Monday, March 22, 2010

Talk Meaningfully - Be Happy

So, those long discussions about the meaning of life, the politics of defense spending, and Austrian economic theory might actually be making you happier. Hard to believe?

Dr. Matthias Mehl, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona has been studying who is happier - the small-talk stater of the obvious, or, the deep-thinker who is engaged in meaningful discussions with their friends and colleagues.

The implications are not so obvious at first glance. Could the reports of life dissatisfaction, for instance, after losing a job, be more about the loss of conversing about subjects that the participants have a deep and personal connection to? Maybe.

The researchers recorded 79 people and thousands of their conversations over a four-day period.

Participants were equipped with a digital recording device called Electronically Activated Recorder, or EAR, that sampled 30-second snippets every 12.5 minutes. The EAR captured not only conversations but also other ambient sounds as participants went about their daily lives and thereby provided the researchers essentially with an acoustic log of their days.

Each recording was codified as to whether a participant was alone, talking with others and whether those conversations were superficial or more complex. Participants’ well-being was assessed with self and friend reports of life satisfaction and happiness.

This study measured participants while engaging in conversation. What about blogging? Is that the new substitute for people?

What Mehl and his team found was that, consistent with prior research, higher well-being was associated with spending less time alone and more time talking to others. Furthermore, and maybe more surprisingly, they found that higher well-being was robustly related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations. Compared with the unhappiest participants in the study, the happiest participants had roughly one-third as much small talk and twice as many substantive conversations.

Further studies will hopefully evolve to understand the deeper aspects of what constitutes conversation. For now, hanging out at the coffee shop and discussing the latest posts on Popular Science may be your best bet.

The initial indication, Mehl said, is that the happy life is social rather than solitary and conversationally deep rather than superficial. Although the current study cannot answer the question of what causes what, it raises the possibility that happiness can be increased by facilitating substantive conversation, a hypothesis he would like to see explored in future research.

Cut out that small-talk! Let's get on with Kant.

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