Why talking about the weather may make you unhappy – even on beautiful days

Today has been the second day of the MAPP´s so-called immersion week. Angela Duckworth is teaching research methods and statistics, which frankly speaking will never be my favorite subject – but that´s o.k. To learn more about the methodology of psychological research and to get an idea of how research papers are crafted, we skimmed through some articles in the classroom. I´d like to share one of those with you; it was published by Matthias Mehl and some colleagues.

Now the thing is: I am German and there is this stereotype of Germans as being rather uptight, not exactly unfriendly, but – you know – a little stiff, just not that easy to talk to. We´re the so-called “nation of poets and thinkers”, but just not very good at small-talk. Which…

…tadahhh – might explain why we´re also a rather happy nation on average!

What Matthias Mehl does as a researcher: he hooks up people with tiny recording devices that switch on automatically at certain intervals over the day. As a result, he gets these little samples of our everyday behavior, especially what we say to other people and what they say to us, respectively. Here´s what he´s found out: People that spend a lot of time in the company of other people are considerably happier on average than folks who mostly like to spend time on their own. There´s nothing new here. But: it also matters to a great extent what you talk about.

There is a considerable negative correlation between life satisfaction and small talk; and a considerable positive correlation between meaningful (“deep”) conversations and life satisfaction. Talking about shallow topics too often may be not all that beneficial to our psychological well-being. This, in turn, reminded me of that little story which is commonly attributed to Socrates – but presumably is a universal parable.

The three sieves of Socrates

Once upon a time, one of the acquaintances of Socrates came running and said: “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”
“Wait a minute”, Socrates stopped him, “Before you tell me, I would like to conduct the three sieves test.”
“Three sieves test?”
“Yes. Before you tell me anything, take a moment to consider carefully what you are going to say and pour your words through these sieves.”
“The first one is the sieve of truth. Are you absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“Well… no. Actually I heard it recently and…”
“Alright”, interrupted Socrates, “So you don’t really know if it is true or not!”
“Now, let us try the second one, it is the sieve of goodness. Are you about to tell me something good about my student?”
“Well…no. On the contrary…”
“So, you want to tell me something bad about him” roared Socrates, “even though you are not certain if it is true or not?”
The acquaintance shrugged, already feeling uncomfortable.
“You may still pass the test though” said the Socrates, “because there is a third sieve – the sieve of usefulness.”
“Is what you were to tell me about my student going to be useful?”
“No, not really…” said the man resignedly. 
Socrates continued his lesson, “Well, if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor useful, why tell me at all?”

5 thoughts on “Why talking about the weather may make you unhappy – even on beautiful days

  1. Nick, you are so in for a ride with Angela´s stats! She is hilarious and I remember it often felt like watching a Russel Peter’s show. No, I am NOT joking or hallucinating : )

    Have a fun immersion week! Savor every second.

    EL

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  2. Trust me when I tell you that even as a stats hater, Angela’s class was a highlight for me last year. Welcome to the MAPP family and enjoy the amazing and wild ride you’ll experience over the next year! It will truly be transformational. Looking forward to meeting you at Summit!

    B

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