Want to learn the truth about introverts? Take a moment and imagine the happiest person you know. Now think of words to describe their personality. Did adjectives like outgoing, energetic or bubbly come to mind? One of the personality traits you described may be related to extroversion, or the tendency to draw energy from being engaged with the world and social situations. Studies indicate that extroverts are also more likely to appear happier. What should those of us who identify as introverts make of this?
First, we should be clear about what being an introvert means. While scientists don’t fully agree on the definition of extroversion, it's most typically associated with characteristics such as seeking excitement, gregariousness, enthusiasm, dominance and ambition. Introversion is the tendency to be more inwardly focused and less motivated for social interaction. Introverts tend to have fewer relationships and spend less time socializing than extraverts.
It is absolutely true that healthy and meaningful relationships play a significant role in our happiness, and extroverts may spend more time connecting with others or may enjoy that time more. Some research claims that the inherent differences between introverts and extroverts are related to the dopamine system in the brain, which makes pleasurable rewards, including social interaction, more salient to extroverts.
This suggests that extroverts may be more likely to experience positive emotions. Despite the recent push against the marginalization of introverts by authors such as Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, our culture often lauds the exuberance of extroverts and many of us associate being outgoing with wellbeing.
While introverts are likely to report lower levels of happiness than extroverts, this does not mean that introverts are unhappy. Ultimately, it’s important to note the happiness benefits of both introverted and extroverted behaviors, no matter where you fall on the spectrum. One consistent theme in happiness research is that your choices and behaviors, which are in your control and changeable, have significant effects on your wellbeing even if your natural tendency is to pull the opposite direction. Here are a few tips for those of us with introverted tendencies to enhance our happiness.
See Your Whole Self
It’s important to note that the scale on which introversion and extroversion is measured is just that — a scale. We all fall somewhere along the bell-curve between these two extremes. That means that people who are strong introverts or strong extroverts are rare. A large portion of the population hovers closer to the middle, meaning there are times when they prefer socializing and the energy of a crowd, but other times quiet and solitude is the right fit. These folks are more accurately labeled as ambiverts.
Within each of us lies some tendency to recharge our batteries through social interaction and affiliation with others and another tendency to recharge on our own. Be honest with yourself about what you need in a given moment and allow yourself the permission to have it. When calling a friend to hang out feels right, make a lunch date. And when you’d rather curl up with a good book, go for it. Understanding how your own tendencies to reach out or withdraw affect you is an important aspect of managing your own wellbeing.
Embrace Your Introvert Strengths
Introverted behavior has an upside that often gets understated. Introverts tend to be better problem solvers, perform better academically, exhibit stronger regulation of their behavior and are less likely to take risks that may cause them harm. Research shows that introverts may experience these benefits as a result of having more gray matter in their prefrontal cortex, the area at the front of the brain that controls complex and abstract thinking, emotion regulation and decision making.
In many classical and theological perspectives on happiness from Aristotle to the Buddha, spending time alone and contemplating the meaning and purpose of our lives is a necessity. Learn to embrace your unique introvert qualities and tap into the happiness they bring you, whether that’s teaching yourself something new, exploring nature on a solo trek or cultivating your creative side.
Act the Part
In studies where introverts were instructed to act like extroverts in a group of people, they ended up experiencing greater positive emotion than introverts acting normally — in fact, they rated their positive emotion higher than the naturally extroverted people too — and reported feeling more authentic in the moment. Other research shows that naturally happy introverts behave in similar ways to naturally happy extroverts.
Particularly when you are already going to be socializing, act the part of an extrovert. This doesn’t mean be inauthentic. Just bring more of your real self. Be an extraverted introvert. Harness that rich inner world of yours and jump in the conversation more, share your opinion, crack a joke and take the spotlight every once in a while. And if you’re not socializing much, encourage yourself to connect with others in the ways that work well for you. Join a group to take part in an activity you already love, like a choir, book club or fitness class. Even though initiating these decisions may feel like extra effort, the payoff should be noticeable. When you realize you acted more extroverted in a way that felt good, keep it up.
Although shyness and introversion have only a mild correlation, if being more socially engaged scares you, your shyness may be what’s holding you back. The key here is confidence. Build self-efficacy (the proof to yourself that you can succeed at a task) by taking small social risks first. Reach out to a friend you haven’t connected with lately. Call rather than text. Make eye contact with a salesperson. And take note of your successes, even when they feel awkward. You’ll build your confidence as you see yourself being more sociable and becoming the best version of yourself will become easier.