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The Complete Guide to Happiness for Introverts
Is it true that extroverting will make you happier?
“If you’re introverted and act extroverted, you will be happier. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s all about what you do.”
When I first read this quote in the Wall Street Journal from William Fleeson, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University, my reaction was a mixture of frustration and anger. As a staunch advocate of authentic introversion, this kind of statement feels like a huge step backward.
But as I read on, I became intrigued by Fleeson’s research. His studies, along with several others in the field of personality research, show that introverts are, on average, less happy than extroverts, apart from during the times when they act in an extroverted manner. Fleeson argues that these findings indicate that personality may be as important as circumstance when it comes to our psychological well-being.
Seeking and finding happiness is one of life’s most fundamental endeavors. Numerous studies show that happy people are more successful in almost every aspect of life and that, in fact, we are more productive when we are happier.
Therefore, however grating the opening statement of this article feels, it would be remiss of us to simply ignore it without further investigation. If there’s even the slightest possibility that our happiness is at stake, we must take these findings seriously. For introverts, the conclusions of Fleeson and others like him raise some important questions, namely:
- Is there any truth behind the supposition that introverts are less happy?
- Can this reported unhappiness be attributed to an extroversion bias in research methodology?
- If not, is there any truth in the idea that an introvert’s unhappiness can be cured with a prescription of extroversion?
What is Happiness?
Definitions of happiness can be broadly grouped into three categories:
- Hedonic happiness (experiencing more pleasant emotions and less unpleasant ones).
- Life satisfaction (a feeling that life is good, worthwhile and meaningful).
- Eudaimonic happiness (living a virtuous life and realizing our potential).
The final of the three — eudaimonia — is widely criticized as a measure of happiness, as it refers more to the behaviors that likely lead to a feeling of happiness rather than the actual happiness itself. Therefore, when discussing happiness measurement, we shall focus on hedonic happiness and life satisfaction, which together are more broadly referred to as subjective well-being.
However, we must recognize the limitations of omitting eudaimonia from our broader understanding of happiness — if we reserve a definition of happiness exclusively in reference to subjective, self-reported emotional experiences, we cannot define the depth or cause of the happiness.
The Happiness Set-Point.
One hypothesis that aims to explain the extroversion-happiness correlation comes from research which suggests that each of us has a happiness set-point, driven by our personality and inherited genetics, and that extroverts are naturally happier.
Research shows that our happiness set-point is more or less fixed throughout our lives and that, even after major setbacks or triumphs, we will quickly return to our baseline level (Lykken & Tellegen 1996). Studies that support this hypothesis include those which show similarities in happiness levels between twins (Tellegen et al. 1988) and reports of average or below average happiness levels in lottery winners (Brickman et al. 1978).
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a renowned expert in the field of positive psychology, discusses this theory in her book, “The How of Happiness.” Accepting the set-point hypothesis based on empirical evidence, Lyubomirsky and two of her colleagues went about discovering just how much of a sway genetics and personality have on an individual’s overall level of happiness (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005). By extrapolating data from past research, they found that this figure stood at around 50 percent, with just 10 percent attributed to circumstance and the remaining 40 percent accredited to, intriguingly, intentional activity (which we will discuss in more detail later on).
So, if half of our happiness level is down to our genetics and personality, perhaps this offers an explanation for the reduced happiness levels reported by introverts; maybe introverts have a lower set-point compared with extroverts.
This hypothesis presumes the veracity of an underlying assumption that sits behind all of the studies we have mentioned so far; that we can categorically and objectively define and measure both happiness and extroversion. However, many studies show that this is not necessarily the case — that, in fact, the definition used to measure happiness is often indistinguishable from that used to measure extroversion.
Is There an Extroversion Bias in Happiness Research?
There is clear evidence that certain happiness measures overlap with extroversion measures (Yik & Russell 2001). Most significantly, the definition of positive affect (the extent to which an individual subjectively experiences positive moods — arguably a measure of hedonic happiness) is often almost identical to the definition of extroversion, i.e. optimism, activity, and excitement.
To compound this, many widely used measures of happiness, such as the Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule or ‘PANAS’ (Watson et al. 1988), employ an activation component (i.e. the stimulation of an emotion), which may lead to an extroversion bias. Extroverts are more reactive to positive mood activation than introverts (Larsen & Ketelaar, 1991) and, additionally, introverts tend to choose ‘less pleasant’ emotions and lower arousal levels when asked how they would ideally like to feel (Rusting & Larsen 1995).
Therefore, if we were to narrow our definition of happiness to that of traditional research terminology, we can surmise that introverts would choose to be “less happy” than extroverts (Zelenski et al. 2014).
Add to that the nature of how participants of these studies, such as another conducted by Zelenski et al. in 2012, are instructed to act introverted — as reserved, quiet, lethargic, passive, compliant and unadventurous — in comparison with the instructions to act extroverted — to be bold, talkative, energetic, active, assertive and adventurous. It’s no wonder that introversion in this context made the participants feel worse.
Arnie Kozak, author of “The Awakened Introvert,” takes the argument regarding the happiness-extroversion bias one step further by suggesting that the introverted manner of being happy is not captured by the way mainstream research is conducted. PANAS, he states, does not include positive, low-arousal — i.e. introverted — feelings such as peace, calm, contentment, engagement, engrossment, focus, amusement and composure (Dembling, 2012), and argues that the inclusion of these in future extroversion-introversion research would expand the concept of happiness.
The Life Satisfaction Question.
So, we can conclude that the measure of hedonic happiness prevalent within most research studies is potentially biased towards extroverts. Is this also true of life satisfaction measures?
In 2008, Steel et al. conducted a multivariate statistical analysis of previous studies on the link between subjective well-being and personality and concluded that, given the correlation between measures of extroversion and positive affect (i.e. hedonic happiness), we should indeed see a higher prevalence of subjective well-being in extroverts. However, this study and many others fail to adequately explain the correlation between extroversion and life satisfaction.
Standard methods of measuring life satisfaction appear to be relatively consistent. They contain a set of statements about how ideal, satisfactory and accomplished life is and has been to date, and participants are asked to indicate their agreement with these statements (i.e. strongly agree down to strongly disagree).
Two unanswered questions remain about this methodology, firstly regarding the way in which an extrovert or introvert is likely to score such statements and, secondly, of any potential preference an introvert might have towards attaining eudaimonic happiness over hedonic happiness. Perhaps an extrovert is more likely to indicate a more positive agreement to the statements, given their leanings towards optimism and higher need for arousal. It’s possible that introverts indicate more pessimistic answers because they strive for a deeper level of self-actualization.
We don’t have the answer to these questions — it seems that this is an area which could benefit from further research. But whatever the reason behind the statistics, it’s clear that there may be an opportunity for introverts to increase their level of life satisfaction.
Should We Act Extroverted?
There appears to be evidence to suggest that introverts are happier during times when they act extroverted, leading to statements such as the one presented at the beginning of this article. In a study Fleeson conducted in 2002, it was found that introverts reported higher levels of positive affect (hedonic happiness) at times when they were acting extroverted compared with the times when they acted introverted.
However, this study, and others like it in the field of psychology (as demonstrated earlier in this article), fall victim to the limitations of extroversion bias — that, in fact, the indicators of extroversion and positive affect were very similar. For example, in the first study conducted, extroversion was represented by these four indicators; talkative, energetic, assertive, adventurous. Positive affect was represented by these; excited, enthusiastic, proud, alert.
If I’m feeling energetic and assertive, is it really surprising that I also feel excited and alert?
Kozak encourages us to consider reframing the findings of this study and others like it (e.g. Zelenski et al. 2013) as indicators that when we act happier (rather than act extroverted), we become happier. In itself, this is a noteworthy takeout from such research but is sadly overlooked because of the inbuilt methodology biases. So, in this sense, we find a kernel of truth in our opening quote from Fleeson, if we are to reframe it:
“If you’re unhappy and act happy, you will be happier. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s all about what you do.”
Another interesting output of the studies by Fleeson and Zelinski was the confirmation that individuals do not stick to a narrow point on the introversion-extroversion continuum. Whereas previous studies suggested that personality traits such as introversion and extroversion were structurally stable (McCrae & Costa, 1990), variations of our demonstration of extroversion, in fact, occur rapidly and often, with individuals expressing all levels of the introversion-extroversion scale over the course of only a few days (Goldberg, 1992).
Not only is this helpful for our understanding of why we sometimes wish to exhibit extroverted behaviors — it also acts as a tool to prevent the ‘them and us’ rhetoric that blights the extroversion-introversion dialogue. Additionally, this study shows that introverts benefitted more from acting extroverted after a period of acting introverted, suggested that a balanced approach to extroverting is most advantageous.
As introverts, we can, of course, benefit from stretching ourselves outside of our comfort zone (or introvert-extrovert set-point). If we were to spend 100 percent of our time in isolation, working deeply and quietly on solitary activities, we would not be very happy. Just because we have a preference for introversion, it doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy participating in some extroverted activities. All human beings need social contact — but if the studies regarding extroversion and introversion have taught us anything, it is that we all need different levels and patterns of socialization.
So, to suggest that the “quick fix” to making introverts happy is for us to act extroverted seems both limited and short sighted. Shouldn’t we aim for more?
How To Be Happier.
Returning to Lyubomirsky’s work regarding the factors that determine happiness, there is something to be said for shifting focus away from our psychological set-point, i.e. our preference for introversion or extroversion, and instead towards the 40 percent of our happiness level that we can actually engineer; our intentional activity.
Lyubomirsky’s research shows that happiness can be found in how we behave, how we think and what goals we set for ourselves each day. She identifies 12 specific activities that we may choose to employ to increase our levels of happiness. Recognizing that each of us has different needs and preferences, Lyubomirsky has developed a diagnostic tool to help us identify which of the 12 activities would be most beneficial to our circumstances.
Extroverts may well choose happiness-enhancing activities that involve working with others (such as practicing acts of kindness or nurturing relationships), whereas introverts are likely to choose activities that are more individually focused (such as counting your blessings or cultivating optimism). Additionally, introverts and extroverts may choose the same happiness-enhancing activities but express them differently (for example, doing more activities that truly engage you could equally involve participating in a team sport or playing the piano).
Lyubomirsky underlines the importance of what Ken Sheldon calls “self-concordant motivation” — in other words, a commitment to engaging in activities and goals which align with a person’s individual preferences, needs, and values. Research shows that if you orient your pursuit of happiness towards activities that truly motivate you, your chances of success are much greater (Sheldon et al. 2001). These statistics further call into question the validity of the opening statement of this article.
The Secret to Introverted Happiness.
As Lyubomirsky aptly puts it, the secret to happiness can be found in establishing which happiness strategies suit you best. Kozak adds to this by suggesting mindfulness practice as a means to finding a deeper connection with our feelings and emotions. He presents a technique for introverts to appraise the likelihood of an extroverted situation being of value to them, by reflecting on the feelings the event evokes before making a decision as to whether to participate. This approach allows us to weigh up the costs and benefits of extroverting in a given moment.
“If you’re introverted and act extroverted, you will be happier. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s all about what you do.”
We can conclude that the opening statement of this article — that extroverting will make introverts happier — is both narrow and insubstantial. In fact, the best way to be a happy introvert is to be aware of your feelings and emotions, to behave flexibly in accordance with your current needs, and to actively work towards happiness in whatever way best suits your set-point personality, your authentic interests, and your deep-seated values.