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The Way You Talk Can Boost Your Happiness

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Do meaningful conversations make people happier or does happiness cause people to seek more depth in their interactions? Let's talk more about the correlation.
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I popped into Chicago recently for a 36-hour trip and managed to meet my brother at Starbucks between appointments. I have 10 siblings and our conversations typically pick up exactly where they left off the last time we saw each other, whether it’s been six weeks or four months. We did a deep dive into kids, relationships, work and life. That half an hour over coffee was the highlight of the trip.

One study suggests that’s a recipe for greater happiness—meaningful conversation. Researchers from the University of Arizona and Washington University in St. Louis equipped 79 college-aged men and women with a small digital recording device that sampled 30-second conversation snippets every 12.5 minutes over four days. Participants filled out psychological surveys about their well-being and personality three weeks apart. (Three friends also assessed the participant.)

Researchers sorted the conversations into “small talk” and “substantive” conversations. “Small talk is uninvolved conversation where only trivial information is exchanged,” said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist and co-author of the study. “Substantive is a little trickier; we don’t have too many conversations on a daily basis that would qualify as truly deep, but we wanted them to be engaged or involved in a topic where meaningful information is exchanged.” (Functional talk—i.e., “Whose turn is it to take out the garbage?”—and school-specific topics were eliminated.)

The happiest people spent about 25 percent less time alone, and 70 percent more time talking, compared to participants at the bottom of the well-being scale. In terms of what they discussed, the happiest people had twice as many substantive conversations and a third as much small talk as the unhappiest folks.

But the study presents a chicken-and-egg problem: Do meaningful conversations make people happier, or does happiness cause people to seek more depth in their interactions?

“As scientists we don’t know,” said co-author Simine Vazire, associate psychology professor at UC Davis. “It might be worth trying to engage in more deep conversations. It doesn’t have to be about philosophy or religion; you can have deep conversations about sports. It also doesn’t require more self-disclosure, but getting beyond the script of a superficial encounter.”

Alternately, Vazire added, “If you want to have more real connections with people, try to act happier and see if that leads to more meaningful conversation.”

Here are three ways to make conversation more meaningful:

1. For deeper family conversations at the dinner table, ask everyone to describe three good things that happened to them that day.

We do this daily in my house, and it never fails to help us appreciate the blessings in our lives. Ask follow up questions about who was there, how the event transpired and why it was meaningful. (And of course, no phones allowed at the table.)

2. Play “Would You Rather?”

Friends playing a game.

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My kids and I love this game. We make up questions like, “Would you rather live in Paris or London, and why?” or “Would you rather be able to fly or become invisible, and why?”

3. If you don’t feel like making up your own questions, use a conversation starter game, such as “TableTopics.”

It’s a cube full of cards that contain questions such as, “Who is one of your heroes and why do they inspire you?” and “How was your grandparents’ childhood different from yours?” There are different versions for conversations with kids by age group, specific subject areas like happiness and questions for adult events such as dinner parties. It’s a great way to spice up your talk—and boost your happiness.