The Hard Facts: Keep Talkin’ Happy Talk

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Higher well-being was associated with less small talk and having more substantive conversations. Compared with the unhappiest participants [in this study], the happiest participants … had roughly one third as much small talk and twice as many substantive conversations.” (Psychological Science, “Eavesdropping on Happiness,” Feb. 18, 2010)

When I started this girl-dating journey, I believed in the whole “don’t talk about religion or politics around the dinner table” thing. I didn’t want to stop a potential friendship in its tracks just because I went to Obama’s Grant Park election night rally while she might have spent that glorious evening mourning the fall of Sarah Palin.

I’ll keep it light and friendly, I thought. All Chicagoans can bond over the weather—seriously, Sun, it’s May—and I can talk about tabloid headlines all night if necessary.

But I’ve found the girl-dates that inspire me to skip home are the ones where we do, in fact, get serious. During one particularly promising dinner, my maybe-friend and I traded stories about our vastly different upbringings and debated the Man Upstairs and the existence of soul mates. (Her: “Do you believe in soul mates?” Me: “You mean, like us?” No, I didn’t really say that. But almost.)

Science backs up my anecdotal research, and to be honest, I’m a bit surprised. If you’d asked me a few months ago who I thought was happier, those who ponder life’s big questions or those who don’t sweat the (big or) small stuff, I’d have said the latter.

“It could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’” one of the authors of the study told the New York Times. I get that. The big thinkers so often seem the most somber, dragged down by the weight of the world.

But “substantive conversation” in this case isn’t limited to dissecting the meaning of life. A profound social encounter was defined as “an involved conversation of a substantive nature (i.e., meaningful information was exchanged, e.g., ‘She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?’)” Talking about TV even counts, if you’re analyzing characters and motivations. This is good for me. My Survivor strategy sessions are officially considered profound discussion. I knew it.

Needless to say, I no longer shy away from serious talks on the first girl-date. If it will make us both happier, then we’ll want to hang out again. And again. As long as we both shall live.

The study concludes that, “the happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial.” What it doesn’t venture is which came first. Are happier people more likely to have deep conversations? Or do deep conversations increase a person’s well-being?

What do you think? Which came first—the happiness or the depth? Do you tend to keep it light when you meet new people, or delve into more meaningful discussion?


Filed under Pickup Lines, The Hard Facts

50 responses to “The Hard Facts: Keep Talkin’ Happy Talk

  1. love this post!

    i tend to keep it light until i get the feeling they can “handle” more. i like a girlfriend who is willing to delve into the deeper stuff, but i don’t really dive in until they have shared a little first.

    so i guess the happiness comes before depth. but depth makes me reeeeeeeally happy.

  2. I’d argue that people who have profound conversations, but do not let those big life questions bog them down, are happy. I love having serious, thought-provoking conversations. But, I also love shedding the discussion and airing out my brain. Personally, I’m pretty good at the light ‘n fluffy stuff as well as the medium-serious stuff. Start waxing philosophical on me and you might lose me, though. =)

  3. Great post Rachel!

    As an introvert, I’ve never been very good at the small talk, so friendships based on ‘surface’ discussions have tended to fade out in my 20’s and 30’s. I get so much more our of the conversations that allow me to actually know the other person.

    I love it when I meet someone new and we dive right into the good stuff!

    On the other hand, it’s inevitable that we have lighter friendships and sometimes it leaves me feeling like something’s missing. I’d like to get better at balancing the two…


    • I love that you make clear here that as an introvert, it’s not that you hate people or anything, you’d just rather talk to a few close friends than be in a ballroom full of PBFFs. I think there’s a misconception that being introverted means you don’t like interacting at all. And then people get offended when you say “social people are happier.” When introverted people still need social connection, they–we?–just get it from a few super tight friends instead of being in a party full of sorta ones…

      • Oh Rachel – you could write a whole series about being an introvert friend!! I’m actually thinking about blogging on the topic a little more regularly, as it’s something that is always weaving it’s way through my life. Thanks so much for responding, it’s so true that we love interacting – just not in giant groups or for more that a few hours at a time!


        • Anonymous

          I totally agree!! A whole series about introverts – :)!!

          I’m finding that telling people I am an introvert, plus explaining that I just don’t enjoy the energy of huge party-type groups of people as much as I enjoy smaller groups, helps with some people.

          Some people will say, “Oh, me too!” and we can be friendlier toward each other without being clique-ishly exclusive. Other people want to “fix” – “Oh, but if you would just ….” Then, if I don’t immediately “change” and do things the way they think I “should,” they write me off as hopelessly challenged, instead of just different.

          Although I suppose that is one way of eliminating people from your social circle who don’t accept you….. 🙂

  4. The sort of person most likely to engage in meaningful conversation is a curious person, and for some reason — not grounded in any sort of science, as far as I know — curious, open people seem to be happier. So maybe the happiness comes first.

    On the other hand, meaningful conversation can facilitate one’s search for happiness, right?

    In other words: I’m stumped! Curiouser and curiouser.

    Love this post.

  5. I believe in deep conversations, definitely – and I love having them with good friends. I do tend to keep it light when I’m sounding people out, though. Then I’ll venture a couple of deeper topics, and if the person responds in kind – WIN.

    Great post!

  6. Great post! I can talk about many deep topics with people early on…but the one I tend to shy away from at first is politics. (Ha, as I just wrote this and tried to decide how to explain it–I realize that it’s because I’m much more open-minded about religion than I am about politics. Wow, that’s no fun to admit…but what I mean is that I wasn’t raised going to church or talking or learning about religion so I’m always interested to hear other people’s take on it. Politics, however, I have some pretty firm beliefs.)

    I actually do have some friends who I know are polar-opposite in their political beliefs than me…(election time is a toughie) and I am not as intimately close with those friends as the ones who are more aligned with my political beliefs.

    • I’m the same way, unfortunately. I love hearing about other people’s religions and upbringings, but when it comes to politics its a different story. Maybe it’s because with religion it doesn’t feel like us against you, but with politics it very much does, even if it shouldn’t.

  7. JP

    Like the post! I think the depth is really important early on, especially for establishing a solid friendship long term. If you’re someone who is closed off or doesn’t like the more substantial conversations, I think it would be hard to make a BFF, unless you’re OK with a friendship based on more surface stuff.

    I believe you can have great friends, who may just be fun friends, who make you happy. But being able to share personal stories or discussing your opinions on deeper issues exposes both people, creates trust and helps form a real bond and friendship.

  8. This is so interesting. I would have assumed that the light people, those not bogged down by the melancholy that seems to float around me, were happier … it is both heartening and thought-provoking that this may not be true.
    But I agree completely, that the conversations where things DO get into the big questions are the most meaningful, and, ultimately, the most fun. At least for me.

  9. i agree word for word with mamarazzi. start light and funny and then dig deeper. that is when i make my first round cuts! 😉 those that can hang with the deeper stuff and give a little of their own make it to round two…those that can’t. well, they don’t really impress me too much.

  10. Becky

    I like this topic! I agree with all the other comments, small talk in the beginning leading into the bigger stuff. However, question for all of you as well: Do you find having deep conversations with people whose ideas differ from yours sometimes difficult?

    I am not out to “convert” anyone to my way of thinking, but it seems that a lot of those I have political/religious/value differences with come across as “my way is the right way” during our conversations. I don’t like confrontation, although discussion is good, and will usually either say we need to agree to disagree and move on or clam up and let them run themselves out.

    It seems our society is moving more and more into confrontation rather than discussion with differences – both can be wrong and both can be right, and both of us may learn something from the other, but how openminded do you find yourself in these conversations, especially if it is a new friend?

    • I think you may be right, unfortunately, Becky. I definitely find it hard to disagree on a big issue with a potential friend early on. I don’t want to come across as combative or hostile. There are plenty of times I think later, “I probably should have addressed that,” but instead I just changed the subject because, as you say, I don;t want to seem like I’m starting a confrontation with a new friend, and its hard to walk the line between discussion and stare-down.

      • JenD

        I don’t know…I think there might be a way to respectfully disagree on a big issue without coming across as combative. If, however, your potential friend is firmly entrenched in one unmovable position politically or socially that you really can’t possibly agree with, you’ve got to ask yourself if you really want to be friends with someone that different. I mean, it’s totally possible to maintain a friendship if both people are respectful and can be honest about how they feel about certain things, so long as there are enough other things in common or qualities that each admires/enjoys in the other.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t “pull punches” with friends on sensitive subjects; while I have very strong beliefs about religion and politics, I value hearing from other people who don’t necessarily agree with me.

        If things get heated, I try to explain that people on different sides of the political debate (because that is usually where the friction is most evident) see the same problems – they just have different ideas about how to fix them, and that at least brings the conversation back to what we have in common, rather than how we differ.

        The thing is, I wonder whether it’s possible to really be “friends” with someone with whom you have significant values differences – it’s one thing to have different tastes in clothes, food, political parties, or denominations; it’s another to have different beliefs about what is or isn’t important, and still be “friends.” I don’t know, though. Maybe it depends on how you define the term “friend” in the first place?

  11. Becky

    Oops, and forgot to ask: Would the differences impede the friendship or make it more well-rounded?

    • I honestly think the differences — if you can get pas them– might make the friendship more well rounded. But it can be an impediment at first. That is to say, if you can get past the differences at the beginning (and here I am thiking differences in politics or values) I think they can add to the overall relationship. But it can be tough to get there.

  12. I keep it light until after the first date. I like to feel out my potentials to see if we’re on the same page, then go into Dr. Phil heart-to-hearts on topics ranging from why my mother is all up in my biz to how Speidi became such a freak show.

    I think substantive convos come first and create happiness…deep questions with your parents as kids, family dinners around the table, life talks in the bath with your partner (or is that just me?), and shoulder cries with besties…all make a more confident, secure, happy person.

  13. Katie

    I honestly loathe what my fiance and I call the “stop-and-chat”. I would rather be at a party attached at the hip to my fiance and his friends than engage in the two to five minute repetitive “Hi! How are you? So good to see you!” with a rotating circle of “social friends” (not close enough to call friends, but those you see out on a regular basis). With that said, I find that I’ve gotten the closest with those friends that soon after we start to hang out we have those deep conversations that allow you to get to know more about each other faster. I love it. Some of my closest friends are those that aren’t afraid to lay it all out on the table soon after we find that initial connection. Knowing that they’re that comfortable with me makes me feel more secure about our friendship or growing friendship. So in conclusion, I’d much rather skip over the light-hearted stuff and dive into the deeper discussions.

  14. First things first…you’re a Chicagoan?? ME TOO! (But not living there now.)

    Really enjoyed your post; for me, the deeper the connection (and usually the meatier the discussion), the happier I feel.

  15. I love to laugh and joke, but I am a very deep person. I sometimes tend to be too open and honest.

    However if that scares someone off, then we weren’t ment to be friends. I cant change who I am to make someone else happy.

    Excellent post

  16. Ana

    Wow, really interesting question, and I don’t know that I can answer it one way or another.

    I am surprised at the results of that study! It kind of goes against everything I’ve ever believed (and seen on the Simpsons…remember the one where Homer retrieves & then replaces the crayon in his brain?) that said that “ignorance is bliss”

    I agree with the commenter above who said that curious & open-minded people like to have deep conversations…but not sure that curiosity and open-mindedness lead to happiness all the time.

    For me, interesting conversations with intelligent people DEFINITELY make me happier; some times even bring me out of a not-so-happy place.
    These discussions are when you realize whether or not you have “chemistry” with a new potential friend or now. It takes it to a new level. And its so satisfying when you find someone with whom you click!

    I could probably talk about many things to a new friend—love, relationships, family, friendships, etc… but NOT politics. I am weirdly scared to bring up politics. We are no longer a society that I feel can have reasonable political debate. Also I’ve just realized that nearly all my friends share my politics…is it that fundamental of a difference in how we view the world that it affects our relationships? Yeah, maybe.

    • Totally agree re: politics. It’s a scary topic, because it’s loaded and we’re all defensive and–I’m just going to say it–perhaps a little judgmental of those with different politics than us. And it feels very us vs. them. I, too, have mostly friends who have the same political views as I. And those that don’t? We just don’t talk abotu politics much because neither of us are going to change our minds and I think we’re don’t want to get exasperated with each other.

  17. As a quick side note, research like this makes me smile. The inconclusive evidence about which came first is up to individual interpretation and sparks much debate. Healthy debate.

    Anyway. Back to your questions.

    I think that having deep conversations is a way to show that you are willing to go the extra mile in finding a true, bosom friend(s). If you keep it superficial, how will you ever build a connection with that person?

    That being said, I rarely talk about politics with people besides my husband. He and I are such moderates that we know we really bother people around us–liberals and conservatives. But, I am not afraid to touch on moral issues–teen sex, abortion (in some cases, that is), gangs, things that are always on my mind. For me, having an open and inviting conversation allows ideas to evolve and to be exchanged. I learn, my friend learns, and we both become better for it.

    Perhaps depth and happiness are interconnected.

  18. oooh, amber:
    “perhaps depth and happiness are interconnected”

    LOVE IT!

  19. I really like this take on things, because it’s true: how else do you really find out whether you’d be happy with a person until you’ve gotten to the nitty gritty stuff and learned from each other and realized differences of opinion are not the end of the world? Glad I found you via Momalon’s Five for Ten today!

  20. I swear I’m not blog-stalking you today. Just finally getting caught up on my reading! Laughed out loud at this:

    Her: “Do you believe in soul mates?” Me: “You mean, like us?”

    I would have felt the way you did, too, about being happier not sweating the big stuff. But then over the last few years it slowly occurred to me that I have lots of people I chat with, superficially, often. But so few people I talk to about the real stuff. I recently had one of those dinners where my “date” (a potential BFF) and I did talk about some serious stuff. And you know what? It changed our friendship for the better!

  21. “You mean, like us?” LOL! Too funny!
    I would love to just jump right in with deep, meaningful conversation, but I guess I’m too shy. I worry too much about being judged. So I start out with the light, easy stuff. Hopefully we hit it off and can delve into something more!

  22. I so appreciate the research! Small talk only goes so far, and it really really bores me. I don’t even know where to go with it after a few rounds.
    But the deeper stuff is what holds my interest, and what gets my mind going which makes me happy.
    Popped over from Momalom 🙂 So happy to have found your online home!

  23. Woah! I think I may have just discovered my girl dating/girl finding issue! I can’t stand the small talk. I get so bored so easily with it and so I always TRY to get into the deeper stuff (based on the small stuff) quickly. I ask lots of questions. I delve deeper. I am INTERESTED. Maybe, just maybe, I’m scaring people off! Maybe I’m too much too quick! I mean I don’t think I’m annoying or weird or anything but I AM curious more than other people might be. Hmmm…. but as Soccer Mom says above, if someone doesn’t like my “interest” then they probably aren’t meant to be my friend anyway.

    Such interesting food for thought!

    Deep, real conversation makes me happy. That I know.

    Excellent post!!

    • Dei

      I know what you mean! One PBFF told me afterwards that she felt she’d shared coffee with an investigative journalist… on the other hand, we still talk long & often, so I think there’s something to our approach if we’re using it on the right people!

  24. Small talk is filler. People exchanging civilities about nothing in particular. Small talk reminds me of many Seinfeld episodes.

    I find that substantive conversation paves the way for real friendships. Each one of us will have difficulties along the way and I think we look for that friend that we can REALLY talk to and can comfort us.

    I am not saying I want to do intense all of the time, but it helps in knowing that you can count on friends that can discuss more than just the weather.

  25. I like to feel people out before I go deeply with them. I guess it’s a tiered friend-finding approach. The first tier is do we have fun together (versus those who are too stuffy or loose for me, like a gal pal who once told me I embarrass her). If that fit is right, then we move into the second tier of do we enjoy spending time together (versus just meeting up for social situations). If that clicks, then I delve deeper to find out if this is a soul-sister or just a good friend.

    I think, for me, the happiness is what allows the depth. Definitely need both, though.

  26. Rachel – now I truly know what’s missing in my life. Friends I can have deep conversations with! I have friends, but you can only go so far with talk of the weather, poopy diapers and work.

    Now I know why I feel so recharged after a very rare long phone conversation with a long distance BFF – it’s because we really dive in and we REALLY talk. And it’s exhilarating. (Yes, I don’t get out much).

    I do want to find that friend you describe here. One I can meet for coffee and have a real conversation with for a long, long time.

    On a side note, I’m so jealous you were at Grant Park. I was at home, ready to pop, and didn’t quite want to risk having a baby amid the mass of people. You know, being the thoughtful person that I am – didn’t want to take the limelight off the President-to-be that night 🙂

  27. I was interested in these findings as well—especially the notion that talking about things that truly matter to us, whether our personal selves or our world, is a better route than keeping things fake and on the surface.

    The poet John O’Donohue has another name for BFF, he calls it Anam Cara (or soul friend).

    Maybe this sort of place helps us refine our authentic selves and voices so that we’re better able to know and enjoy those BFFs when we find them.

    • “The poet John O’Donohue has another name for BFF, he calls it Anam Cara (or soul friend).”

      privilegeofparenting, thank you for sharing this! i LOVE the sound of that, anam cara. although i am down with besties, bff, etc…i also feel as i get older i want a friendship that is a bit deeper. just like we have been talking about here–the deepness, the intimacy that comes with sharing things that are more personal. i just really love the idea of a ‘soul friend’. this made my morning! 🙂

  28. JenD

    I used to feel like I had to present my most-agreeable self to any potential friends but the truth is, when I’m not my authentic self right off the bat, I’ll never truly feel close to a person as a true friend. When we mind our p’s and q’s too much, I think the other person can sense that we’re either hiding something or just not being genuine. I understand how none of us really wants to turn anyone off with our opinions and beliefs, but establishing who we really are and what we really feel (even if in a gentle sort of way) really does help weed out those with whom we’ll never truly connect.

    And connection is what we’re seeking in a friendship, isn’t it?

    To the other issue of which begets which: happiness or deep thinking, I think those who are deep thinkers are those I want to be with most. That’s just what I find most fulfilling in any relationship. Others may not be natural delvers and that’s okay, too, I think. I just don’t tend to mesh with them. I don’t know that it’s an issue of who is happiest, but more a question of what we individually connect with. Does that make sense? My morning java is taking the slow route to my brain!

  29. Jen

    What a great post. For me the “depth” of the conversation is less important than finding someone who seems to “get” me. Most of my social interactions are with other mothers, and, quite frankly, mothers can be harsh critics of other mothers. I tend to be the person who approaches interactions with little formality. I’m fairly forthcoming–about opinions, experiences. And I find that the most meaningful exchanges for me aren’t necessarily when someone agrees with me (whether about my kids’ choice in wardrobe that day or the presidential candidates) but when I feel I am understood/taken seriously. THAT is what makes me happy.

  30. Eva

    Do you think it all comes back to being ourselves? To feeling comfortable being authentic, saying what is on our mind, instead of trying to censor ourselves in order to be more likable. When I feel I can be true, take off the mask, and just be myself, I’m happiest.

    Thanks for this – I LOVE research!

  31. There is an article in the June Real Simple>/i> about a group of women gardeners that made a spontaneous gardening co-op. Where this is relevant to you is that in the article, they said that they started out just helping each other garden but as time went on and they began to share experiences and spend more time together, they formed an inordinately strong bond that transcended their differences.

    Made me think of you.

  32. Dei

    Just had a total nerdgasm: i.e. and e.g. in the same parenthetical clause! Rachel, if you would settle for an I(nternet)O(nly)FF, I would be yours in a heartbeat!! I. LOVE. This. Blog. Your journey + willingness to share + experiences on the path + writing style + weltanschauung = 1 enamored reader! As a MWF whose BFF just moved out of state and who is searching for an alternate (NOT a replacement!), every single post seems to resonate with me. Okay, I will quit gushing now. Keep up the good work!

  33. Pingback: bloomgirl » Girlfriends – Profound and Happy

  34. Pingback: Making Friends at the Gym | MWF Seeking BFF

  35. My BFF and I are both happy people, Gidget types who’d prefer to go to the beach and sit in the sun rather than sit in a dark house contemplating the evils of the world, but, while at the beach, enjoying the sun, we talk about God and worldviews and our upbringings. We enjoy meaningful conversation.

  36. I just finished your book. SO INSPIRING!

  37. It would be so helpful if people would just wear a sign around their necks that says either “small talk only” or “willing to delve.” I like to delve into deeper conversation, but I’ve been burned by people who are scared off by that. I guess it’s necessary to feel out a person and find out how far they’re willing to go conversationally, but it seems like a waste of time. I just want to get right into the good stuff. I can talk to ANYONE about the weather!

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