HEARTS OF OAK: Finding happiness in ‘real talk’

Jonas Kane

What makes people happy? Is it long walks on the beach? Going away on vacations? Getting drunk at parties? Scanning pictures or statuses on Facebook? Flipping through channels on TV? Surfing the internet? Eating candy?

How about having long, meaningful conversations contemplating the state of the world or the complexities of life?

It turns out that the last of these might just be the one that helps determine whether or not there is lasting happiness in your life. 

While some of the earlier choices might lead to a transient sense of joy, a recent study suggests that sustainable levels of happiness might be positively influenced by how often you participate in substantive conversations.

 In short, the study found that people who spend a greater amount of time truly talking about wide-ranging topics from philosophy to news stories to music and less time blathering in banalities, such as, “It’s raining” or “What’s on TV?” could be prone to leading happier and more fulfilling lives.

The study, performed by Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona and published in the journal Psychological Science, obtained results from 79 college students.

It provided each participant with an Electronically Activated Recorder that measured sounds for 30 seconds every 12.5 minutes, from which researchers identified whether or not the participant was engaging in conversation and whether or not it was substantive, small talk or neither as some conversing was labeled as practical.

Results were then measured based on self-assessments of happiness, as well as assessments from people who knew the subjects. 

The results reported higher levels of happiness in those individuals who talked about deeper subjects and eschewed talking about nonsense.

Although the sample size is clearly small, and though it does not prove a direct correlation between happiness and number of substantial conversations, which it proposes as the next step to measure, the study does suggest the possibility that “facilitating substantive conversations” could lead to an increase in happiness. 

In a world where we are often taught to get by with abbreviated, generally irrelevant communication in our social lives, such as text messaging, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and to excel at inane conversations and fake relationships in our professional lives, such as including small talk, networking and “making connections,” the results suggest that people should instead put more emphasis on having genuine conversations and relationships.

The results shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, the ways that we talk about the world illuminate how we view life. In our day-to-day lives, how we interact with other people helps define who we are and how we construct meaning in the world. 

When we discuss any subject with passion and depth, it shows that we actually see some meaning in life and have chosen to take it seriously. 

And it also shows that the people we surround ourselves with have a similar, thoughtful interest in the world around them.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that we have to or should spend every waking second engaging in deep philosophical questions or conversing intelligently with our friends.

Some playful conversation can be enjoyable, too. But we can also minimize the amount of time spent engaging in or, even worse, learning about small talk in favor of spending more time engaging in real talk.

Studies aside, this isn’t guaranteed to make you happy. 

Happiness, after all, is contingent on many factors in one’s life, and factors like health and income are also important to consider.

But the relationships we have and the way we cultivate them play a large role in how positively we view life. 

By talking about topics in depth, we show that we and the people around us actually care about the world.

So, the next time someone asks you something silly about the weather, consider politely deflecting the question to steer the conversation in a more enlightened direction.

You might just learn something new about the other person, the world or even yourself. And maybe it will make your life a little bit brighter.


Jonas Kane is a senior English and political science major from Harrisburg, Pa.  He can be reached at [email protected].