The Meaning of a Good Conversation

Who do you think is happier? People who spend more time talking about the state of the world? Or people who prefer discussing the weather?

Given the current state of the world, one might assume the weather would be a more satisfying subject of conversation. But according to Matthias Mehl (psychology, University of Arizona), more seriously-minded talkers tend to be happier.

His study, published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, is unfortunately only available to subscribers. But a review of his findings is free for the reading under the title “Talk Deeply, Be Happy”.

“The study… involved 79 college students — 32 men and 47 women — who agreed to wear an electronically activated recorder with a microphone on their lapel that recorded 30-second snippets of conversation every 12.5 minutes for four days, creating what Dr. Mehl called “an acoustic diary of their day.”

Researchers then went through the tapes and classified the conversation snippets as either small talk about the weather or having watched a TV show, and more substantive talk about current affairs, philosophy, the difference between Baptists and Catholics or the role of education. A conversation about a TV show wasn’t always considered small talk; it could be categorized as substantive if the speakers analyzed the characters and their motivations, for example.

Many conversations were more practical and did not fit in either category, including questions about homework or who was taking out the trash, for example, Dr. Mehl said. Over all, about a third of all conversation was ranked as substantive, and about a fifth consisted of small talk.

But the happiest person in the study, based on self-reports about satisfaction with life and other happiness measures as well as reports from people who knew the subject, had twice as many substantive conversations, and only one-third of the amount of small talk as the unhappiest, Dr. Mehl said. Almost every other conversation the happiest person had — 45.9 percent of the day’s conversations — were substantive, while only 21.8 percent of the unhappiest person’s conversations were substantive.

Small talk made up only 10 percent of the happiest person’s conversations, while it made up almost three times as much –- or 28.3 percent –- of the unhappiest person’s conversations.”

Mehl realizes that his study doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect-link between serious conversations and happiness, but he hopes the next stage of his work might. He plans to ask students to cut back on the small talk, increase the number of their serious conversation, and see if they feel happier. Think it’ll work? I doubt it.

Years ago when I quit my last lab job, one of my co-workers said, “Do you know what I’ll miss about you? I’ll miss all the long talks we used to have.” My first reaction to this—inside my head, not out loud—was “What long talks? All we ever had were little five and ten minute snippets of conversation about books, films, politics, life. We never had a really long talk about anything!” I never took them too seriously, but evidently my colleague did, and over the years I’ve wondered why. I think Mehl’s study suggests an answer. It’s not that my conversation skills were superior to his or that as a serious person I naturally tend to be happier. But I do have reasons to believe that life has meaning and is worth taking seriously, and he didn’t.

According to the Scriptures a good conversation can and should reflect this.

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Col. 4:5-6.

But a good conversation can only reflect that meaning, point in the direction of it. It can’t create it.