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Substantive Talk

September 22, 2020

If you and your partner have been sheltering in place during the pandemic, you may find yourselves around one another a lot more than you’re accustomed to. But simply spending time under the same roof doesn’t necessarily translate into meaningful or satisfying connection. Many couples are like two ships passing in the night, in close proximity but not emotionally close. Proximity can create an illusion of connection while feelings of loneliness or aloneness betray the truth.

To increase your sense of well being during the pandemic, take a cue from the happiness research: talk to each other more, and talk about things of substance.

Research has revealed that the happiest people spend about 70 percent more time talking to others compared to the least happy people. The happiest people also engage in small talk one-third less time than the least happy people. In fact, the happiest people had twice as many substantive conversations as the unhappiest people.i The researchers speculate that what they call “substantive talk” — those meaty conversations about our relationships, about our work, about how we’re feeling about life — are the conversations that return the greatest rewards. Substantive conversations seem to satisfy two basic psychological hungers: (1) our need to make meaning out of our lives, and (2) our need to feel strongly connected to others. In other words, substantive talk feeds our natural hungers, which may explain why it leads to greater contentment and happiness.

Although the research didn’t explicitly examine the role of substantive talk within primary partnerships, it stands to reason that when such conversations occur with a spouse or partner, the relationship becomes an important vehicle for attaining personal well being.

Experiment yourself during the pandemic to see how you feel, and how you experience the relationship afterwards, when you engage your partner in conversations about:

  • Goals: the goals you have for yourself and the relationship.
  • Challenges: a recent challenge each of you faced and what you learned from it. Certainly the pandemic is a challenge for everyone. Talk together about how it’s impacting each of you, for better and for worse — not just surface impact but the impact in deeper ways.
  • Extremes: the highs and the lows in your lives, how they affect you and what they mean to you.

Talk to each other more often, and reach beyond the customary small talk.

References & Citations

i Mehl, Matthias R. at al. “Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations.” Psychological Science 21(4):539-41 (April 2010). doi: 10.1177/0956797610362675