It doesn't take a carefully designed scientific study to prove that bland, repetitive conversations about the weather or your local sports team can bore you silly. But does this sort of standard small talk have any more significant impacts on your happiness?
The verdict from intriguing new research is in and the results couldn't be clearer -- too much small talk puts a serious dent in your well-being. And the inverse is also true. Having more substantive conversations will almost certainly make you happier.
Small talk is a happiness killer
To figure this out psychologist Matthias Mehl came up with a clever way to track the impact of our conversations on our mood: his team wired up participants with a small recording device that captured snippets of their conversations every 12.5 minutes over four days. The researchers then carefully coded these recordings, marking which were vacuous small talk, which were discussions of significant topics like current events, and which were functional conversations about things like who would take out the trash.
At the same time the researchers also kept careful track of the participants' happiness levels. What did they find?
"Mehl and his team found that the happiest person in the study had twice as many substantive conversations, and only one-third the amount of small talk, as the unhappiest person," reports author Jenn Granneman on Psychology Today.
Why does swapping mindless pleasantries for thornier subjects seem to have such a large effect on people's mood? "By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world, and interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness," Mehl told the New York Times.
But you can't banish small talk entirely
The takeaway from this study couldn't be clearer, according to Granneman -- whenever possible swap real discussions for just shooting the breeze. She even provides alternatives to standard conversation starters that can help you do just that. Swap "What's your story?" for "How are you?" for instance. Or opt for "What was your favorite part of your weekend?" instead of "How was your weekend?" (Lots of other experts have offered questions to upgrade your small talk game too.)
But it's worth noting that it's neither possible nor desirable to banish small talk entirely. Not only does it grease the wheels or social life and establish trust, but other science shows that, if the other option is ignoring your fellow humans (such as on a packed train where a deep conversation just isn't possible), then chit chat will make you happier than awkward silence.
The bottom line is this: more, deeper connection always makes humans happier. In practice there's only so much you can expect based on the context, however.
If you're chatting with people you already know in passing like work acquaintances, trying to delve deeper is likely to make you happier. If you're standing in line with a stranger and that level of interaction is just going to be weird, then small talk beats no talk at all.