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Chit-chat, Happiness, and You

Hate chit-chat? Turns out, that's not such a bad thing.

New research confirms that our loathing for chit-chat is not so terrible, really.

For this research, 79 undergraduates were wired with a gizmo that recorded 30 seconds of sound every 12.5 minutes during waking hours. Coders then identified whether the participant was alone or talking, and whether the conversation was small talk or substantive. To measure participants' well-being, researchers used both self-reports and reports from three of each participant's friends. Participants also completed the Big Five Inventory. (That's openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.)

Researchers confirmed what others have already established: The less time people spend alone, the greater their sense of well-being. But the point, and the important finding, is the relationship between well-being and substantive conversation over small talk. They found that people who have more deep conversations than chit-chat are happier. The happiest people spent less time alone and more time talking, but they also had more than twice as many substantive conversations and one-third as much small talk as the unhappiest people.

So, what does this say to us? Could this be that introverts actually are happier (in our own quiet way) than extroverts because we prefer deep conversation? And are introverts more likely to have substantive conversations than extroverts?

I posed these questions to lead researcher Matthias R. Mehl at the University of Arizona, Tucson. He thought they were pretty interesting, so he went back to his research to look for relevant correlations. Alas for my brilliant mind, he reported back that, "There is no relationship between introversion/extroversion and small talk versus substantive conversation."

OK, then. But let's talk about it some more anyway.

When researchers controlled for personality, they found a relationship between substantive conversation and happiness for all kinds of people. "I think this means something really interesting," Mehl pointed out. "It means that if somebody is currently happier than what you would expect based on their disposition, they still have more substantive conversations. Even if you're a pessimist who has a lot of substantive conversation, you're happier."

Of course, we can't attach causation to this correlation; We don't know if deep conversations cause greater happiness or if happiness causes more deep conversations--although we can speculate that happiness might make deep conversations easier to come by. "Maybe people don't like to have deep conversations with grumpy people," Mehl says. "If you're a happy person you're probably more fun to have around and attract these meaningful conversations."

Same goes for anxiety. If you're anxious around people, you won't be everyone's favorite conversational partner. I'm sorry, but it's true. So shy introverts might benefit from learning to manage their shyness.

Mehl next wants to tease apart whether the content of the conversations matters (i.e. personal disclosure vs. more general conversation) and he wants to measure whether deep conversation can make a person happier. (Building on the seminal research of his doctoral advisor, Dr. James Pennebaker, about the benefits of personal disclosure in writing.)

Still, there are a couple of particular lessons we can take from this preliminary research.

One is that it is good for us to push past our solitary nature to connect with other people. Being introverted does not and should not, I think, mean being isolated. While we should respect our need for solitude, we must show equal respect to the benefits of connections. If that means leaving our comfort zone sometimes, so be it. Think of it as the broccoli of living.

But this research also means that we can feel fine about connecting our way, opting for deep conversation over cheery chit-chat. The next time someone accuses you of being "too intense," skip any shame that person is trying to lay on you. Discussing the weather doesn't do much for us, discussing the state of the world is better in every way. We thought so, and now the research backs us up.


My book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be released December 4, 2012, just in time for party/festive/family-togetherness season. You know you need it.


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Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Copyright 2010 Sophia Dembling