GUC: Meaningful discussion fulfills individual duty

Opinions Column: Macro to Micro

Last Friday, I was sitting on the carpeted floor of Cooper Dining Hall with a small circle of friends. Although we had all just been casually hanging out, we wound up having a long discussion spanning the topics of nature, gravity, causality and the utilization of human qualities in investigating the reality of the world around us. I left the conversation feeling content and at ease, my social quota for the day wholly satisfied. But more than that, it was the contents of what had been spoken about that imparted upon me a sense of meaningfulness. It is rare, nowadays, to have conversations that go beyond the mandatory “how is everything” inquiry. Most touched-upon matters revolve around the frivolous, albeit necessary, points of mundane, daily life. Engaging with ideas outside of that realm of talk is refreshing and, well, exciting.

This is not merely an implicit gripe about the nature of small talk. Instead, that Friday conversation reminded me of how innately my sense of well-being is aligned with discussions concerning the existence of myself and the world. One might even call it the declaration of an internal need. Just as our physical bodies crave certain foods at times due to nutritional deficiencies, our mental states might “crave” certain types of conversations — ones that imbue us with a sense of connection and meaning. This is not a new idea. An article in The New York Times from 2010 speaks about the correlation between happiness and conversations that are often referred to as “deep.” A psychologist quoted in the article, Matthias Mehl, states that “people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier.” There is no proven causal relationship between the two, however — just suppositions. Regardless, it does not seem far-fetched that substantive discussions leave their respective participants in a greater state of contentment than perhaps a brief chat between two individuals that might touch upon the affairs of the predicted weather for the coming weekend.

Thus, one might conclude that it is not just for the sake of an intellectual exercise, but indeed, for the sake of a happier life that humans engage more frequently with deep discussions. Yet, what is intriguing is why such discussions make one happy and satisfied. Could it be that the resulting happiness is not the ultimate objective but instead a psychological means of encouraging one’s own consciousness to pursue such conversations? If so, it might be a manner in which our own mental state is striving to ensure that we pursue more of these meaningful talks by rewarding us with states of happiness, similar to how it is said that physical exercise releases dopamine and makes us feel good, leading to even more exercise. In which case, the happiness felt immediately after a particularly substantive discussion can be perceived as a tool rather than an end goal. So, how is one to make sense of this internal mechanism that is urging us to have more thoughtful, meaningful conversations with others? If it is not for the sake of merely feeling content, what is it for, and why does it even exist within us? Some may argue that its purpose is to ensure that social connections are developed amongst human beings which is vital for our survival. While that may certainly play a role, such a mechanism may also indicate towards the undeniable need an individual has to find meaning and value in the existence of one’s self and everything else in the surrounding world. These conversations that our mental states so ardently desire and request may be vehicles that help us in finding such meaning or at least make us feel that effort is being exerted towards such existential aims.

It may appear that this column is always tying all subjects to human existential condition and, truly, it is. Try as we may to separate and categorize the affairs experienced in life — from the political to the hedonistic — all of it is intrinsically tied and fundamentally rooted in one’s existence and pursuit for meaning in this world. That Friday afternoon, perhaps part of the reason I felt content was not just because I had a great conversation with some lovely friends, but because I had fulfilled at least a tiny bit of my responsibility in pursuing and engaging with the questions that percolate in my mind. And so perhaps, meaningful discussions are not meant to just make one happy or weave together social connections. Instead, they exist and should be sought after as a collective tool that helps in fulfilling an individual duty.

Aysenur Guc is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in philosophy. Her column,"Macro to Micro," runs on alternate Mondays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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