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Science says meaningful conversations make you happier – here’s how to have more of them

4 Ways to forge deeper connections that nurture your well-being

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash
Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

When considering what I’m thankful for this holiday season, meaningful conversations top that list. That unexpected realization was prompted by having dinner with a long-time friend a few nights ago. We initially met when I was his Resident Adviser in college, around the same time that the first Die Hard movie debuted (yippee-ki-yay indeed, Bruce Willis) and big hair band Poison reminded us that “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

Our catch-up time turned into an epic conversation, covering everything from self-esteem and relationships to what it takes to feel deserving of deep happiness. You know, the kind of stuff you might have talked about in the dorm while buzzed but don’t regularly make time for after decades of adulting. While tired from a long day at work, I left our meal energized and elated. Which makes sense in retrospect, as science has shown that quality conversations make people happier. 

As reported in this New York Times story, Psychologist Matthias Mehl, Ph.D. from the University of Arizona conducted a study which found that deeper conversations promoted more happiness than small talk. Mainly because people are driven by finding meaning and want to connect with others. “By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world,” Dr. Mehl said in that article. “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.”

Still these days, it’s easy to get caught up in creating Instagram worthy moments, getting likes or building followers over taking the time to truly connect with others.  I used to be a social overachiever, planning theme parties and attending numerous events related to my work in public relations. But over time, that just got frustrating, sort of like when you crave a healthy meal and are trying to subsist on packets of stale airplane snacks instead. Today I gravitate towards quality conversations over bits of small talk any day.

Want more meaningful conversations? Here are 4 ways to claim them:

Make time for one-to-one discussions. My husband and I travel frequently for our respective jobs, so we have a standing date night each Friday to reconnect without distractions. When my schedule permits, I try to schedule a talkfest dinner with a friend or “walk and talk” session in a local park most weeks as well. Scheduling that time, often way in advance, ensures that I get to nurture the relationships that matter the most to me. Pick someone who you’d love to interact with on a deeper level than commenting on their latest status update on social. Then book face-to-face time or a call to focus on truly connecting.  

Talk to strangers. Bored with small talk, Georgie Nightingall created a business called Trigger Conversations in the United Kingdom that organizes events and individual trainings to help people have more regular meaningful and stimulating conversations. In this TEDxGoodenoughCollege Talk, she recommends talking to strangers since “conversations are opportunities to transform, reshape and engage in new trains of thoughts.” Nightingall advises being the one to make an opening statement to someone new through finding connection points about your mutual environment, commenting on something they are wearing and more – and then sharing your authentic self to promote a fulfilling exchange.  

Ask thought-provoking questions. Asking yes or no questions or something awkward like “are you still dating that guy” or “did you ever find a job” can quickly stall a conversation, if not kill it altogether.  Open-ended questions that focus more on “how, what or why” promote a more productive exchange. Nightingall calls great questions “the tools to burn the fires of curiosity” – consider what you are curious about in the person before you. Their opinion on a topic of mutual interest? What excites them in this very moment or makes them tick overall?  Chances are good you’ll have a more interesting discussion asking someone what they wanted to be as a kid when they grew up, or if they won the lottery, what life changes would they make versus asking someone what they do for a living. 

Listen intently. Think about conversations where you can barely wait to share your two cents and because of that, don’t actually hear what the other person is saying. That behavior isn’t doing anyone a favor. Step away from your smart devices, laptop, television or anything else that could be diverting your attention to actually listen to that individual. What you learn from them may delight, inspire, inflame or educate you in some way. Really hearing their message lets you respond in a more respectful, connected manner that can turn a good conversation into a great friendship.

How do you create more opportunities for meaningful conversations?

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