Talking Yourself Into Happiness: It Works, Except For When It Doesn't

"Talking through it" is a time-honored way of dealing with problems, and new research shows that people who talk more are happier. But some kinds of talk may be more helpful than others.

Researchers at the University of Arizona and Washington University, St. Louis bugged volunteers with an Electronically Activated Recorder (cutely abbreviated EAR) — a voice-recording device that intermittently recorded "snippets" of participants' daily lives. The participants wore the recorders for 4 days; researchers found that the happiest people spend 25% less time alone — and 70% more time talking — than the unhappiest. The first part makes intuitive sense — spending time with others, as long as you don't hate them, can often make you happier. And people who are already unhappy sometimes isolate themselves. But can talking more actually make you happy? Coverage of the study notes that it doesn't establish causation, but one finding is interesting: The happiest participants had twice as many "substantive" conversations as the unhappiest, with substantive being generally defined as anything that digs deeper than basic small talk.

So there's actual research that some types of talking are more associated with happiness than others, and this interestingly corroborates with my personal experience. Many a conversation with a good friend (or a good therapist, for that matter) has helped me see my life more clearly and calmly. But sometimes "talking it out" — even with someone I'm close to — can make things feel worse. After all, talking about weather or real estate doesn't really cut to most people's emotional core. To wit, I also wasn't shocked back in 2008 at the news that some types of deep conversations — specifically "co-rumination" or "frequently or obsessively discussing the same problem" — could increase depression or anxiety. Sometimes simply going over difficulties in my life — and having someone else merely reaffirm how much they suck — has made me feel even more upset.

Of course, not every problem is one that conversation can solve. But some of my best friends have been those who know how to push back — to ask me whether my irrational fear of meningitis is really about something else, or to tell me that I need to get up and solve a problem instead of worrying about it. That said, I certainly wouldn't say that all talk has to be "helpful" — to me, conversation has value in itself, whether it's about emotions, Battlestar Galactica, or yeah, even the weather. But when I do need help, there's a certain kind of talk I would define as substantive — and it's talk that forces me to get out of my head and make a change, and hopefully be a bit more happy.

Happy People Talk More, And With More Substance [LiveScience]

Related: Girl Talk Has Its Limits [NYT]

Earlier: Positive Teen Talk Can Sometimes Turn Into A "Mutual Complaint Society"