Meaningful Conversations Make People Happier, But Small Talk Won’t Bring You Down

TUCSON, Ariz. —  Taking part in a deep, meaningful conversation with someone can boost one’s level of happiness, a recent study confirms, but does that mean idle small talk will do the opposite?

Let’s be honest: getting stuck in a fruitless conversation with someone can be a drag, if not an unwanted annoyance. Researchers at the University of Arizona say small talk, however, isn’t necessarily detrimental to our well-being.

“We define small talk as a conversation where the two conversation partners walk away still knowing equally as much — or little — about each other and nothing else,” explains study co-author Mattias Mehl, professor of psychology at Arizona, in a news release. “In substantive conversation, there is real, meaningful information exchanged. Importantly, it could be about any topic — politics, relationships, the weather — it just needs to be at a more than trivial level of depth.”

The study revisited a previous experiment with 79 college students that Mehl conducted in 2010. That study concluded that substantive conversations were associated with greater overall happiness, while idle chat was associated with increased negative feelings. But this latest work added a larger and more diverse sample size, surveying a total of 486 people, including four specific groups of peopel: college students, breast cancer survivors and their partners, recently divorced adults, and healthy adults participating in a meditation intervention group.

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Participants were outfitted with a device that intermittently turns on and records piece of conversations with others. The recorded audio clips were then classified based on how meaningful the chatter was, or if it was simple small talk.

It turns out, after involving more participants, useless banter isn’t so bad after all. The new study confirmed that quality conversations were positively associated with greater happiness, but it also found that small talk had no effect on happiness positively or negatively.

“We do not think anymore that there is an inherent tension between having small talk and having substantive conversations. Small talk didn’t positively contribute to happiness, and it didn’t negatively contribute to it,” says Mehl.

The researchers thought that differing personalities could be detrimental to conversation and, consequently, one’s happiness, but it turned out that wasn’t the case.

“We expected that personality might make a difference, for example that extroverts might benefit more from social interactions than introverts or that substantive conversations might be more closely linked to well-being for introverts than for extroverts, and were very surprised that this does not seem to be the case,” says lead author Anne Milek.

The authors say they’re not certain that engaging in more substantive conversation would make people happier, or if happier people simply find themselves taking part in deeper conversation. Future studies by the group may take on this question.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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