05/17/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Talking Cure

Last week, scientist Joanne Malkus Simpson died at the age of 86. A pioneer in the study of clouds and hurricanes, she is considered to be one of the most important meteorologists of the 20th century. She worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for the last 30 years of her career. Patricia Sullivan's obituary in the Washington Post tells the story of this great woman's life, but what stuck with me was her poignant throw-away comment on being a woman scientist: "When I first got to NASA, I realized I could talk science in the ladies' room," she said. "This was something new in my career, to find three or four other scientists in the ladies' room."

How much we talk with other people, about things that matter, is a key to the satisfaction we have in life, I also learned. Psychology Science reported on a study that correlated happiness with the amount and quality of conversations people carry on. A group of investigators from the University of Arizona and Washington University in St. Louis developed a clever way to monitor this. The researchers first assessed the contentment and happiness of their subjects. Then they gave their subjects a small voice-activated recording device, which they carried around all day, for several days. When the researchers compared the happiness of the subjects with the frequency and content of their conversations, they discovered that people who spent a good amount of time talking about matters that were important to them, were happier than those who spent their days in relative silence or engaged in small talk.

When Jane Brody, the New York Times guru of healthy behavior, wrote that her social ties get her out of bed to go walking and then to the gym to work out every day, my Trifecta of talk was complete. Those early morning walks and talks have sustained her for years. Me, too: my water aerobics friends and I share our aches and pains, our concerns and our good news, while we're getting dressed after our class. These women keep me coming back to the pool, whatever the weather.

I have always loved good, long conversations, despite the criticism from those near and dear. "What do on earth do you have to talk about?" my mother would ask, when I spent my high school evenings on the phone with my friends, "you were with them all day." This week I remembered that she did the same: she spent every morning catching up with her friends. My father would bring her breakfast in bed, and she would pick up the phone. Her first social hour would include two or three conversations with the women who mattered to her. Every day. The texture of their lives was enriched by those conversations. When my mother died, those woman friends told me how much they missed breakfast with Rosie.

I am my mother's daughter, so when I lived in New Haven, I'd talk every night with my best friend for at least an hour, rehashing the day we just spent together at work. My husband asked the same question as my mother, eyebrows raised. When we moved back to New York 30 years ago, we bought a cheap long-distance telephone plan, so my friend and I could continue our nightly talks. We still check in with each other several times a week. When I call, I say, "Hi Tina, it's me, Jane," and she says, "I recognize your voice."

In-depth conversations made me a good editor of serious nonfiction, because in the countless extended talks with my authors (frowned upon by the bosses), I was able to understand their work and establish collegial relationships that led to better books. And when I turned to writing my own books, I found that unstructured interviews, which are long conversations, brought me the insight and stories I needed.

Whether they take place in the ladies' room, or on a walk together, breaking bread, or chatting in the phone, meaningful conversations -- not small talk -- make us happier. They're free, the have no side effects, and if they are addictive, so be it.