Conversation and happiness

Language Log recently had an interesting post about a study that found that happy people tend to have more substantive conversations. I was reminded of the kind of conversations we had in Sudbury Jerusalem. I’ve written about it before (for example, in The Secret Weapon) and I thought I’d bring up the connection here. As the Language Log post explains, the study doesn’t say whether it’s substantive conversation that increases happiness, or being a happy person that increases substantive conversation.

But it’s interesting to think about how this relates to democratic schools. My experience is that a democratic school is a good place for substantive conversation. In Sudbury Jerusalem, I was a student who rarely had any classes and spent much of my time socializing, talking. It was a place where the general atmosphere is happy rather than depressed. I noticed that in school, we talked a lot, and had a lot of really good conversation, and I never considered whether it’s just because people are often in a good mood (I, by the way, often was not in a good mood, despite a lot of conversation — maybe that’s why). I also never considered that this might be why people are often in a good mood.

I don’t know, but I had other things in mind. The school democracy itself, it seems to me, encourages a culture of talking things through. It’s what we would try to do in School Meeting and in committees, and it’s often what we would do to solve conflicts before resorting to a Judicial Committee complaint form. And the other side of things, the personal freedom, simply gives people more time to talk. There’s always conversation going on all over the place, and it makes sense that when you get to talk with people a lot, you eventually get to deeper, “substantive” conversations.

But maybe the large amount of conversation in democratic schools is caused by something else. Maybe it’s the nature of the school as a community in which people operate freely in the same spaces, together; the school is a very social environment. This is also something that probably contributes to the general happiness of the population. Actually, considering that more social environment are probably causes for both happiness and for conversation, maybe this is the causal link behind the study’s findings. People with more social contact are happier and have more substantive conversation (as compared to people with less social contact.) It definitely makes sense to me.

2 thoughts on “Conversation and happiness”

  1. To Michael and Jason: I dare re-locating Jason’s response to its proper place.

    2 | Jason
    April 26, 2010 at 09:02

    I just read your post entitled ‘Conversation and Happiness’ after happening upon your blog. Very interesting and illuminating. Your explanation of the correlation in the study is one of conversation leading to happiness. While this is also the case, like many correlations, the opposite direction, in the correlation, also accounts for much of the phenomenon. Meaning that Happiness, in my opinion, also leads to conversation. A while ago I read a study of how happier people were more inclined to take risks, risk failure, be independant,…. Well, think of what a deep coversation is. It opens the persons ideas up for criticism; thus, a person is risking their ideas as well as whatever emotion and self is connected thereof. Also they risk being wrong. Now, a happy person is more apt to converse in such a manner because the happier person is not skating on thin ice, so to speak, emotionally. However, the person who is less happy, is already emotionally fragile, and therefore cannot take a blow to his/her ideas or a challenge that makes them think and possibly expend emotional energy; nor do they have the emotional reserve to deal with being wrong. Thus, while it is quite valid to contribute a portion of the – happiness/conversation correlation – to conversation as a factor leading to happiness, I would not minimize the reverse as also playing a major part, since the happy person has a far easier emotional time when conversing since he/she is on solid ground,amotionally speaking. Lastly, there is a third option regarding the correlation, which is that who converses more? People who are in, or have good relationships (with parents, siblings, friends, spouse,…). And therefore, if you have these good relationships then you tend to be happier, or possibly happier people foster these relationships as well; thus, this third way indicates another logical path that can be followed in terms of explaining the makeup of ( at least a goodly percentage of) the correlation.


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