The researchers recruited 900-plus participants from university campuses, all of whom were directed to engage, on a single day, in one of seven types of conversation. Below, find the seven different types and the instructions participants received on how to practice them:
- Catching up: “Today, we would like you to slow down and take time to catch up with a friend.”
- Meaningful talk: “Today, we would like you to talk about something meaningful to you with a friend.”
- Joking around: “Today, we would like you to not get too serious, just have a laugh with a friend.”
- Showing care: “Today, we would like you to let your friends know how much you care about them.”
- Listening: “Today, we would like you to listen carefully to your friends when they speak.”
- Valuing others and their opinion: “Today, we would like you to make your friends feel like you value them and their opinions.”
- Offering sincere compliments: “Today, we would like you to offer your friends sincere compliments when you speak with them.”
Each conversation type was chosen based on previous research demonstrating its power to promote relationship development or bring people closer, according to lead study author Jeffrey A. Hall, PhD, professor of communication studies and director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at University of Kansas.
Based on the study design, researchers were able to determine whether the conversations could actually cause higher end-of-day well-being in participants, regardless of their baseline level of well-being—which is a crucial distinction from previous research findings that only pinpointed correlation between quality conversations with friends and well-being (begging the question of which came first).
“You can do something socially to feel better by the end of the day no matter what your starting point may be.” —Jeffrey A. Hall, professor of communication, University of Kansas
As it turned out, all seven types of conversation significantly increased participants’ well-being by the end of the day; they reported higher connection and happiness levels and lower stress and anxiety levels than the control group did. What was particularly exciting about this finding to Dr. Hall is how universally applicable it is: “You can do something socially to feel better by the end of the day no matter what your starting point may be,” he says. Whether you have one friend, 100 friends, or any number in between, engaging a friend in any of these seven types of quality conversation just once can boost your well-being by day’s end.
That said, having even more of these quality conversations per day can also amplify the effect. Participants weren’t given any instructions on how often to engage in their target behavior, but the people who reported doing so multiple times throughout the day reported even less loneliness and anxiety and greater positive affect and social connection.
The lack of variation in impact among the seven types of quality conversation also demonstrates that any interaction that promotes bonding can be a health-supportive one. And bonding certainly looks different in different friendships, says Dr. Hall. “Some relationships are going to be really open to a meaningful conversation, while others are just really fun, and you laugh and have a good time,” he says. “Some people are really interested in, ‘Hey, how’ve you been since we last chatted?’ and other people don’t have this kind of check-in friendship.” The point is that there are many paths toward the same relational benefit.
Why quality conversation with a friend benefits daily well-being
The common denominator among all the types of quality conversation considered in the study is a certain degree of responsiveness: If you’re listening carefully, showing someone you really care, or complimenting someone, for instance, you’re actively participating in the conversation in a way that can spark a fruitful back-and-forth.
Choosing to engage this way means approaching the conversation—and, in turn, the friendship as a whole—with intentionality, “which can only be a good thing,” says Dr. Hall. “We tend not to intentionally seek out social health in the same way that we do nutritional health or physical health, and we just expect it to happen as a matter of course,” he says. “But to engage in quality conversation and be a responsive partner, you have to show up to the conversation with the intention to do so.” When you do that, you’re encouraging the same from your friend, which is then the impetus for a happiness-boosting conversation all around.
“To engage in quality conversation and be a responsive partner, you have to show up to the conversation with the intention to do so.” —Dr. Hall
Because the most consistent driver of improved well-being in the study was a stronger sense of connection, Dr. Hall suspects that these quality conversations allowed participants to meet their “need to belong,” a concept he previously defined as part of the Communicate Bond Belong theory of relationships. Essentially, when a good conversation allows you to feel connected, “you feel, on some level, like your life is meaningful, that there’s a reason for being, that there are people who care about and love you,” he says.
At the same time, having a quality conversation was also shown to boost well-being in the study by mitigating stress, which reinforces previous research on the ability of social support to enhance stress resilience. “If I’m stressed out, and I connect with you and you’re my friend, you’re responsive, you listen, you help me think through my issues, then I’m also bound to leave the conversation feeling supported, more capable of problem-solving or creating hopeful narratives around a stressful situation,” says Dr. Hall.
How to engage in more happiness-boosting conversations
Actively planning to engage with a friend in at least one of the seven types of quality conversation each day—and following through—is Dr. Hall’s biggest tip, particularly in a time when it may still feel more difficult than pre-pandemic to connect with people. “While plenty of people work or learn in in-person settings now, it’s far fewer than it was before, and I think many of us are still just out of the normal routine, where we used to engage with friends more often as the natural course of life,” he says. “And building those routines back requires intentional choices.”
On a positive note, the more you engage in quality communication behaviors, the less hard they become the next time around, he adds. And recognizing that reality can help you avoid the all-too-common negative forecasting bias, “which is when you think that you don’t want to go out and meet someone or attend a social engagement, that it’ll be a hassle, that you’re too tired, but then you go, and it ends up being really fun,” says Dr. Hall.
The same thing applies to starting up a quality conversation: It might seem like a lot of work or like you’re really putting yourself out there, but if the above research is any indication, it’ll be more than worth it for your well-being in the end.
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