Deeper Conversations, Happier Life?

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

“How you doin’?”

While small talk does have its uses -not least making that awkward elevator ride slightly less awkward- research has highlighted something that will have introverts and fans of deep discussions rejoicing.

People who spend more of their time engaging in deep, meaningful conversations and less time on small talk appear to be happier. This is according to Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

Published in the journal of Psychological Science, the study had 79 college students agree to wear an electronically activated recorder that recorded 30-second snippets of their conversation every 12.5 minutes for four days. Researchers went through the tapes and labeled the conversations as either small talk (weather, TV shows), or more substantive talk that could range from talking about things that were really impacting the speakers’ lives to philosophy and the role of education.

The subjects then had their level of satisfaction and happiness analyzed through self-reports -they completed a Satisfaction with Life Scale and “a single item happiness measure” twice, three weeks apart- as well as reports from two to three people who knew them.

Small talk accounted for only 10 per cent of the happiest person’s conversation. The unhappiest person in the study was shown to partake in almost three times as much small talk - 28.3 per cent. The other subjects also showed a correlation between having more substantive (deep) conversations and being happier.

While Dr Mehl’s study was relatively small and drew up a bit of a chicken or the egg conundrum -do deeper conversations make us happier or does being happy lead us to have deeper conversations?- it does suggest a link between happiness and digging deep through meaningful conversations. 

More research is still needed though. We reached out to Dr Mehl and found out that he and his team have recently been working on replicating the 2010 findings of his initial study with a sample that is roughly three times larger and much more diverse. It will also be more focused on the role of substantive conversations.He has also proposed a study looking for a direct cause-and-effect link which would focus on measuring how an increase in substantive conversations directly affects a person’s life satisfaction.

Of course, personality type plays an important role in the satisfaction a person can take from any given interaction. Introverts will no doubt relate to Dr. Mehl’s study, whose title includes the phrase “well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations.” In fact, the study can be seen as part of a growing, and increasingly vocal, group of thought that sees the need for change in a society that is designed primarily for extroverts. In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain describes a bias against introverts who live in a society where our most important institutions -our schools and our workplaces- are set up with extroverts’ need for stimulation in mind.

And yet, as Cain puts it, “a third to a half of the world’s population are introverts, that’s one out of every two or three people you know.” Cain highlights a need for balance, and having us all maximise our talents by putting ourselves in “the zone of stimulation that is right for us.” “When it comes to creativity and to leadership,” she says. “We need introverts doing what they do best.”

While Mehl’s research doesn’t go explicitly into personality type, it does seem to corroborate Cain’s idea that we should be comfortable with our personality type, as it suggests we are are all naturally inclined to go deep. It’s important to realize that extroverts and introverts just get there in different ways. As Cain describes it in Quiet, for introverts, “it's not that there is no small talk... It's that it comes not at the beginning of conversations but at the end. Sensitive people… enjoy small talk only after they've gone deep.” Understanding our personality type as well as what stimulates us can help us know how to get more satisfaction and happiness in our lives through meaningful conversations.

In this vein, Dr. Mehl proposes that the finding of a link between happiness and deeper conversations may be because “human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people”, as reported by the New York Times.

“We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ — as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths you’ll be unhappy,” Dr Mehl said.

So the thought of someone who’s carefree and happy enough to only be interested in small talk seems to be way off the mark. The Circles team have seen participants really connect with this idea of learning and improving through deeper conversations. Dan Hoffman, Circles CEO, recently wrote about this:

“Test participants have consistently remarked on this idea of going deeper. It is what people are telling us they are thirsty for.

"[Deeper conversations are] where you can discover the truth about yourself, reflected through others. Where the masks come off, and you can practice being your best self.”

While small talk does have its place, it's a type of interaction that doesn’t really scratch the surface. If talking about the weather is an escape from an awkward social situation, deeper conversations help us hone our purpose in life. Small talk helps us smooth out the surface while deep conversation let’s us dive beneath it. One is a distraction while the other can lead to meaningful learning and change in our lives.

If you’d like to learn more about how Circles build safe spaces to foster deeper conversations, leave a comment below or contact us directly on Twitter (@CirclesNotRows). #happiness #science #deepconversations

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