When Christine Sharpe was on maternity leave and home alone with her baby, she grew frustrated with the canned answers she got from other moms she tried to engage with. “I was looking for connections, but when I finally had a chance to talk to a grown up, so many people cut it off,” says the Toronto-based fitness instructor. “I find it frustrating when you ask someone how they are, and they just say, ‘I’m good,’ or I’m really busy.’”
It turns out Sharpe’s feeling of dissatisfaction have a scientific explanation: deep conversations can make us happier, according to researchers at the University of Arizona. In a study released this summer, Dr. Matthias Mehl and his colleagues found a connection between having meaningful conversations and feelings of well-being. "The interesting thing is how (profound) this meaningful association is. We had almost 500 people in the study, and the effect was really robust.”
Dr. Mehl says the connection held true for both introverts and extroverts, proving that the satisfaction derived from a heart-to-heart is a universal experience. “Human beings are social beings,” says Dr. Mehl. “The exchange of conversations allows us to affirm our worldview, bond with others and feel like we’re part of something bigger.”
To combat her feelings of loneliness, Sharpe decided to open up about her life, mentioning something she found difficult about parenting, or a particular relationship struggle she was going through. She noticed other people started talking more, too – and that the more meaningful conversations she had the less lonely she felt. “Now, when someone says, ‘I’m really busy’, I try to dig a bit deeper. Most people talk. I think everybody craves that connection,” she says.
Dr. Mehl says it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about – it could be the meaning of life, relationships or a discussion over a shared interest, like sports. Even a topic like the weather can spur a conversation where meaningful information is conveyed. “In our research, we defined a meaningful conversation as a conversation where afterwards, both parties know more about each other or about the world,” he says.
Time and place for small talk
That’s not to say there isn’t a role for small talk in our lives. While Dr. Mehl’s research showed that small talk had no effect on happiness – either positive or negative – it’s a necessary part of how we engage with others. “You do need a little bit of small talk to get into the deeper conversations,” says Dr. Mehl. “There are rituals we go through. If we skip through that, it can backfire.”
Dr. Sam Mikail, a clinical psychologist at Sun Life Financial, says when it comes to small talk, it’s all about context. “If you venture off to another country on vacation and engage in small talk with people you meet there, that creates a sense of welcome. A brief encounter with a stranger can increase your happiness and engagement,” he says. But, he says, there are certain people in your life with whom you should be having more meaningful conversations, such as your life partner or your best friend, and if you’re not, it could leave you feeling unsatisfied.
Granted, it’s not always easy to forge deeper connections with people. Dr. Mikail points out that nowadays people often move cities for education or careers, and end up settling far from their families or childhood friends. Add to that the fact that in many families both parents work and people often feel endlessly busy, and it can be hard to find time to engage with others in a meaningful way. “These things dilute those opportunities for connection,” he says. “It takes more effort.”
People are also spending more time engaging with people electronically, such as through text messaging or social media, which, isn’t always a bad thing, says Dr. Mehl. “People assume online social media reactions are small talk,” he says. “But people can engage in something like Facebook in a meaningful way. If you comment on something, and it’s personalized, that can contribute to feelings of belonging and rapport. Just writing ‘Happy Birthday,’ that probably won’t have the same effect.”
Dr. Mehl would love to ‘prescribe’ conversations to people as a way to improve well-being. “With medication, you take one or two pills a day,” he says. “Can we emulate that and, say, have an extra meaningful conversation early in the morning, and then one at lunchtime and one in the evening. Could you do that for a period of time, and make people happier?”
For Sharpe, making a point of digging deeper and having more in-depth conversations has had a positive effect on her life. “It just feels fun when I do it. It feels real,” she says. “I find people so interesting. Everybody comes from a different upbringing and a different culture. People really do want to talk when you give them a chance.”
If you want to connect on a deeper level with people, approaching a stranger and asking them about the meaning of life is probably not the best way to go about it. Here are some ways to go beneath the surface and talk about what matters to you.
Question smartly If you ask someone how they’re doing, they’ll probably give you a one word answer. Instead, ask them about their job, kids or hobbies. Showing an interest in their life will put them at ease and encourage them to open up.
Share Freely People often want to divulge feelings, but aren’t sure if it’s appropriate. If you open up about something first – a fear, a hope, or something you’re looking forward to, they will be more likely to share something with you.
Look for common ground Conversations can be meaningful regardless of the topic. If you want to discuss philosophy, great. But sports, relationships, careers and family can also garner a deeper connection. The key is to find something you’re both interested in.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.