People are social beings and need interaction with others. This was highlighted during the Covid lockdowns, when isolation and lack of social contact impacted the mental health of many. But just how much contact do we need to have with others, and what should the nature of our conversations be in order for us to feel that we belong and to fuel our sense of wellbeing?
These questions have been addressed in a new study, co-authored by friendship expert Jeffrey Hall, a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. Along with co-authors Amanda Holmstrom, Natalie Pennington, Evan Perrault and Daniel Totzkay, Professor Hall reports that people who talk to just one friend in a day, about almost anything, have a better sense of wellbeing at the end of the day. The study was informed by, and provides further support for, Hall’s Communicate Bond Belong (CBB) theory of relationships. Hall is the director of KU’s Relationships and Technology Lab.
The researchers set out to explore whether the frequency and content of a person’s conversation with others is relevant in improving that person’s wellbeing. They identified seven categories of communication that are commonly used during social interactions and tested experimentally whether using these types of communication improved participants’ sense of wellbeing. The types of communication were: catching up, meaningful talk, joking around, showing care, listening, valuing others and their opinions, and offering sincere compliments.
“This paper was an attempt to define quality communication in the context of relationships,” Hall said. “The types of communication we chose to study were ones shown in past research to make people feel more bonded through conversation.”
In three separate studies – before, during and after pandemic lockdowns – participants were randomly assigned to engage in one of the seven types of communication during conversation that day, and then to complete an end-of-day measure of wellbeing. Over 900 study participants from five university campuses took part in the experiments and reported back on their feelings of stress, connection, anxiety, wellbeing, loneliness and the quality of their day.
The results, published in the journal Communication Research, showed that it didn’t matter which of these content categories the participants used – they were all beneficial in terms of improving wellbeing. Engaging in as little as one communication behavior with one friend in a day can improve daily well-being. In fact, it is the very act of intentionally reaching out to a friend in one of these ways that makes the difference.
“One of the take-home messages of this study is that there are many paths toward the same goal,” Hall said. “There’s a lot of good research that says the number of interactions you have, as well as the quality of interactions are both associated with being a less lonely, happier and more connected person.”
The current study found that once is enough, but more is better. Participants who chose to have more quality conversations also had better days. “This means the more that you listened to your friends, the more that you showed care, the more that you took time to value others’ opinions, the better you felt at the end of the day,” said Hall.
“The experimental design means that it’s not just people who are already having fulfilling lives who have higher-quality conversations. This study suggests that anyone who makes time for high-quality conversation can improve their wellbeing. We can change how we feel on any given day through communication. Just once is all it takes.”
The study also incorporated Hall’s past research on different ways to connect in the era of social and mobile media. The results showed that high quality, face-to-face communication was more closely associated with improved wellbeing than communication via electronic or social media contact. “If at least one of their quality conversations was face-to-face, that mattered,” said Hall.
The paper also explains why quality communication makes people feel better. CBB theory conceives of all social interactions as developing from internal pressures to fulfil the need to belong. The theory highlights the multifunctional nature of everyday talk in relation to fundamental human needs. In other words, people use conversations with friends to help fulfil their need to belong and, when this need is met, they feel better.
“Across these three studies, quality conversation mattered most for connection and stress,” noted Hall. “This supports the idea that we use communication to get our need to belong met, and, in doing so, it helps us manage our stress.”
What is exciting about this research, Hall said, is that it shows there are a host of good things that come along with just one good conversation with a friend. This drives home the point that making time for quality conversation makes our days better.
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