A feeling of social connection is key to happiness for most people. That doesn't mean the same thing for everyone, of course, and many of us also need some alone time every day. In general, though, both introverts and extraverts report feeling happier and more connected when they interact more with other people.
Still, that isn't a very detailed blueprint for happiness. Social interaction comes in many forms, and there are big differences even among the positive ones. Most people probably wouldn't expect bickering to lift their spirits, for instance, but what about friendly small talk versus a deeper dialogue? Do you think you'd feel better after several brief chats or after a single in-depth discussion?
There are pretty big differences among people, too, including the wide-ranging social needs and preferences of introverts and extraverts. We know people are generally happier when they have positive social interactions more frequently, but how much do different people thrive on different kinds of interactions?
This question isn't as easy to answer as it might seem, but a new study takes on the challenge. The problem, the study's authors write, is largely due to limitations in the way previous research has approached it.
"At first glance, it seems that a plethora of studies show that the quality of social experience is related to well-being," the researchers write in the preprint study, which is awaiting publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. But most of that research is based on self-reported data from study participants, they explain, which limits how confident we can be about its findings.
The problem with self-reported data is that people aren't always great at assessing their own relationships and well-being. Even if they're trying to be honest, their general happiness (or unhappiness) can create halo effects: "For example, people's positive perceptions of their lives could lead to halo effects in which participants think that all domains of their life (including their social relationships) are going well, regardless of whether things are objectively going well in those domains."
When a study uses self-reported data to measure both well-being and the quality of social interactions, the study's authors add, the nature of the associations is muddled. "Such studies likely produce inflated estimates of the association between the quality of social interactions and well-being," the researchers write.
Lend me your EAR
Instead of relying solely on self reports, the new study also used actual recordings of social interactions. The researchers recruited 256 college students, who first took questionnaires in the lab to measure how introverted or extraverted they were.
Next came two parallel phases. In one, participants self-reported about their own daily social interactions, via brief surveys they took four times a day for two weeks. On top of noting whether they'd interacted with other people in the past hour, they rated the depth of those conversations (on a scale of 1 to 5, from "superficial" to "substantive"), how much they disclosed about themselves, how much they knew and liked the people they spoke with, and how happy and socially connected they felt.
Most participants also wore an electronically activated recorder (EAR), which was programmed to record 30-second audio clips every 9.5 minutes from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. They were encouraged to wear the device as much as possible for about a week, and although they didn't know when it was recording, they were allowed to remove it at any time for any reason. After three to four days, they returned to the lab to upload their data, then wore the EAR for another three to four days before giving it back.
This yielded several thousand hours of audio files, so research assistants were hired to sift through and code all the data. These observers rated the depth and self-disclosure of participants' conversations, offering an outside analysis that could be compared with the self reports. It reportedly took three years to code all this data, but the researchers finally had a wealth of information that could shed new light on how our well-being is affected by the ways we interact with other people.
Quantity and quality
Their study has revealed a few interesting insights. For one thing, "every single participant tended to feel happier and more socially connected when they interacted in the past hour, compared to when they did not," the researchers report — an effect that was evident in self-reported data as well as the ratings by observers.
Happiness also seemed to accrue as people socialized more often during the day, since participants generally reported feeling happier and more socially connected when more of their recordings included conversations. This effect was seen across the board, the researchers write, noting that, "overall, the quantity of social interaction was similarly related to well-being for introverts and extraverts."
But what about quality of interaction? When people rated their own conversations, both depth and self-disclosure were associated with greater feelings of happiness and social connectedness. When observers rated the conversations, they found a similar effect from self-disclosure, but deeper talks only seemed to make people feel more connected overall, not necessarily happier. As one of the authors tells Quartz, that's likely because lots of factors influence our happiness, while our sense of social connection might change more readily based on our daily experiences.
The results suggest that, within each individual, "some social interactions feel more rewarding than others, at least in the moment," the researchers write. They also compared results between individuals, hoping to learn if people who consistently have higher-quality interactions feel happier and more connected in general. That is what the self-reported data suggested, although the observer ratings didn't back it up, leaving us without a clear answer for now. (At the least, however, this seems to illustrate the risks of drawing conclusions from self-reported data alone).
While social interaction can affect introverts and extraverts very differently, both groups in this study showed similar associations between socializing and well-being overall. One "intriguing" pattern did stand out to the researchers, though: Introverts had greater boosts in momentary feelings of social connectedness during hours when they had deeper conversations. In other words, although this sense of social connectedness can fluctuate in both introverts and extraverts, these fluctuations seem more related to conversational depth for introverts than for extraverts.
As the study points out, this supports an idea floated by author Susan Cain in her 2012 book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." Cain speculated that introverts "prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family," and "have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions."
The study's authors describe this finding as "exploratory," but they also note it was the only moderation effect that held true in both the participants' self reports and in the observer ratings. Because of that, they write, "we are slightly more confident about this effect than the other moderation effects in this study," saying they see it as a new hypothesis to be tested in future research.
Small talk, big talk
The new study isn't the final word on this subject, but it does highlight some important points. Aside from showing the value of going beyond self-reported data for psychology research, it also draws attention to the value of social interaction itself — and to the value of being mindful about how we interact with other people.
Small talk often gets a bad rap, and it's not hard to see why. We've all been trapped in boring or awkward conversations before; at a dinner party, a business lunch or just walking our dogs, we find ourselves suddenly expected to talk with someone we don't know well, fumbling for words to avoid silence without making things weirder.
This may be unnecessary, since silence is often more OK than we assume in moments like these. But so is small talk, despite how uncomfortable it is at times. In between those memorably awkward conversations are many forgettably smooth ones, when we make small talk without even realizing what we're doing.
Humans are social animals, and small talk seems to be an important tool for navigating the complex social environments we create for ourselves. The new study supports the idea that small talk — while maybe not as fulfilling as deeper conversations overall — is a key part of the human experience, helping us build trust with strangers and develop relationships with acquaintances.
"One of the primary purposes of rapport-building in general is to establish that our interlocutor is, in some way, 'just like us,' that is, shares our basic values and beliefs, as well as sharing the ability to communicate," according to an essay on small talk by computer scientist Timothy Bickmore, who studies and develops "relational agents," or digital characters designed to build rapport with human users.
Small talk also lets us demonstrate our own friendliness and social skills to others, which can pay off in multiple ways. It may help us win friends, allies and business partners, for example, and it can also help us feel happier and more socially connected — even if we're introverted. That doesn't mean it affects us all equally, of course, or that it makes sense in every context. It just means we shouldn't broadly blame small talk for the occasions when it doesn't go well.
That said, the downsides of small talk outweigh the benefits for many people, inspiring some to rebel against the practice. That includes Kalina Silverman, for example, whose 2016 TEDx talk about small talk inspired her to create Big Talk — a "global social impact initiative" aimed at helping people skip small talk in favor of deeper, more soul-baring conversations. As the new study suggests, that kind of approach could not only help us dodge awkward or exhausting banter, but might also improve well-being for many people, perhaps especially introverts.
The new study focused on college students, and as Quartz points out, socializing may be a bigger part of their daily lives than it is for the average person. We still have a lot to learn about the relationship between social interaction and well-being, and we'll need more research to guide us, including studies on different demographics. This field of study is valuable for humanity in general, but its relevance may be rising as technology alters the ways we interact. We're more connected than ever, but we increasingly communicate remotely, and the growing health risks of social isolation have led to warnings of a "loneliness epidemic."
For now, the clearest takeaway from this and other research seems to be that social interaction is usually a good investment. It's probably wise to look for opportunities to have deeper conversations with friends and family, and to cultivate those kinds of relationships, but we also shouldn't try to impose our deep thoughts on everyone we meet. Small talk can be useful, too, whether it means chatting with your neighbor for a few minutes or just engaging in brief banter with a cashier. At the same time, introverts shouldn't necessarily try to mimic the social habits of extraverts, since being comfortable with your own introversion can also increase happiness.
If all else fails, there's a life hack that can make small talk a little easier: Ask more questions. Aside from helping us find topics to discuss with people we don't know well, curiosity tends to create a good first impression. And even if you don't make a new friend, asking more questions might still be beneficial, since research suggests curious people are less affected by social rejection.