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Can You Talk Your Way to Happy?

Meaningful conversations more fulfilling than small talk, researchers find

FRIDAY, March 5 (HealthDay News) -- Small talk has its place as a social lubricant, but more meaningful conversations are what really make people happy, new research suggests.

"Small talk does have a function," said study author Matthias Mehl, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "For smooth social functioning, we need small talk."

But those who also have meaningful conversations -- what Mehl calls "substantive" talks -- are happier, he has found. "What really connects you to people is substantive, meaningful conversation rather than small talk."

"It doesn't have to be all about philosophy or the afterlife, it just has to have substance," he said.

For the study, Mehl equipped 79 college men and women with a portable device called an electronically activated recorder (EAR), which periodically records snippets of conversation as the wearers follow their normal routine. Every 12.5 minutes, the device samples 30 seconds of sounds.

Over four days' time, that totaled more than 23,000 recordings, or about 300 per participant.

Mehl's team listened to the recordings, classifying the conversations as small talk or substantive conversation.

For instance, small talk: "What do you have there? Popcorn? Yummy!" But the conversation that went like this was substantive: "She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?"

Participants took tests to evaluate their personality and their well-being.

Those who reported the higher levels of well-being, Mehl found, spent less time alone and more time talking to others. When he compared the unhappiest participants with the happiest, he found the happiest spent about 25 percent less time alone -- 58.7 percent of their time vs. 76.8 percent. They also spent about 70 percent more time talking -- 39.7 percent of the time vs. 23.2 percent.

The happiest also had about one third as much small talk as the unhappiest and twice as many substantive conversations.

While women may have a reputation as the gender most adept at discussing feelings -- and having deep conversations -- Mehl said the effects of having substantive conversations were slightly more for men, although he didn't delve into why.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

The study doesn't prove cause-and-effect, of course, Mehl said. It's not known if happy people are simple "social attractors" who find it easy to become involved in deep conversation, or if the deep conversations actually make people happy directly, he said.

But the results, he writes, "raise the interesting possibility that happiness can be increased by facilitating substantive conversations."

Two other experts who reviewed the findings said the study helps to answer the age-old puzzle of what makes people happy, but agreed it doesn't prove cause-and-effect . "We can't conclude that if you go out and have meaningful conversation you are going to be happier," said James Maddux, professor of psychology at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.

But the association makes sense, he said. When marriages go sour, he observed, "the conversation often changes; they talk about more superficial [topics]." In couples therapy, unhappy partners are often asked to begin to have meaningful conversations again.

It would not surprise him, he said, that if someone is unhappy in a relationship, one source of the unhappiness is a lack of meaningful conversation.

The device used in the study also "captures something real," rather than relying on self-reports, said Sonja Lyubormirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, a long-time happiness researcher who wrote The How of Happiness.

Often, in happiness research, she said, participants will self-report components such as their number of friends.

The new findings compliment other happiness research, she said. "There's lots of research showing happiness is linked with greater social support," she said. "Happier people spend more time with others. Substantive conversations [reported more by the happier people] would be a marker that they are talking to closer friends. This study is a nice validation."

More information

To learn more about happiness research, visit the American Psychological Association.

SOURCES: Matthias R. Mehl, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson; Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor, psychology, University of California, Riverside; James Maddux, Ph.D., professor, psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; Feb. 18, 2010, Psychological Science, online

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