Let a stranger into your home. Seriously.

by Charles Montgomery on

When the 2010 Olympics came to Vancouver, my friends and I saw an opportunity to test one aspect of the emerging science of happiness.

Economist John Helliwell and others have shown that social relationships are the most powerful correlate of happiness in cities. It is, John says, just like the song: “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” At the same time, John found that you could measure the cumulative power of social relationships by asking people how much they trust neighbours, strangers and governments. The more we trust, the more connected we tend to be, and the happier we report being.

What has this got to do with the Olympics? Well, we know that the Games bring people together for shared experiences. We know that they build networks of thousands of volunteers. We know that working together towards a shared or altruistic goal can have a physiological effect on us–it’s like drinking from the honey-sweet tap of happiness.

We need to trust people if we are going to work together. But how far are we willing to go? Artist Darren O’Donnell has tested the limits of trust among strangers in Toronto, where he challenged people to knock on strangers’ doors and ask for home tours. The Olympics offered a chance to go further. Accommodation was scarce during the Games. So we challenged residents of Vancouver to open their homes to total strangers, for home-stays. They could charge a modest fee, but they had to donate half of that money to charities tackling homelessness. We called it Home for the Games.

The results were remarkable. Hundreds of people signed up. Hosts across the city opened their homes. People told us that they knew they would like and trust their guests, because the philanthropic aspect was proof that they shared the same values. We raised more than $60,000 for Covenant House and the Streetohome Foundation, but the experiment also kick-started many new friendships, and sent a heartening new message: Yes, you can trust strangers. And generosity can reward us in ways we never imagined.

I learned this lesson while traveling in the South Pacific. I learned it from the happiness economists. And I learned it from my generous and trusting neighbours in Vancouver. The door is open.