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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Happiness
See Inside July / August 2010

Skip the Small Talk: Meaningful Conversations Linked to Happier People

Happier people have more meaningful conversations



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Feeling down? Having a stimulating conversation might help, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.

Researchers at the University of Arizona and Washington University in St. Louis used unobtrusive recording devices to track the conversations of 79 undergraduate students over the course of four days. They then counted the conversations and determined how many were superficial versus substantive, based on whether the information exchanged was banal (“What do you have there? Pop­corn?”) or meaningful (“She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?”). They also assessed subjects’ overall well-being by having them fill out question­naires and by asking their friends to report on how happy and content with life they seemed.

The happiest subjects spent 70 percent more time talking than the unhappiest sub­jects, which suggests that “the mere time a person spends in the presence of others is a good predictor of the person’s level of happi­ness,” says co-author Matthias Mehl, a psy­chologist at Arizona. The happiest subjects also participated in a third as much small talk and had twice as many in-depth conversations as the most unhappy participants.

Mehl admits that he does not know whether interacting with others in a substan­tive manner makes people happy or whether happy people tend to engage in more frequent and intellectual conversations. To find out, he and his colleagues are conducting pilot studies in which they ask people to engage in different types of conversations and assess how the exchanges affect well-being. So far, he says, the findings suggest that adding five substantive conversations to your weekly social calendar could boost your spirits dramatically.

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