Happy People Have Have Better Conversations

A new study* shows that happier people spend more time in deep, substantial conversations. The researchers asked 79 undergraduates to wear a specially designed digital audio recorder. Every 12 1/2 minutes, the recorder turned itself on and recorded exactly 30 seconds of audio. Each person wore the recorder for four days, resulting in a mountain of data. The research team listened to every single 30-second clip, and marked whether the person was alone, or was engaged in a conversation. And if they were conversing, the research team marked whether the conversation was “uninvolved and banal” or whether it was “an involved conversation of a substantive nature.” Then, they had all 79 people complete a questionnaire about their level of happiness (psychologists have several standard measures for “subjective well being”) and also complete a personality trait questionnaire.

The results: Happier people spend less time alone and more time talking with others. And happier people spent less time in small talk, and more time in substantive conversations. Compared to the most unhappy people, the happiest people spent 25% less time alone, 70% more time talking, and twice as much time in substantive conversations!

When the researchers controlled for personality traits, these relationships were just as strong–showing that the happiness differences are not due to personality differences.

This study reminded me of my 2001 book Creating Conversations, which explores the creativity of everyday conversation. Creativity researchers have found a connection between engaging in creative acts and increased happiness, and good conversations are deeply creative, so this new study confirms what we know about creativity and conversation.

The researchers caution that the study does not prove causality–they don’t know whether the happiest people start out being happy, and then choose to engage in substantive conversation, or whether they start out engaging in substantive conversation and that then makes them happier. It’s probably a complex feedback loop, where causality works both ways. In any case, if you’d like to be a bit happier, it couldn’t hurt to spend more time with others, and try to go for more serious conversations.

*Eavesdropping on Happiness : Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations. Mehl, Vazire, Holleran, & Clark, Psychological Science, 2010, 21, 539.

6 thoughts on “Happy People Have Have Better Conversations

  1. Keith,

    From my experience, I agree with what you are saying.

    I think the principle is this: when we are free or feel free we are happy. And when we are happy, our mind is relaxed, we are feeling well, comfortable and free to “flow”.

    I have been interested Gallup’s research on strengths, the principles of individual needs on a team (their book 12), and Wellbeing. Have you researched about how dreams/vision is a component of group genius?

    Keith, I have passed your book on to a few folks. Just want to know that you are stirring up the waters with me and the people around me.

    Recently, someone sent me a pdf of the Medici effect. Here’s the link: http://www.themedicieffect.com/downloads/MediciEffect.pdf I have just glanced at it (TME) but much of what you say in Group Genius is there.

    1. Thank you for your post!

      I haven’t encountered any psychological research on dreams and creativity. In general, dreams are fairly hard to study scientifically, although I know there is a small group of “sleep researchers” doing their work in the wee hours…

      The Medici Effect is a great book; you’re right, it draws on some of the same psychological research as my book GROUP GENIUS.

  2. Keith,
    Thanks for your response. I was not clear. By dreams, I mean hopes and aspirations. The Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream…’ idea of dreams. The idea that optimism is an essential ingredient of group genius?

    The ‘sleep research’ work probably reveals some creative components as well.

  3. Absolutely, an important part of creativity is the interest, intention, goal, problem statement…those are the more “cognitive” terms, but they correspond to what we think of as “dreams” and “visions.”

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