Relating to Others

Happiness and Deep Conversations

You can enhance the quality of your life by philosophizing with others, says Tom Morris.

Illustration © iStockphoto.com/johnwoodcock

Have you ever approached strangers on the beach, vacationers sitting on bright towels in the summer sun, and tried to engage them in deep discussions about the meaning of life? For three months during my eighteenth year, that was my job in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was completely shocked by what happened as a result.

The back-story is a simple one, and picks up a narrative that was fairly common in 1971. A large campus evangelistic group at a major public university needed a guitar player. And I didn't realize it at the time, but I needed an audience.

I was a newly minted young scholar and recently retired musician, fresh off the college party circuit and occasionally larger venues where I earned my first real money as a guitarist. I missed the experience of performing for big, loud, raucous crowds. And a few guys from this campus group had been engaging me in philosophical conversations about life, while suggesting I'd enjoy their large group meetings, where they said I could entertain lots of people again, while still continuing in my studies. I was hooked.

I didn't know that part of the package was evangelism - with strangers. I could easily stand in front of thousands of people with a Fender Stratocaster hanging from my shoulder, but actually walking up to a single person I didn't know, just to engage him in talking about the ultimate issues of life and death was simply not my cup of brew.

I remember thinking, "No one wants to be mugged by a metaphysician in broad daylight, and forced to discuss philosophy and religion with no college credits at stake." Little did I know.

In a very short time, I was living at the beach, charged with doing exactly that, all day long, with people I was sure would prefer to be left alone to relax, listen to their music, splash in the surf, or work on their tans. But almost everyone I approached that summer was surprisingly eager to do what I dreaded. I'd walk up to someone, or a group of people, engage in a few seconds of idle patter to break the ice, then inquire as to whether they'd mind if I asked them a few philosophical questions. More times than I can count, I ended up being invited to sit and stay a while, as people poured out their beliefs, questions, speculations, joys, and agonies about life. One traveling garment salesman whose temperament and world view were nearly opposite to mine ended up seeking me out on every business trip he made to Myrtle Beach, about one day a week, saying he wanted to "continue the argument." I could say almost anything and he'd be prepared to argue that I was both wrong and completely naive. But by our second afternoon session of philosophizing, he was slapping me on the back and promising to return for more.

Socrates pointed out long ago that the least important things, we think about and talk about the most, while the most important things, we think about and talk about the least. We get it backwards. All those topics I had worried people would react to as impractical and unrelated to the realities of their lives were actually bottled up inside them. The tourists I approached that summer were at first puzzled, and then relieved, to be offered a "safe zone" in which to talk about things that really mattered to them. I remember thinking, "How do we get it so backwards in life, avoiding all the big issues almost all the time, and somehow assuming this avoidance is the most natural thing in the world?"

We're all a bit like the characters on the ABC TV show Lost - and there are no reruns each week with closed caption explanations for who everyone is and what just happened. At birth, we're dropped into the ongoing mysteries of our remote planetary island. And we soon find others here with us. But: why? The real mystery is that, rather than trying to figure out with each other what's going on, we get busy with diversions and distractions, throw ourselves into daily routines that keep us too busy to think, and content ourselves with nothing more than trivial small talk with our fellow castaways.

When real conversations happen, people come alive. In an article entitled, "Talk Deeply, Be Happy?" the New York Times reported last week that a small research study written up in the journal Psychological Science has claimed to find a correlation between happiness and "substantive conversations." In a sample group of seventy nine college students, a population easy for university psychologists to study, it was determined that the less small talk and the more conversation on matters of depth that these people experienced, the happier they seemed to be, by multiple measures.

Matthias Mehl, the principal author of the study from the department of Psychology at the University of Arizona, was careful to disavow any simple conclusions about causation - the issue of whether engaging often in deep conversations creates more happiness, or perhaps it's happiness that leads to more deep talk, or even whether a "third variable" causes both the apparent happiness and thoughtful talk - but he does see the results as a small confirmation, of a sort, for old Socrates and his famous claim that "The unexamined life is not worth living." When we examine life together, especially, it seems to be enhanced for us.

The unexpected opportunity in my own college years for deep conversation ended up turning me into a full time philosopher. I now get to stand on stages in front of large groups of people, without my Strat in hand, and talk about important things, giving them an excuse to go and do likewise, as they may once have done in college. It was Plato's belief that, "Philosophy is the highest music." And there certainly are some deep ideas that can almost make you dance.

In addition, I've recently had the chance to experience the more intimate joy of sitting with new friends in a small philosophical retreat, again at the beach, but a different one, and engaging once more in deep conversations about life that end up being like jazz improvisations, in a sort of jam session for the mind. We talk about things like success and happiness, but, more importantly, I think we enjoy more of both as a result of having had the conversations.

Wherever you are, and whatever you do, you might consider finding a way to initiate more deep conversations with people around you. With enough courage, you don't even have to wait for "an appropriate moment" - there may be, in the end, few inappropriate moments. Use the excuse that there is this professor out in Arizona who says that deep talk walks hand-in-hand with happiness and satisfaction.

Imagine what he could have discovered if Tucson had a beach.


Tom Morris has become one of the most active public philosophers in the world due to his unusual ability to bring the greatest wisdom of the past into the challenges of the present. He is now Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values. He has authored 20 books and has been featured on a number of popular media outlets like The Today Show, Live! with Regis and Kelly, CNN, NPR, TLC, and The New York Times, amongst others.