Joyful Ways to Change the Subject

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


Are you finding that every conversation lately ends up being about what's going wrong in the world? In this post, find tips for bringing joy back into the conversation. 

Right now, it might feel as if the news is all-consuming, and it’s easy for conversations with family and friends to devolve into recounting the latest tragic stories or economic indicators. “Did you see the story about the…?” I ask my Dad when he calls to check in. “Yeah, I saw that. Ugh. But did you see…?” he says in reply. And pretty soon we’ve gone down the rabbit hole of bad news, and have worked ourselves into a despondent funk.

But just as too much focus on the news can increase anxiety and make it hard to find perspective, it can also be unhealthy for our relationships. When conversations with loved ones always seem to swirl around what’s wrong in the world, an opportunity to connect with and support each other turns into a shared rumination on despair and frustration. Instead of feeling connected and uplifted by the interaction, instead we may come away from these chats feeling as helpless and lonely as ever.

And this is a shame, because our relationships are an essential part of our happiness and well-being. According to a major longitudinal study, the quality of our relationships is the number one predictor of a happy life and can even help ward off mental and physical decline. So it’s vital that we nourish our closest connections with more than just a recap of the day’s headlines.

At the same time, when we’re in the midst of a crisis, it can be hard to figure out what else to talk about. So with that in mind, I created a new free resource to help you jumpstart some more joyful conversations. It’s called the Joyful Conversation Starters Guide, and it includes 36 prompts to help you change the subject and bring more light and laughter to your conversations. You can download the guide right here.

Use these prompts around the dinner table or to kickstart your next team meeting. Try them when FaceTiming with your parents or at a Zoom Happy Hour. They also make great prompts for journaling or self-reflection. And a little tip: if you print them on cardstock, you can cut out the cards so you can easily pull one at random when the need arises.

A few tips for changing the subject:

  • Don’t judge. Avoid making someone feel guilty for dwelling on the news. When things are difficult, especially if they’re in a precarious situation, it can be hard to avoid checking in constantly.
  • Do acknowledge before redirecting. Try transitioning with something like, “I really do feel sad about what’s happening in the world right now. I’m also trying to take a little bit of time each day to appreciate the good things in life. One thing I’ve been thinking about is…”
  • Don’t force it. If someone isn’t up for a light-hearted conversation, don’t push it on them. All you can do is offer and make space for it.

To get you going right now, here are three of my favorite conversation starters from the guide, along with what inspired them.

Who has your favorite laugh? How would you describe it to someone who’s never heard it before?

I love this question because laughter is contagious, and even just thinking about other people laughing is bound to bring a smile to the mind. And as we conjure up these different laughs in our minds, we may find they carry with them memories of more joyful times.

Our laughs are as distinctive as we are — some people guffaw, some chortle, some snort. While many of us have been made to feel self-conscious about our own laughter, focusing on the distinctive qualities of other people’s laughs usually evokes a tenderness that reminds us that its our quirks that make us most dear to the ones who love us.

What’s one simple pleasure that you never get tired of?

In tough times, simple pleasures take on outsized importance. That might be because we can’t access them and wish we could, like the joy of having a coffee in a café, a simple act made suddenly unthinkable during the Covid-19 crisis. Or it might be because with our other pleasures curtailed, something as ordinary as eating a fresh strawberry feels like a gift.

Regardless, appreciation for simple pleasures is a universal connector, and it’s fascinating to discover what mundane things are joyful for those you love, and for yourself. These things can be an accessible window into joy when joy is otherwise hard to find. They may also give you ways to care for or connect with with your loved ones. For example, if your loved one shares that a particular fruit is a favorite, you might be able to send them some in a care package. If they say that funny animal videos never seem to get old for them, then you now have a surefire strategy for lifting their spirits when they’re having a bad day.

It works just as well in good times, too, when we’re likely to take these simple pleasures for granted. Reminding ourselves, and each other, about the power of small things can be a helpful prompt to keep joy from getting lost in the shuffle.

What’s something new you’ve learned about yourself in the last 3 months?

This question offers a gentle way to zoom out from what’s happening in the moment and reflect. Challenging times often create spurs for growth that are hard to notice amid the day-to-day struggle. And in good times, change and self-discovery can be even harder to notice unless we call our attention to it.

The answers to this question remind us that we are not static, even in times where the circumstances of life make us feel stuck. Taking note of these new points of awareness gives us the joy of witnessing our own dynamism and resilience, and can highlight arcs of personal growth that we might want to explore more consciously.

The Joyful Conversation Starters Guide has many more ideas, from recalling how your favorite color has changed over the years to imagining your dream playground. You can download the guide for free here. And feel free to share the link with your favorite conversation partner!

April 17th, 2020


Lost your spark?

The Joy Jumpstart is a 7-day, self-guided program to help you break out of a rut and reconnect with what makes you feel truly alive.

    Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Phoebe Ezell on April 19, 2020

    What fun! I immediately shared the “simple pleasure” question with my husband. We both laughed when what he had me guess for him didn’t match his simple pleasure. And neither did what he said for me! After 31 years of marriage and working together you’d think we know! What a wonderful surprise that we didn’t!

  2. Laura on August 10, 2023

    Your recent interview with Dan Harris was fantastic. This link to Joyful conversation starters is broken. Here is the link and paragraph:

    The Joyful Conversation Starters Guide has many more ideas, from recalling how your favorite color has changed over the years to imagining your dream playground. You can download the guide for free here. And feel free to share the link with your favorite conversation partner!

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on August 10, 2023

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Laura. That link should be fixed, but just in case:

      Let us know if you have any trouble getting this guide!


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