March 5th, 2010
11:27 AM ET
By Elizabeth Landau
Small talk is part of everyday life, but it’s the substantial, meaningful conversations that may make you happy. That’s one possibility suggested in a new study examining how conversation connects to happiness.
Researchers, led by Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona, looked at the different types of conversation that happy and unhappy people participate in. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, was somewhat small, involving 79 undergraduates, but meshes well with established ideas that happiness and social life are intertwined.
Experts found that the happiest people in the study engaged in only one-third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants. Happy people tended to have twice as many substantive conversations, and spent 25 percent less time alone, than the unhappiest participants.
These insights fit with what psychologists have seen previously: that loneliness predicts depression, and that feelings of social connectedness are important for happiness, said Susan Turk Charles, psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study.
Substantive conversations create a feeling of belonging that leads to happiness, she said. Conversely, people who suffer from depression tend to withdraw from others.
The method that the researchers used was creative, Charles said. Instead of bringing people into a lab, as traditionally done in these sorts of studies, they had participants wear a recording device for four days, picking up conversations that they had.
The Electronically Activated Recorder sampled 30 seconds of sound every 12.5 minutes, giving researchers a broad range of conversations to examine in terms of “small talk” vs. “deep conversation.”
The bottom line is that maintaining friendships can help with emotional well-being. Friends buffer negative events and provide support, Charles said. Don’t be too busy to have a meaningful conversation, she said.
“It really is important in your life. It should be something that you prioritize just as much as you prioritize, maybe, working on your career or getting that project finished,” she said.
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