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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 (113 Responses)
  1. NoDoubt

    I suffer from depression and I know first-hand about the withdrawing. I simply don't have the emotional energy to communicate with people in my personal life because for 8 hours of the day I'm talking on the phone with one person after another at work. Its my job, I have to do it. Back when I was in beauty school, that was even worse- you HAVE to have a knack for small talk and sizing people up within seconds to have them trust you. I can do it well but its exhausting.

    I think the reason why I have withdrawn from family and friends because I know I am vulnerable to suggestion and critisizm.

    March 10, 2010 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Lynn Shoen

    A therapist once told me that the reaon some people talk so much (i.e.. engage in mindless yapping) is because, "People talk when they don't want to feel." Rather than addressing the major issues in their lives or dealing with their true feelings, they talk and talk to avoid acknowledging their probems.

    April 2, 2010 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Brigitte

    First I like how the lab was handled by using a recording device. However, the only negative thought that came to mind about friends is that sometimes the wrong friends can cause negativity within your surroundings.

    April 9, 2010 at 23:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Wa2

    Ahh another study. I'm sure that they were looking at the results. The reason for a study!! Now we all know it depends on just who is conducting the study.
    Too have small talk or a long, deep conversation. There is no correct answer. Some people with small talk, some with some other conversation.
    But let's face it,, different word's for different people, Does one tell them what they want to hear, if they do for what reason? To get close. Maybe because they want what they dont have at the moment. Or they have it all but just want somthing different??
    No use to dissect it,, it is what it is, now ask yourself ,, just why does one talk in some way, shape, or form, to another??
    Come on people, it;s not rocket science, People talk because it is a lonely world, better to share it with someone, friend or foe.

    April 20, 2010 at 01:07 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.