Laugh out loud... According to new research, happiness is directly related to the kind of conversation we have with our family and friends Image Credit: Supplied

Some days ago I decided to go to the movies with a group of friends. We took the Metro and as it sped to the mall we powered on with what we would do after the movie. From the latest ‘kind' of sunglasses one of us was coveting to the enormously chic red hangbag that was price-slashed to delightful affordability to the eminently eye-catching appeal of Robert Pattison the vampire, we turned into incorrigible motor mouths as we giggled (yes, that too) and chuckled our way on. Post-movie, we walked and talked some more. The red handbag had been snapped up by some lucky gal but the sunglasses were still up for grabs. As evenings go it was fun but not memorable.

Then there was another evening. It was sometime last year. There was a power outage in my building for an hour or so. The smoke alarms were at their shrill best and the elevators were like moody clams. So families trooped down the stairwell pooling in the lobby. The next hour was spent in friendly banter as some of my neighbours had the presence of mind to bring along candles to help kids not bang into walls in the dark. Others brought along snacks and still-cold soft drinks. The atmosphere was carnival-like as we found ourselves face-to-face with neighbours who had thus far been strangers we encountered in silent elevator rides. By the time the lights came on, we were having too much of a good time to even notice exactly when that happened and a few good things had occurred. New friends were made, new neighbourly bonds forged and a sense of community made itself felt.

And I can remember exactly the conversations I had with each person that evening.

So how does it work? Why do we remember one kind of a conversation and not the other? Why do some discussions or comments stay with us while others seem to evaporate?

A new body of research has drawn a bead on this. People, it says, feel happier, more connected and less stressful when they are social and communicate with other members of society. What's more, those who engage in meaningful conversations rather than in small talk are happier.

Psychologists Matthias R Mehl, Simine Vazire, Shannon E Holleran and C Shelby Clark representing the Washington University at St Louis (WUSL) and the University of Arizona, published their report, Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations in a science journal recently. The conclusions of the study were based on a four-day-long survey of 79 men and women, all of them college students. The researchers paid attention to what they were talking about, and then tried to find correlations between this data and the participants' level of happiness. The investigators collected about 20,000 audio snippets from all subjects, as the individuals carried recording devices on themselves. The sounds were collected randomly, once every 12.5 minutes and each snippet was 30 seconds long. Those who were identified as being most happy were 30 per cent less likely to be spending time alone. In 70 per cent of the cases, they were engaged in meaningful conversations with another person, the team found. The findings suggest that happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial.

What makes talk small or big?

The psychologists established the fact that it is important to meet, greet and make conversation, of any kind, big or small with people in order to be happy than be confined to your room punching away at the computer keyboard and living in an ether world. And, while connecting with people, if you are able to make ‘meaningful conversation', that's even better.

In an email interview with Friday, Simine Vazire, assistant professor of psychology at the WUSL Department of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the study says: "Having more conversation, no matter how trivial, appears to be associated with a greater sense of happiness among the people in our study. The happiest were people who engaged often in more meaningful and substantive discussions, as opposed to those who filled conversations with idle chit-chat and small talk."

But that does not mean that bankers, politicians and economists are the happiest of folks on this planet.

OK, let's backtrack a bit. When these researchers say meaningful conversations they are not suggesting it be about the thawing of the Arctic caps, the eroding equity base of a corporate group or the discovery of a new species of beetle in the Amazon basin. Conversations could be about simple things that are meaningful to you and your sense of belonging, to your loved ones or about your secret to laughing while stuck in a traffic jam. Says Vazire: "We defined ‘substantive conversation' as one in which meaningful information is exchanged. Small talk did not include the exchange of significant information. We mostly relied on the judges' intuition about what is substantive and what is superficial, and the judges' ratings were in agreement, so people seem to have an intuitive understanding of what makes a conversation substantive or superficial."

This brings us to the issue of what really is small versus big talk.

Defining small and big talk

Banal talk refers to the kind that has a general context such as the weather, the latest fashions, irreverent humour, topics that are likely to be instant fireworks - they burn bright and light up the sky for a few seconds and then all is dark.

Substantive talk, on the other hand, is like an echo in a deep valley that keeps coming back to you in waves. It is these kind of mentally-returning conversations, the researchers say, that help forge enduring bonds, nurture compassion and strengthen friendships and generally make the term ‘feel-good' a happily weighty sensation.

Matthew Murthy, a Dubai-based professional, agrees with the conclusions of this research. Murthy, 28, is of British and Indian parentage. He loves his salsa lessons as much as he does his meditation classes. He straddles both worlds and is a profoundly happy person because of it. "I think the willingness to embrace other cultures other than one's own is the first step to successful communication," says Murthy. "When we talk about culture, however, we don't just mean on a national or global scale, but even at the level of every individual. Through our self-expression we cultivate a unique identity, a personal culture. It is the amalgamation of each individual expression that creates our society as we know it."

Murthy is clear-headed about fessing up to what he doesn't know so he can learn about it. He believes it to be the key to finding happiness. "I try to be open-minded and explore all dimensions of life. The idea of ‘I don't know' is what continually reminds me and inspires me to always be new and not to judge. It helps me spot the opportunities for infinite possibilities because there is always somewhere further to go, to explore, and greater things to realise."

In the pursuit of those beliefs he finds himself making conversations that matter, that inform, provoke and inspire and that, he says, make him a happy man. "Self-expression and communication play a major role in creating that happiness for me."

It's all talk, talk, talk...

Which then brings us to the most important form of communication today - social networking. Facebook, Twitter and the dozens of other conduits for communication are all tools of self-expression. A study conducted last year by the University of California points out that we are bombarded with 34 gigabytes of information a day, which amounts to about 100,000 words a day! We are fast moving towards a state of being overwhelmed by this information overload.

In her book, The Art of Concentration, UK-based broadcast journalist and health writer, Harriet Griffey points out that all average working people are experiencing an attention crisis! People are interrupted every three minutes and that is why our attention span is no longer than three minutes, 62 per cent of people the world over are addicted to email.

Are they making us the happier for it? Do you feel happy when you can tweet to someone sitting five feet away from you even if you don't have the time to walk across and talk? Can a smiley icon on an email and a smart joke be a substitute for a leisurely chat over a cup of coffee? We tweet to someone halfway across the world with indisputable brio but when we step into the elevator and meet our neighbour, we prefer to examine the elevator's ceiling with intense interest. Thousands of megabytes of words are suspended in space as we share the new colour of our nail paint or the new feature in our mobile phone but the jury is still out on whether all this information overload is making us happy people.

Part of the human network

At the other end of the scale of the benefits of conversations, away from the research mentioned above, are other realities that confront us to seek comfort in small talk.

Human beings are fundamentally social animals and our communication should have a lot of personal contact, says Dr Annie Crookes, senior lecturer and psychology programmes coordinator at the Middlesex University, Dubai. "This means that we look to other people for information about how to behave and what to think, and for emotional support. When we are taken out of our social groups we can feel isolated and anxious. Although modern technology allows us to maintain a level of intimacy with our social networks despite geographical moves, it is also very important to have conversations with the people physically around us."

And it is in this context that an interesting dimension gets added to the issue of the importance of small talk versus big talk. "In certain situations just the fact of being able to connect with someone at however simple a level can make a big difference."

For example, when we relocate to a new place or another country, there may be lots of things that are unfamiliar. But by talking to people (either from your own ethnic/expat group or from others) you can dissipate much of the anxiety this new situation can bring. By talking to people you learn about the specifics of life in a place which may otherwise feel alien.

"This comfort leads to confidence and therefore, increased well-being. In addition, being able to share your feelings of homesickness or reminisce about familiar places from back home helps you feel less lost due to the transition. In general, humans do not like change so when we move we seek out things which are familiar to lessen the impact of the change - talking to others with similar cultural identities may be a way to do this," adds Crookes.

Which means even a passing conversation in a beauty salon or in a cafe with a person you might never meet again can be meaningful to a newcomer to a city. Sometimes this kind of small talk helps you feel better and that makes it a ‘meaningful conversation'. Besides, says Crooke, the more a person puts himself in social situations that facilitate social talk - the more likely that person is to consequently end up in the all-important meaningful conversations during some of those interactions.

Women score over men

So when it comes to this ability, who does it better men or women?

"Women," says Crooke, "have the reputation of communicating with each other more often than men and of being more likely to ‘spill their heart' to random strangers." Historically women have been more exposed to being in situations where they are encountering more people - women spend hours with a hairstylist or a beautician, they wait for children at nurseries/schools, they are waiting in lines at grocery stores. These responsibilities traditionally led women to possess a long list of topics to start conversations with. Men perhaps, and in my opinion do not strike up conversations as much with strangers simply because they have generally had less opportunities to do so historically."

Good talk is happy talk

Crookes says that social talk serves two primary functions - it provides information and support. When people meet, share their ideas and laugh away their blues, it dissipates stress and ushers in a feeling of happiness. It allows people to acquire coping skills, provides solutions to problems they are grappling with and enables them to see how the human condition has common concerns. Even seemingly trivial questions can sometimes assume a large significance when you are in a situation that is not clear to you.

To bat on the side of small talk, standing in an unmoving queue and striking up a conversation with the person ahead of you helps you keep your stress under control. You may never remember what you spoke about when the experience is over but on that day, for that moment, the conversation made you feel better about being in an sluggish queue. There are plenty of such situations in life when small talk does the trick. ‘How long does the bus normally take?' ‘Do you know if they will let me in if I am wearing shorts?' are the kind of conversations that you may not remember after the moment but they are important nevertheless.

"We are using social talk to gain information about what to do," says Crooke and that makes it a happy experience. Any situation that leads to getting a problem off your chest or making you realise that other people have the same problem usually make us feel better, she says.

Knowing that others are going through the same experience leads to social bonding which is beneficial, according to her.

"Most people are seeking happiness and well-being and generally will be drawn to social support and bonding in pursuit of that happiness." It is, in her opinion, central to human behaviour. "However, this does not mean everyone is similarly drawn to ‘small talk' with lots of people - that depends on other personality characteristics."

The bottomline is the act of sharing. True sharing, which happens as a result of good meaningful conversation, is a precursor to happiness. "Sharing (in this context done through talking/language communication) and having strong social support is widely seen in all sorts of areas as a foundation for mental health, fulfilment and even good physical health," says Crookes. If in this, a bit of ice breakers are necessary from time to time for us to feel good, that's fine too. As Crookes has suggested earlier on, sometimes the tip of the iceberg needs to be spotted in order to know its true depth.

Dr Annie Crookes' tips for breaking the ice

TIP 1 In starting conversations with strangers, use a fail-safe and socially acceptable way. You can begin with talking about the weather. Anthropologist Kate Fox points out that the famous British obsession with ‘weather talk' probably stems from a need to overcome social awkwardness. Opening a conversation with a weather comment is non-committal and non-invasive. If the other person reciprocates they are indicating their interest in conversation and if not, you haven't overtly talked to them so you won't feel rejected.

Tip 2 For those who are less confident or anxious about starting conversations, a good way is to start with something small - a comment on something current or interesting. Give the other person space to begin the conversation if they want (and most people do!).

Tip 3 When you have the feeling that someone is talking at you and not with you or when you find yourself in a situation where you are guilty of doing this, avoid the fallout by listening as well as talking - meaningful conversations are about sharing. Even if you are talking to your friend about a problem you have and really just want to vent, allow them time to share their views and listen to their input to achieve true bonding.

While we know meaningful conversations where you share part of yourself with those around you as a means to create strong social bonds has huge positive benefits for us it does not mean you should be jumping into deep conversations with everybody!

One of the things to watch out for while seeking meaningful conversations is that self-disclosure too soon into a friendship/interaction can backfire.

Tip 4 Proceed slowly with intimate details - start with a common ground and sharing ‘funny stories' and perhaps over time build up trust to share deeper things. Use questions about the other person to gauge their limits or boundaries or their threshold for sensitive subjects before broaching these subjects with your own revelations. (Occasionally, we may share intimate things with total strangers precisely because we will never see them again but this is different and not about social bonding.)

Tip 5 Finally, one has to remember that the majority of people out there do want to talk so try and try again! If you are less confident about talking to acquaintances or approaching others, arm yourself with a few stock opening lines for different contexts (‘The Metro is such a life-saver', or ‘I love the way they have decorated this house.') that invite conversation but aren't too ripe for rejection (i.e. don't open with a controversial belief or political opinion.)