There can’t be many conversations ‘smaller’ than those between babies and their parents and carers, but that doesn’t mean those exchanges are unimportant. In fact, as we would surely all agree, precisely the converse is the case. It’s no surprise then that a literature review and some direct research reported today (19 October) add credence to this commonly held belief.
The Spirit Level, first published in March 2009, is a book which has slowly emerged to take centre stage in the debate about human equality and well-being. In this publication Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett produce a wide range of sociological and epidemiological evidence that, to quote, ‘at almost any level of income, it’s better to live in a more equal place‘.
Initially this was widely regarded as a reasonable position, but The Guardian reports there is now a serious onslaught on the idea from some right-wing think tanks.
‘Professional wreckers’ challenged
Professor Wilkinson has responded vigorously to the criticisms, saying he is shocked by what he believes is a worrying trend in political discourse, also happening in the USA, where some right-wing institutes have set themselves up as ‘professional wreckers of ideas’. (A riposte to this claim is made here.)
‘Do they even believe what they are saying?‘, he asked. ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter if their claims are right or wrong; it is about sowing doubt in people’s minds.‘
Nurturing public scepticism
No doubt Professors Pickett and Wilkinson can take care of themselves in this debate; their evidence base is massive and has been subject to continuous peer review (formal scrutiny by colleagues) via the academic papers they have published.
What may be more worrying is if Richard Wilkinson is correct also in his analysis of what is going on behind the scenes, as political interests nurture public scepticism about any ideas which don’t suit their preferences.
It is one thing to offer a critique based itself on carefully considered analysis and data. It is quite another to throw a dense foggy question mark over debate simply by repeatedly insisting that, in some general way, the whole idea is dodgy.
The acid question mark
Whether climate change, evolution, immunisation or equality, it’s easy if one is so inclined to insert an acid question mark into the debate; but it’s much harder to help people to understand the evidence and to make a balanced judgement.
Is it actually possible for most ‘ordinary’ people to distance themselves from the acid question mark, to be aware of, and understand for themselves, the complexities of data bases and their implications? Or do most of us most of the time just have to ‘trust the experts’?
Ruining rational dialogue
Ideas wreckers do more than damage specific ideas. They damage the whole notion and ethos of trying to determine what we can conclude from what we ‘know’.
Challenging this blanket refusal to engage in real dialogue is a fundamental problem; without the engagement of all involved the whole set-up becomes simply an argument, a row or popularity poll based on who shouts loudest, one in which the voice of reason is likely not to be heard or carry weight.
How in the face of ‘ideas wrecking’ can those who seek a discussion on the basis of the evidence (recognising too what still needs to be checked out) make their case? Is there any way other than having the best PR and shouting loudest?
And have those seeking genuine dialogue ‘lost’ as soon as they, like their opponents, start to shout?
Do ‘ideas wreckers’ in the end have to be taken on publicly by those whose ideas are cast into general doubt, in much the same mode of generic attack as the wreckers choose, when they cast doubt on the ideas originally?
How can constructive, meaningful dialogue or debate even exist, when one ‘side’ seems intent only on wrecking the credibility of the other?
New research reported in Psychological Science (February 2010) by Matthias R. Mehl and colleagues of the University of Arizona suggests not only that having conversations helps us to be happy, but that ‘deep’ conversations do this better than small talk – though as a ‘social lubricant’ chit chat has its place too. (Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations)
Mehl’s finding is that the happiest people spent 70% more time talking ‘deep and meaningfully’ than did the unhappiest.
In the study, Mehl equipped 79 college men and women for four days with a portable device which every 12.5 minutes recorded 30 seconds of sounds, whilst the wearers followed their normal routines. This produced in total more than 23,000 recordings, about 300 per participant.
Mehl’s team then classified the recordings as small talk (“Popcorn? Yummy!”) or substantive (“She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?”) and participants took tests to evaluate personality and well-being.
More ‘meaningful’ talk, less solitude
The team found that those reporting higher levels of well-being spent less time alone and more time talking to others. The happiest also spent about 25 percent less time alone (59% against 77%) and about 70 percent more time talking (40% against 23%).
The happiest were found to have about one third as much small talk as the unhappiest and twice as many substantive conversations.
Mehl also reported that having substantive conversations showed slightly stronger correlation with happiness for men than for women, although no reasons for this have been proposed as yet.
Inherent personality or socially created?
Future research will explore whether deep conversations contribute to happiness, or it’s the other way around, but one follow-up study appears to suggest the former.
“We have the first tentative pilot data showing that, indeed, asking people to engage in one extra substantive conversation a day for a period of five days made them a bit happier,” Mehl tells us.
“Profound conversations have the potential to make people happier…. what really connects you to people is substantive, meaningful conversation rather than small talk. It doesn’t have to be all about philosophy or the afterlife, it just has to have substance.”
Can we then make ourselves, and perhaps others, happier by having more, and more meaningful, conversations? How could this happen?