Happiness & introverts – Part 2
Last time, we highlighted the popular tendency in media coverage of psychological research on happiness to focus on what works for extraverts and to brush over the fact that these strategies might not yield the desired results for introverts.
In fairness to the media, this trend is not evidence of some sinister anti-introvert conspiracy; more correctly, it reflects the fact the most high profile research in this area has tended to highlight findings that fall into line with what works best for the extroverted personality type, e.g., being highly sociable and having a wide network of friends and close relationships.
This, in turn, does not mean that academic researchers somehow have a grudge against introverts and are knowingly waving an extrovert flag. On the contrary, it’s probably a safe bet that there are more introverts prowling the halls of academia than in most professions, given the sometimes solitary nature of the job, and, indeed, the same may well be true of the media. So, therefore, it’s not that some kind of pro-extrovert lobby has infiltrated our universities and newsrooms and dedicated itself to the marginalisation of those dastardly introverts who ruin parties with their tiresome social awkwardness. No, the truth is more mundane and yet more interesting all at the same time. As pointed out in our last post, research into personality suggests there are far more extroverts and extrovert-leaning individuals in the general population than introverts, and so, when researchers look to investigate the correlates of higher happiness and wellbeing, unless they specifically seek to control for personality when recruiting participants, they will invariably end up with a research population made up of more extroverts than introverts, and from there it naturally follows that the results they present will be more relevant to those who are more extroverted.
That does not mean there is no research on what works for introverts, just that there is less of it and it is therefore harder to find… and less likely to get a double-page spread on the feature pages of national newspapers.
So, what is more likely to work for the introverts among us when it comes to cultivating happiness?
Writing at the Psychology Today website in 2011, Susan Cain highlighted how when seeking to distinguish between what’s going to work for extroverts and introverts, it can be helpful to think in terms of there being many different kinds of happiness, not merely the happiness of ebullience and joy that can be the default idea in the public mind, with this again suggesting that we think in terms of the extrovert experience when we think happiness. As Cain highlights, this does not necessarily have to be so, and, indeed, for introverts, will at least sometimes not be so.
One of her suggestions is the idea of happiness in “short bursts”. Here, she draws attention to the common misapprehension that introverts are loners by nature. Not only is this not necessarily so, but it tends not to be the case. There is a distinction to be made between enjoying time alone and being a loner. There is no reason why some individuals might enjoy company but also value the ‘recovery time’ of time alone. Also, it is not so much that introverts don’t enjoy socialising, it is more that the default version of socialising in an extrovert’s world can make the idea of staying at home curled up with a book seem even more attractive! As Cain writes: “Introverts want company just as much as extroverts do, but they prefer it in either short doses or with people they know well.” And that sums up the key differences between those two personality types as it relates to socialising. While the introvert can thrive in an intimate gathering or in an encounter that lasts for a relatively short time, sometimes the typical extrovert prefers a night out on the town in loud, busy bars and restaurants and may well stay out until the sun comes up. It’s not that one approach is somehow better than the other, it’s that people need to understand what’s going to give them the most enjoyment and arrange their social life accordingly.
Cain also highlights the importance of flow in happiness. We discussed flow earlier in this series, positioning it in the context of the three happy lives identified by Martin Seligman. Cain sums up the state of absorption associated with flow in the following terms: “[It is] an optimal condition in which you feel totally engaged with an activity.”
She goes on to echo Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who first proposed the idea) in noting that the flow experience does not tick the classic, extrovert-oriented happiness boxes. To an observer, someone in the flow state most likely wouldn’t look particularly happy – you would see none of the typical markers of joy. Instead, flow is a state of high concentration and absorption, the happy marriage between an individual’s talents and interests and the task at hand. In the flow state, we are at one with our activity and feel little in terms of emotion; it is only when we emerge from that state that we reflect upon how enjoyable the experience was. Clearly, the flow state is not limited to one personality type or another; it is something we can all aspire to, and the more time we can spend in flow, then the better it will be for us in terms of happiness and wellbeing.
These are but two strategies for introverts to pursue. There are many others, but the purpose here first and foremost has been to highlight that introverts who aren’t attracted to the typical extrovert path to happiness and wellbeing need not despair. Happiness is not the exclusive preserve of one personality type over another.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.