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Want to Be Happier? Try Changing the Conversations You Have

Like many of you no doubt, I’ve spent a long time thinking I was simply no good at networking. In fact, I’ve spent a long time thinking I was no good at socializing full stop. Then I realized, the main reason I was finding it so painful was because I was being asked the wrong questions, and in turn I was asking the wrong questions.

So, what do you do?

The typical question when meeting new people, friends of friends, or work acquaintances is that standard fare — so, what do you do?

It’s a minefield question in itself. Do you answer by the job you’re paid to do or the unpaid, freelance work you do on the side? Your passion projects or your high status job title? What if you’re unemployed, or a stay-at-home parent? Taking a sabbatical while you figure things out?

Essentially this is why we’re asking each other the question — we want to know where we stand in equilibrium with the person we’re conversing with. We want to know, is this someone worth talking to? Is our job title above or below theirs? Is our company bigger, more profitable, more well known, cooler than theirs? Am I more successful than them? Are they passionate about the work they do? Does this come across when we ask the question? We could even go so far as to say we’re trying to find out if they are happier than us. Do they have a better sense of purpose in their life?

As I said. The question is a minefield.

There’s actually more to the benign questions we ask and networking small talk than we realize. It turns out that the types of conversations we engage in have a greater impact on our personal and emotional wellbeing than we give them credit for.

Research by scientists from the University of Arizona, and Washington University respectively, indicates that the conversations we have deeply impacts on our overall perception of whether we are happy or unhappy.

The scientists asked seventy-nine participants to wear a recording device for four days and recorded the different conversations they engaged in over the course of their daily lives. From the recordings, the scientists then deciphered which were categorized as trivial small talk, and which were deemed as more substantial conversations.

Participants who rated themselves as the happiest engaged in twice as many substantial conversations over the duration of the recordings, and engaged in only one third as much trivial small talk as the lowest rated participants for happiness.

The findings suggest that happiness is connected to the conversations we have. Deep, meaningful conversations fuel our emotional and personal wellbeing. Isolated and superficial conversations do not allow is to grow as individuals, nor develop better relationships overall.

Change the Narrative

While trying to find a way to overcome this, specifically for networking situations, I was introduced to a blog post from The Minimalists. If you’re not familiar with them, have a look at their website and you can find the post that changed my thinking here.

Essentially they argue that when we ask people ‘what do you do’ we’re putting them, and ourselves into boxes, with only one way to think and learn about one another. And it’s boring. We should instead be asking a different question — ‘what are you passionate about.

Which makes sense. While our day jobs do feed into a lot of our lives, there is more to our individual stories than what we just happen to be doing during the 9 to 5. I started thinking about all the people I admired the most and what I knew about them — did their job titles come to mind first and foremost? Of course not. When I think about those people, I think about all the interesting things I know about them — which might have something to do with their work, but not always and not entirely.

What’s your story?

Instead of asking ‘what do you do’ try asking about the person in another way. The Minimalists suggestion of what’s your passion is a nice example, but I also enjoy asking people ‘what’s your story?’, ‘how do you enjoy spending your time?‘ or ‘what drives you?’.

It can be an easier question to prompt answers if people feel shy, and there are many different avenues you can take the conversation down — a person’s story can include narratives from their past, present or future.

It works well in a variety of scenarios when you’re engaging with new people – including professional networking! At an event where you’ll meet a few dozen people, are you going to remember the ones who told you what they do or who told you their story? I can guarantee asking this question will inspire people to remember you, and want to work with you.

As humans we’re driven by stories. Take the time to ask someone about theirs and you might just be surprised where it leads you.

Want to Be Happier? Try Changing the Conversations You Have

Elaine Mead

Elaine is a passionate Careers Educator, Coach, and Writer. She has written professional, academic and opinion pieces for both print and digital platforms with a specialism for topics around careers, professional development, personal development, education reform, STEM education, employee engagement and organisational psychology. She works with university students to help them build the creative careers they want and what it takes to turn a passion into fulfilling work. More of her work is available on her portfolio: and you can follow her on Twitter: @_elainemead.

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APA Reference
Mead, E. (2018). Want to Be Happier? Try Changing the Conversations You Have. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 May 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.