”Only parts of us will ever touch parts of others.’’ Marilyn Monroe, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters.


Last Sunday I went out to buy the weekend newspapers. I don’t usually buy the papers here, probably because they don’t inspire enough envy. But I needed some photos and I wanted to start writing in my Alain de Botton Book of Envy.

Our local Brisbane newsagent only makes a cameo appearance Sunday morning, so I went to the grocery store for a selection of weekend papers. I picked up The Weekend Australian and headed to the checkout.”Excuse me,’’ I smile at the dark-haired woman in uniform. ”Have you got The Sydney Morning Herald?’’

”No. We don’t have The Sydney Morning Herald.  This is Queensland.’’


”I know this is Queensland. I live here.’’

Ok. That wasn’t the nicest reply I could have come up with or the funniest, but it’s what came out of my mouth.And it proves my point: how we interact with complete strangers affects us. It can drag us down or, had I been quicker, I could have made a joke out of it and maybe made both of us laugh.

A 2013 study found that treating shop people or other service providers as acquaintances not only makes us happier but gives us feelings of belonging. The study by academics at Canada’s University of British Columbia showed that people who smile, make eye contact and chat with their barista felt more positive afterwards and had a sense of belonging than those who didn’t.


So although we are reluctant to engage with strangers, these interactions are more important than we think.On top of that, as we get older we tend to interact with fewer people when we need to be seeking out ways to have more meaningful relationships. And I’m not just talking about the elderly. More people in industrialized nations are living alone or on the other side of the country or the other side of the world from their family.

Is it any surprise that more of us are feeling lonelier and socially isolated?

A 2010 study in PLOS Medicine found that people with ”adequate’’ social relationships live longer. These relationships are just as important to our health as quitting smoking and even more important than diet and exercise.

Here’s what I’m going to do to engage in my community: I’m going to make more of an effort to be happy and chatty with everyone I meet. Even the guys at the climbing wall who look away when I walk past. Yes, I may become known as that crazy woman who smiles at everyone but it’s worth a try.And what happened to my grumpy grocery checkout woman? I don’t know, but right after I left her, I went to two other stores with the same smile and the same question and got friendly helpful replies from two other women.