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March 5th, 2010
11:27 AM ET

Unhappy? Maybe it’s too much small talk

By Elizabeth Landau
CNNHealth.com Writer-Producer

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.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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soundoff (106 Responses)
  1. Deb Bellmont

    The link between social connections and happiness are undoubtedly well documented, and this study likely supports it. But the question remains whether a disproportionate amount of small talk precipitates unhappiness or is merely an indicator of unhappiness. The cited study does not appear to have been designed to answer that question, though Charles seemed willing to make that leap.

    It is a common error made by the news media when reporting the results of scientific studies. It is indicative of even larger problems in this country: a penchant for simple answers and a lack of critical thinking.

    March 5, 2010 at 12:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. ArrKay

    I'm not a doctor or psychologist, but going by my personal experience, at least, I'd say that I engage in small talk with people I don't particularly care about. I'll engage in deeper conversations with people who mean more to me: close friends, significant others, family, important coworkers.

    I can jump to the conclusion that, for people like me at least, the more small talk I get, the less meaningful the relationship I must have with people. The less meaningful the relationships I have, the less happy I am.

    That's my connect-the-dots take on it.

    March 5, 2010 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Annie

    What an interesting article. I agree that the more in depth and meaningful conversations we have, the more connected to the larger social world we are. There have been so many occasions where I have found myself accidentally in an in depth conversation with someone, and had a social realization during that time, or shortly after wards. I do believe it is vital for people to talk about deep seeded issues with people of many different view points. It helps you verbalize the ideas you already have, and may also make you take a good hard look at what you believe and challenge those ideas.

    March 5, 2010 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. maddawg

    now i have some proof for the wife.....

    i despise small talk and it gets me almost angry when people try to get me involved in their b.s. crap small talk about nothing that means nothing, can solve nothing, produce nothing or create nothing!

    now i can just say "do you want to be happy? or do you want to continue to chat about idle nothing, meaningless crap?"

    i knew there was a reason i can't stand you typical lemming people in this world....95% + and climbing too....wow...the lemmings are the majority!

    March 5, 2010 at 12:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Billie

    It's important to keep in mind that just because there is an association between small talk and unhappiness, it does not mean that one causes the other. This article seems to suggest that those who are unhappy are that way because they do not have deep conversations. Another possibility is not addressed-maybe those who are unhappy are not interested in (or feeling up to) having a deep conversation!

    March 5, 2010 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. kimbiqua

    Boy does this ring true! Since getting out of college, the good conversations have dwindled because our lives are just so separate from friends, family and community. Hard to converse at work, even at home. The mundane of everyday life can suck the life right out of you. Give me a good late night conflict, even. Anything to spark the depth and opportunity to be reflective and open and vulnerable.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Laura

    Makes perfect sense to me. Finally, an explanation for why I always feel so depressed after cocktail parties.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Memphis Slim

    How's the weather there?

    What is the meaning of life?

    March 5, 2010 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Rett

    I think we have "small talk" because everyone is either politically correct, polarized (one side or the other) and/or easily offended. Most of the people I know are so set in their ideas that a differing opinion is a "slap in the face". So why bother having a conversation.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Andy Morgan

    Thanks for this article. It's a simple, yet important, subject.

    From my experience, many people are yearning to have more heart-to-heart conversations with others. We are influenced in our reading and TV to focus on silly, superficial cliches and stereotypes. But I've found that even when you think someone is not into "deeper" subjects, they actually are. Humans have an innate urge to connect and find unity.

    This age humanity is now entering, the Age of Aquarius, will be one of much more in-depth awareness of each other, and ways to find unity with our surroundings and communities.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kelly

    How do things like Facebook and Twitter fit into this? Would those interactions count as "small talk"? I have had in-depth exchanges, but many more simple exchanges. I'm curious on your opinion.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. David Thomas

    I wonder what the effect of silent but "deep" email communications might have on these results? (That is, the recordings would register email as silence, I assume.) Some of my times when I've felt connected with people have really been in long email exchanges.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Keith

    There's a distinction between cause and effect, on the one hand, and simple correlation, on the other hand. Frankly, I doubt that small talk causes unhappiness or that deep conversation causes happiness. Rather, if, for example, unhappy people happen to prefer small talk over deep conversation, or that happy people happen to prefer deep conversation over small talk, then it's mere correlation. Not much light has been shed. Allowing for the insufficiency of anecdote in proving a point, I'm sure we've all known happy people who never tire of small talk and, on the flip side, unhappy people who never tire of deep conversation.

    March 5, 2010 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. mike

    There are three kinds of minds in the world:

    1) Simple minds-talk about people (gossip, rumors, etc)
    2) average minds-talk about events (the superbowl, a television show,etc)
    3) great minds- talk about ideas (what it means to be free, the meaning of life, spirituality, etc)

    WHICH ONE ARE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 5, 2010 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Lisala

    I know when engaged in small talk I get kind of annoyed. I'd rather talk about something meaningful or not all. kimbiqua, I hope you can turn that around, because I think you're absolutely correct!

    March 5, 2010 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Gillian

    Most likely the "smalltalk" people are the people who don't make conscious effort achieving happiness, they are not seeking, therefore they are not getting. Since they do not seek, they have no focus, they only smalltalk, they don't have an interest in substantial discussions.

    March 5, 2010 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Allie

    Oh, God, i am so glad there is finally scientific proof for what i have been saying for years. I have recurrent depression, and i had a couple of really bad "therapists" who insisted on meaningless social interaction with people with whom i shared nothing. it was part of good health, they insisted, that i enjoy these fake, platitude-spitting drones and become one. My own dad, who viewed the role of a woman as that of small talking in order to get the men to talk about the real stuff. also weighed in on this.
    For years, i felt like i was starving to death.
    My recovery? getting certified to teach literature, which meant i could spend my time talking about love, compassion, mutual empathy, theories of communication, history, religion (in context). All those bright young minds trying to face the Big Questions saved me.
    And along the way, i befriended my colleagues, who also thrive on real discussion.
    Then i met my boyfriend, who is a very thoughtful person who talks about serious things like politics and law.
    Pick your friends carefully. They are your best therapy.

    March 5, 2010 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Nysa Dev

    Deb Bellmont has hit the nail on its head! Brilliant comment.

    March 5, 2010 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Bob Loblaw

    Deb–

    Psychological studies rarely deal with cause and effect–mainly because it would be virtually impossible to infer causation simply by identifying a corelation!

    Researchers may express their own hypotheses as to which is the cause and which is the effect, but from a scientific standpoint, a study can almost never *show* either cause or effect; only that two things are related or unrelated.

    Cheers,

    March 5, 2010 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. margaret

    Enough substantive conversations through the years, plus spiritual inquiry will help in old age too, when there are less people in your life and less activity. It is like a mental bank you withdraw from.

    March 5, 2010 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Jules

    I often make small-talk with people I meet – I view it as being friendly. You can have in-depth conversations aswell but you're hardly going to start a debate on the Middle East process with the cashier at a store. Nevertheless, I make a point of talking to a lot of people no matter how trivial – often it helps make everyday interactions better because customer service and civility is practically non-existent these days. I found that talking to people makes them treat me a little better – otherwise many daily interactions are short, to the point and often rude. Yes, there are many interesting deep subjects to discuss but sometimes that can become a bore too. So lighten up, people. I enjoy my small talk, breaking the ice and making a connection with people I meet no matter how trivial the subject – better than being some cold person who only deems talking to people on serious topics as worthwhile. There are some extremely pretentious people out there!

    March 5, 2010 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Mary

    It is true that when a reporter reports on a study, the report is limited to the perception/understanding of the reporter, so the comment is to the content the article, not to the study. I am just surprised that nobody has yet commented on the drawback of 'deep' conversations. Often deep conversations are about people's problems, and often people's problems can bring the listener down or disrupt the listener's own happiness depending on how close the relationship is. I think I need a definition of meaningful conversation and if the definition includes people's problems. If so, then how does that make someone happier? Is the person that is happier the one who is venting or the one who is listening? Like many other comments, I think there is much more to examine in this article. To be honest, I am happier with happy chit chat over the disclosuer of suffering and agony from a close friend, which I would think would fall under meaningful conversation.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Lily

    What is considered a "substantial, meaningful conversation"? Who decides what is or isn't meaningful?!
    It all differs from person to person, from age to age, from culture to culture....
    And most of all, how one measures HAPPINESS? I'd like to know.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Cassandra

    I think the important point to get from this article is not whether or not we should be participating in less small talk but that we make meaningful connections with other people. Our American culture has placed such an emphasis on the individual, independence, and self-sufficiency that we tend to view social inter-dependency as a sign of weakness and as a result have sacrificed our own happiness.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Michael Moore

    Of course depressed people have fewer meaningful conversations and make more small talk. They don't want to think about whatever is in their life depressing them. The title of this article is completely misleading. I also find the method of collecting data questionable. Could they have possibly proved that people who consider themselves happy also tend to have more in-depth conversations when they know they're being recorded?

    March 5, 2010 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. David

    I don't particularly enjoy small talk because I have nothing to say about the mundaneness of life. "Working-the-room" is also a trait I do not have at a cocktail party. Depressed? Nope - just don't have that skill and small talk is a skill.

    As a scientist, I think there is bias in using undergraduates as subjects, but sadly they're the only ones who submit to experimentation.

    You want to know me, ask me what I think about something more substative than the weather.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. roswell incident

    My husband and I sometimes make it a point to turn off the TV and the computer and go to bed early so we can relax and have a "smart talk." I usually sleep really well after one of our conversations. I don't know if that means I'm happy, but I do know that I'm more likely to have a decent day after a good night's sleep.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Woody

    It's not so much what you say but how you say it.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Neal

    Okay, when I'm next on the train heading to work and my regular commuter friends ask me how my weekend was, instead of the standard "great, how was yours?", I'm going to tell it like it is. I'm going to get into a long response about how my wife and I fought over financial issues, how I really dislike my job, and why I cannot understand how the majority of people believe in God.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. twist

    Did they balance for extroverts introverts in this study? As an introvert I know that small talk makes me completely miserable while its my extroverted friends life blood. Luckily at a college the balance is towards introverts

    March 5, 2010 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Rafi

    About 10 years ago, I began a practice of Friday night dinners with friends that we do every week, at varying houses. At these dinners, we avoid small talk, and focus on the thoughtful aspects of the weekly Torah portion [we're Jewish] while still having fun – and it has changed my life. I look forward to these weekly get togethers SO MUCH.

    I still cringe at the vapid "elevator chat" that I have to put up with at work. It's like eating junk food – totally unsatisfying and leaves an icky taste in your mouth.

    Talk less, say more.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Jessica

    my partner's brother, mother and grandmother have all been diagnosed as "depressed". i've longed believed that their depression has many roots in the fact that they are horrible at handling emotional issues, its almost as if that "skill" was never taught to any of them.

    In reading this article, I can also see the correlation between in-depth conversations and small talk. The brother especially, in 10 years ive never had anything more than a superficial conversation with him...and im the queen of in-depth conversation. The thing about it is, even if I would try (and I do) he offers nothing.

    I am used to this because my partner is very similar. She's wasnt much for conversation in a lot of ways because she had these weird things jumbling around in her head about "sounding stupid". True, she doesnt pay that much attention to the world around her – her knowledge of world affairs and politics comes directly from me. But what I have seen in the 10 + years we've been together is her growth.

    She may not know 100% what she's talking about, but she's now willing to engage in discussion and admit when her knowledge has its limits. Though, outside of our relationship I am not certain how "in-depth" her converstations get with friends and co-workers.

    So, are people unhappy because they lack in-depth conversations? I dont think so. I think unhappy people are deficient in a whole host of areas and communication skills just happen to be one facet of that.
    But, wouldnt it make sense that if someone lacked in-depth conversation, it might because they lacked a partner/friends in which to carry on those in-depth conversations...which, logically would affect ones happiness?

    What if unhappy people WANT in-depth conversation, they just cant find people willing to engage?
    Thats the part of this study that it didnt talk about – did these participants WANT in-depth conversations and couldnt find them...or were they avoiding them at all costs...or something more in the middle?

    March 5, 2010 at 15:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Ash

    How true! My wife is a doctor and had a tough time during her residencey because she firmly believes in this doctrine. Some of her colleagues ostracized her and a like minded friend of hers because they refused to indulge in gossip and enage in supeficial conversations. My wife was declared unsupportive and arrogant because she spoke her mind and challenged others to be critical thinkers. She was evern forced to take communication classes and guess what? Her counselers turned out to be her biggest supporters and ultimately became OUR family friends. How? Because she was able to hold deep converations with those women and they clicked. It happens everyday to women and I feel bad how some people would rather stick to the mundane and feel threatened by somebody who has something meaningful to say.

    March 5, 2010 at 15:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Kelly

    Communication and expressing yourself are the keys to happiness. Humans are social beings and we should keep it that way. We were born that way.

    One thing also, being able to find a genuine bestfriend really makes you happy. I do!

    March 5, 2010 at 15:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Rod C. Venger

    The need for people to engage in "small talk", to me, is an indication that they are not comfortable in their own skins and are basically insecure. Small talk fills a void in their life, a void that they themselves cannot fill with their own thoughts. I'd conclude then that they are happy while talking, unhappy when not. Deeper, more thoughtful conversations eminate from familiarity with the people around you, or a need to be the center of attention in some cases, to be seen as a contributor...again, a sign of insecurity. For 50 years I've watched and wondered about people's need to constantly be talking. You learn more by listening.

    March 5, 2010 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. DGR4

    Small talk is just a social emollient–a way to get along with folks by exchanging meaningless pleasantries. Nothing really evil about that, I think. It would have made more sense to title the article "Unhappy–Maybe Too Little Meaningful Conversation." While we make small talk to get along with others, we need the meaningful conversations to keep us emotionally stable and centered.

    March 5, 2010 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. VaView

    FB & Twitter are only means of being connected as/if needed with most of the friends I have in there – not a vehicle for meaningful conversations. If I want a meaningful conversation, I'll find an appropriate set of ears for the topic...

    March 5, 2010 at 16:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Dee

    I think what this article "says" is talk about what's important to you and does it matter if the particular conversation is with someone close or just a passing acquaintance? I'm a dog lover..and walker...I have some interesting and informative chats with people I don't even know.
    Maybe it's learning something from an interaction that makes the difference? Find people who care about what you care about and it will be positive.

    March 5, 2010 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Samantha

    This explains why I divorced my first husband... as well as why I married my current.

    March 5, 2010 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. viki

    maybe 'small talk' people cannot really connect with others as well as themselves and that's causing depression; being unable to reach beyond the surface of things.
    though i have some friends who are always deliberately shallow and funny but they do not seem depressed. And they are definitely not isolated, on the contrary.
    After all I would not know what to think about this article unless it gives a definition of a 'small talk'.

    March 5, 2010 at 16:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Donna

    I read that extroverts engage in a lot of small talk, but introverts are very uncomfortable with it, preferring more in-depth conversations. I'm an introvert, and that certainly applies to me. Small talk bores me to tears.

    March 5, 2010 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Scarlett

    It's interesting, but the older I get the less I can tolerate small talk. I find it absolutely exhausting, after a certain point, to stand and chat about nothing with someone. I'm a friendly person, but I just cannot bear to "chat" without meaning. Sometimes I wonder why people go to parties-very little substantive is said. I think there are so many lonely people; thank God my friends are interested in delving into life.

    March 5, 2010 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Dave

    Clearly, this article is examining the intricacies of common, everyday interaction. I know personally that as it goes with our everyday social and personal relationships, there is always a change in how people interact. What I mean is how we interact personally, professionally, and socially. I'm not too sold on the notion that small talk is indicative of those who are more depressed than others. I do agree that substantial, meaningful, and in-depth conversations are the way to more happiness, but there is so much more to it. Our society these days is rush-rush, and little time is afforded for meaningful conversation. As we grow older, most people (notice I didn't say all), in relationships, tend to grow apart. It is the mundane of our daily existence that tends to cause the conversations to devolve into the mundane / routine themselves which may lead to thoughts of disconnection from our family, friends, peers, and the like. These conversations can become almost predictable. What must we do to keep the conversations fresh and enlightening? Talk more or talk less? No....do more with those you care about and don't sweat the small stuff. Spend more time with them and do the things that need to be done to keep them first. Of course this is reciprocal; you need to feel it too. The benefits will outweigh the time and effort invested. The conversations will become more lengthy and more engaging and the relationships will evolve into something meaningful. Anyhow...this is my take on this and I've had a long enough virtual, one-sided conversation. Take Care

    March 5, 2010 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Judy, Los Angeles, CA

    You can be lonely in a room full of people, and happy as a clam with only one confidant. It is not the quantity of the contact, but the quality. In general, people who have goals, and are engaged in pursuing them, are usually relatively happy. So I disagree with broad conclusion the psychologist from UC Irvine made, being involved in life can be the key to satisfaction, whether it's people, work, or projects. People are different, some people are very happy working alone, like writers, for one example. Some of the previous comments were more insightful than the psychologists interviewed for the article, in terms of interpretation of the findings.

    March 5, 2010 at 17:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Elizabeth

    Was just discussing this the other day. Small talk makes me miserable – it's pointless, asinine, and it becomes aggressive with others force it on you in order to satisfy their own personal needs and deficiencies.

    March 5, 2010 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Stephanie

    My experience shows me some small talk is good in certain circumstances: when people are strangers or acquaintances (who wants to share important conversations with people you may never see again?) or you just want to chill. Deep conversations are a wonderful way to develop relationships (which doesn't happen a lot these days, as it takes too much time and people don't seem to have enough). What makes makes me unhappy is being around people who give me the minutae of it all: I hear every little single detail of a subject (be it small or big talk), so that the talker takes 30 minutes to tell me something that should have taken 30 seconds!

    March 5, 2010 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Mary

    "spent 25 percent less time alone, than the unhappiest participants."
    They should be more careful here. This is a serious generalization. Being alone doesn't necessarily equal loneliness. Some people have higher "alone time" requirements than others – but they are not lonely when they are alone.
    In relationships, people need to understand the socialization/alone time needs of their partner and respect it. There is nothing "wrong" or "right" about it. If a couple is on opposite ends of the spectrum, they will need to make some compromises for both to be happy. It's quite doable once they understand that the other person is not "wrong".

    March 5, 2010 at 17:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Wayne Messer

    So since this won't be read you're saying that censorship is your means of controlling what can be said.

    What Psychology does that fit in.

    Most of these studies are always subjective.

    If it is that serious write it in a medical journal not where you ask for comments.

    You don't have to agree with them.

    March 5, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. votewithmoney

    This is sooo true! I come from Chicago where at least my own experience has been that many people have rich, interesting, culturally and politically interesting lives. Among my friends and family, opinions flow like water but most are open to divergent opinions,and a good debate is considered fun and engaging. I just thought this was how people are until I moved elsewhere for many years – to a state where people limited discussions to sports, their kids (only accomplishments and sports), and a carefully edited discussion of work. Being opinionated was looked down upon as a character flaw. Being interested in culture was considered boring. It was all about getting along, smiling, acting polite – and not letting anyone know too much. I found it terribly stifling, alienating and yes, depressing. Boredom and disengagement are ultimately depressing.

    March 5, 2010 at 18:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Jeep

    I hate small talk. I always want to go straight to the big talk.

    March 5, 2010 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
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