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.