EMOTIONAL HEALTH
March 29, 2010

Deep Conversation Brings Happiness

Small talk may be a social lubricant, but greater happiness comes from meaningful conversations, a new study has found.

That discussion of the TV show you saw last night, or the tweet you sent? Neither is likely to add to your feelings of satisfaction or happiness, but they do serve a purpose. A new study in from researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson reports that people who have more meaningful and substantive conversations are happier than those who spend more time making “small talk.” Study author Matthias Mehl notes that small talk is a way of smoothing social interactions. But the study found that it is more meaningful conversation that affects a person's overall feeling of happiness.

The researchers found that those who reported being happier also spent more time with other people (which came out to about 25% less time by themselves), and about 70% more time in the act of talking than the least happy participants.

Mehl and his team gave 79 college students electronically activated recorder (EAR) to wear for a period of four days. The gadget automatically records 30−second snippets of the wearer’s conversation every 12.5 minutes, giving the researchers about 23,000 fragments of conversation to analyze.

Separately, the participants filled out questionnaires that assessed their levels of happiness and other characteristics related to personality. After analyzing the data to determine any possible correlations between conversational style and well−being, the researchers found that those who reported being happier also spent more time with other people (which came out to about 25% less time by themselves), and about 70% more time in the act of talking than the least happy participants.

But perhaps more important was the type of conversation that was associated with being happier: the happiest participants spent about a third as much time on small talk as the least happy people, and twice as much time talking about “substantive” or “meaningful” subject matter.

Because the study only points to a Correlational study between substantive conversations and happiness, it’s difficult to determine the nature of the relationship – specifically, whether these “deeper” discussions actually lead to greater levels of happiness, or whether it’s the other way around. It may be that happier people tend to discuss topics closer to their hearts. The EAR devices provided the researchers with fairly accurate means of assessing the make−up of the participants’ conversations, instead of depending on the old method of self−report (which can be somewhat unreliable). The study compliments other current research that is beginning to focus on the relationship between happiness and other personality traits.

The study is published in the February 18, 2010 online issue of the journal Psychological Science.

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