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Conversational Well-Being: Quality Over Quantity

Psychologists link happiness with less small talk and more substantive conversation.
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Research repeatedly finds a correlation between happiness and more gregarious individuals, but it hadn't determined what element of sociability — bubbling over with shallow, inconsequential conversation or exchanging content of personal significance — leads to contentment.

New research suggests that less small talk and more substantive conversation causes increased happiness. (Middle school girls around the globe, take note.) What is just as important as pure, outright outgoingness is the nature and content of social interactions, whether trivial or substantive

Matthias Mehl, Shannon Holleran and Shelby Clark of the University of Arizona and Simine Vazire of the Washington University in St. Louis evaluated well-being related to the superficiality of conversation, although they acknowledged from the start how difficult it might be to measure these squishy concepts. As they point out in their paper, "Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations," that appeared in Psychological Science, "Although the macrolevel and long-term implications of happiness have been studied extensively, little is known about the daily social behavior of happy people, primarily because of the difficulty of objectively measuring everyday behavior."

To address this hole in psychological research and the subjective methodological concerns, the team attached unobtrusive audio recorders to 79 participants that periodically turn on (30 seconds of recorded sound every 12.5 minutes) for four days. Looking at 300 30-second samples for each participant, the researchers first noted whether the person was alone or talking and then categorized each recording according to levels of small talk versus substantive conversation, with conversations of substance being defined as involved conversations consisting of meaningful or personally profound material.

Backing up previous findings, the researchers demonstrate that higher well-being is associated with less time spent alone and more social interactions. The happiest participants were alone 25 percent less of the time and spent about 70 percent more time talking. More importantly, the happiest participants had about one-third as much small talk and twice as many genuine conversations.

But before we start sharing our deepest thoughts with the mailman, the team acknowledges correlation doesn't prove causation. Perhaps they got it backward, and happy people facilitate authentic conversation instead of real conversation yielding happy people.

So people should probably hesitate before readily wearing their hearts on their sleeves, although the evidence clearly indicates that they definitely shouldn't just be running their mouths for the sake of conversation either.

The team concludes "our findings suggest that people find their lives more worth living when examined — at least when examined together."

But what if someone doesn't have anything personal or profound to share? Then real conversation might be the necessary stimulant to galvanize a previously unexamined life.