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Talking Your Way to Happiness: Well-being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations

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Is a happy life filled with trivial chatter or reflective and profound conversations? Psychological scientists Matthias R. Mehl, Shannon E. Holleran, and C. Shelby Clark from the University of Arizona, along with Simine Vazire of Washington University in St. Louis investigated whether happy and unhappy people differ in the types of conversations they tend to engage in. Volunteers wore an unobtrusive recording device called the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) over four days. This device periodically records snippets of sounds as participants go about their lives. For this experiment, the EAR sampled 30 seconds of sounds every 12.5 minutes yielding a total of more than 20,000 recordings. Researchers then listened to the recordings and identified the conversations as trivial small talk or substantive discussions. In addition, the volunteers completed personality and well-being assessments.

As reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, analysis of the recordings revealed some very interesting findings. Greater well-being was related to spending less time alone and more time talking to others: The happiest participants spent 25% less time alone and 70% more time talking than the unhappiest participants. In addition to the difference in the amount of social interactions happy and unhappy people had, there was also a difference in the types of conversations they took part in: The happiest participants had twice as many substantive conversations and one third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants.

These findings suggest that the happy life is social and conversationally deep rather than solitary and superficial. The researchers surmise that ā€” though the current findings cannot identify the causal direction ā€” deep conversations may have the potential to make people happier. They note, ā€œJust as self-disclosure can instill a sense of intimacy in a relationship, deep conversations may instill a sense of meaning in the interaction partners.ā€