The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Does happiness come from lots of quick conversations or a few deep ones?

Do deep conversations make people happy or unhappy?

What makes people happier — lots of quick conversations with lots of friends each day OR a few long conversations with a few friends?

Researchers recently fitted volunteers with a little device that recorded 30 seconds of sound every twelve minutes for four days. They collected about 20,000 recordings, and then analyzed the recordings to see if they were brief interactions or parts of substantive conversations. Matthias R. Mehl, Shannon E. Holleran, C. Shelby Clark and Simine Vazire found that the happiest volunteers spent little time alone and lots of time talking compared to the unhappiest volunteers. They also found the happiest volunteers had twice as many deep conversations as the unhappiest people. The research was published in Psychological Science.

The real answer to the puzzle — do a few deep conversations make people happier than lots of fleeting conversations — is … we don’t really know. The study found a correlation between happiness and deeper conversations, but that does not automatically tell us that deep conversations make people happy. (I can think of several deep conversations that would make me extremely unhappy.) It certainly is possible that people who feel happier have deeper conversations than those who feel unhappier — happiness may be the horse and deep conversations the carriage, rather than the other way around. It is also possible that some other variable is causing both deeper conversations as well as increased happiness (increased leisure time, for example). Telling people who are stressed from overwork and dealing with the kids to also make time for long, deep conversations could exacerbate their stress!

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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