10 Questions for More Meaningful Conversations This Year

How do you know a scientific conclusion is correct given that a lot is updated as new evidence emerges? One quick rule of thumb is to look for multiple studies over time that all come to the same conclusion. Then you can be reasonably certain that the result will stand the test of time.

In the areas I write about — wellness, personal productivity and performance, health — there are some examples of solid results. Nature and exercise are great for your mental health. Short naps boost performance. Perhaps most surprisingly, lots of small talk can upset you.

It might be hard to believe after a few years when so many of us are locked up at home longing for our daily chat with strangers, but study after study shows that the more meaningful the conversations, the happier you are likely to be. We fear embarrassment and intimacy in deep conversation, but if we get past these obstacles, we get real pleasure from connecting with other humans.

So how do you get on your nerves and start talking about the things that really matter? The latest scientist looking at the benefits of meaningful conversation has some suggestions.

Another study confirms this: you should aim for deeper conversations

As Quartz’s Lily McClellan reported recently, Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago is the latest scientist to confirm that little talk makes us happier. You may have heard of Epley before. He’s the author of a previous study showing that chatting with strangers makes people happier than they expect, which has been a bit of a media buzz. His recent research builds on this finding. Epley wondered if mindless chatting boosts our mood, would deeper conversations make us happier?

To find out the answer, he and his team designed a series of 12 experiments with a total of more than 1,800 participants. What did they discover? McClellan explains:

Epley and his colleagues discovered that people overestimate how difficult it is to have a “deep” conversation with someone they don’t know well, and routinely underestimate how much others care about us and what’s on our minds. Surveys conducted before and after structured conversations also showed that most of the people in the study did not expect to feel connected to a randomly assigned conversation partner once their interaction ended, but did, especially when their conversation was heavier than typical small conversations.

Here’s how

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t too surprising. Previous studies have suggested that speaking less short will make you happier. Perhaps most useful to those who are already convinced by this basic premise are the details of the Epley study design. The paper was published in Journal of personality and social psychology, detailing exactly what prompted Epley and his collaborators to get people talking about more than just sports and weather.

The list also operates outside the science lab inside. Not every question is appropriate for every situation (they are arranged in order of increasing intimacy below), but together they offer plenty of ideas that people can use to stimulate deeper conversations:

  1. What would be a “perfect” day for you?

  2. Where is a place you visited that you felt had a real impact on who you are today?

  3. If you are going to become close friends with the other participant, please share what would be important to him or her to know.

  4. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you want to know?

  5. Why do you feel more grateful in your life?

  6. Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why didn’t you do that?

  7. What are the most embarrassing moments in your life?

  8. What are your most meaningful memories? Why is it meaningful to you?

  9. Can you describe a time when you cried in front of someone else?

  10. If you could undo one mistake you made in your life, what would it be and why would you undo it?

So, if you’re still searching for a fix for the New Year or just looking for a way out of the pandemic doldrums, why not pledge to be a bit braver in the conversation this year? Science indicates that more intimate chats will bring you less embarrassment than you fear and happier than you might expect.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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