From 6th to 9th grade, my mental health wasn't the best. We had recently moved after my parents' divorce. I was bullied and depressed. There were days when a simple "good morning" from a stranger on my way to school was the high point of my day and the only interaction that actually felt caring. It saved my life and is why I go out of my way to say good morning or pay a compliment to random strangers I meet.

-J.M., Irvine, Calif.

I have a problem with occasional depression. When I awake feeling depressed, I force myself to take a walk in my neighborhood. During the walk I say hello and/or have conversations with my neighbors, many of whom I know only slightly and some not at all. Often, by the end of my walk, my depression has lifted. It feels like a miracle to me. Your article helped me understand why that works.

-Billy Allen, Oakland, Calif.

Someone you've never met might give you the strength to get through a tough spell.

Several years ago a rather unkempt, colorfully dressed older woman touched my hand while we both reached for the same item in the produce section at the grocery store. I apologized for the contact and she said, "Oh, no, honey! You're going to be fine! Bless you!"

I thought that was odd but thanked her and said I hope you will be too. She just smiled and walked away.

Over the course of the next 5 to 15 months I had two VERY serious medical conditions requiring surgery and complicated, extended hospital stays. I saw her face and heard her words each time. I still do. I don't know what that means but it gave me hope. A forecast of positivity from a kind stranger.

-R.J.D., Chandler, Ariz.

A cheerleader you've never met before can inspire your athletic efforts.

I'm 61 and run four times a week at a local park. I've never been a great distance runner and getting older hasn't made me faster!

However, on several occasions, while slogging along, I've encountered people who have given me a high-five or a "good job" shout out. One wonderful young lady who walks her dog at the park told me that she was really impressed by my consistency.

In every instance, my pace picked up, I ran more quickly, more cheerfully and couldn't wait to get home to tell my wife.

It's really still amazing to me how much impact a little positive encouragement can accomplish.

-Brett McCabe, Kansas City, Mo.

I was an undergrad living in Pittsburgh and didn't know much about biking. I bought my first mountain bike to impress a classmate who was a piano major and a very good mountain biker.

I learned a little about mountain biking from her and her brother. I also had never been west of Ohio. That meant I'd never seen the Mississippi River or the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps the mountain bike may be useful at some point for getting west of Ohio?

I tried to find someone to take a road trip with me but couldn't find anyone. My mom told me to ask my dad. He couldn't take that much time off work. So I said half-jokingly "Drive me to Wyoming and drop me off. I'll bike home." That never happened.

I read a book by a woman who biked from Virginia to Oregon. That book inspired me to attempt the complete ride to Oregon. A mountain bike was not the best for riding on roads across the country, but it was what I had. So I had my sister drop me off in Yorktown, Virginia, with my bike.

I was not yet in the best physical shape and kept running out of money. I made it to the Mississippi River and didn't have the money for the ferry. This older man asked me where I was going; I told him Oregon. He paid for the ferry ride and gave me $20 and told me to be sure that I make it. His belief in me helped keep me motivated and paid for camping and discounted groceries, like two-day old doughnuts.

And 74 days after leaving Yorktown I was on the beach in Florence, Oregon.

That was 25 years ago. I went on to ride in mountain bike races, moved to Colorado, became a ski instructor ... and also eventually finished graduate school.

The man's act of kindness at the Mississippi had an enormous impact on my life. If he's still around "Thank you."

-Josh Manning

The driver can drive a meaningful convo.

I feel like many of my "weak tie" social interactions truly dictate my mood for that day or influence me in some way positively (or negatively).

I take Ubers or Lyfts to work everyday and find that my interactions with the drivers can often be more honest and deep than many of the conversations I have with people close to me.

Sometimes the driver is very chatty and I'm not. Sometimes this is the pressure I need to open up. I've ended up exchanging numbers with drivers, buying them a coffee when I stop for mine, sharing recommendations for restaurants or movies and even wallowing in breakup stories or complaining about friends. These interactions, however brief, have helped me remember that I do like people. I'm always so quick to write people off because I have my friends and my family. I mistakenly think I don't need to put an effort into new relationships. These interactions can boost your mood and your overall feeling of belonging to the human race.

-Angela Rosini, Hockessin, Del.

Your dog can make the introduction.

I am 85 and still able to walk my senior dog. I often meet new neighbors, usually also dog owners. Dogs are the easiest intro even if it's just the names of the dogs. I enjoy the walk more with just a brief greeting.

- Colleen Freidberg Vancouver, Washington

Sometimes, the best listener ... is a lizard.

I live in a rural area outside Santa Barbara, Calif., and often go days without talking to anyone other than my wife.

Since I spend most days working in our orchard I talk to lizards, bears, foxes, birds, insects, trees, flowers and the wind. I comment on their beauty, level of trust, how they enjoy their baths, the songs/sounds they make, the wonderful shade they provide, etc. Some creatures stand still and tilt their heads while I talk. Others move slightly away and watch me as I work. I am always filled with wonder and gratitude after all these encounters.

Maybe future studies on "strong ties" and "weak ties" will include the healthy impacts of relating to nature.

-Larry Farwell, Santa Barbara, Calif.

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Suzette Lohmeyer