Security guard, truck driver, salesperson—year after year, these jobs appear on lists of the unhappiest careers. Although many factors can make a job dismal—unusual hours, low pay, no chance for advancement—these three gigs stand out for another reason: They’re characterized either by a lack of conversation or by obligatory but meaningless small talk.
Psychologists have long said that connecting with others is central to well-being, but just how much conversation we require is under investigation. In one study, researchers eavesdropped on undergraduates for four days, then cataloged each overheard conversation as either “small talk” (“What do you have there? Popcorn? Yummy!”) or “substantive” (“So did they get divorced soon after?”). They found that the second type correlated with happiness—the happiest students had roughly twice as many substantive talks as the unhappiest ones. Small talk, meanwhile, made up only 10 percent of their conversation, versus almost 30 percent of conversation among the least content students. 
But don’t write off chitchat just yet. Scientists believe that small talk (which linguists describe as a form of “phatic communication”) could promote bonding. Late last year, Princeton researchers reported that ring-tailed lemurs reserve their call-and-response conversations, akin to human chitchat, for the animals they groom the most—suggesting that small talk maintains closeness with loved ones, and isn’t merely the stuff of awkward exchanges with strangers.