Blog #39 – Happiness & introverts
A few years ago, I was giving a lecture on what behaviours and traits research tells us are most linked with higher levels of happiness when one of the students present raised a hand and indicated that she had a question.
I had been going through the typical list of what comes up in such research – happier people tend to be more outgoing and sociable, they have wide networks of friends, they enjoy social gatherings, they seek out the company of others – when the student raised her hand. As I acknowledged her and asked her to speak, I noticed the troubled expression on her face. “What if you’re an introvert?” she said.
I was taken by surprise at the time, as I hadn’t really thought too much about the distinction between personality types and strategies for happiness. I was doubly surprised that I had not done so, given that I regard myself as being far more of an introvert than an extravert.
However, the reality of the matter is that when you read about happiness strategies and what seems to matter most for individual happiness, almost invariably the points made will read like an extravert’s charter. That is, perhaps, not so surprising, when you bear in mind that some estimates suggest that up to 75 per cent of people skew more towards extraversion; therefore, it may be that as few as one in every four people are introverts. So, when psychologists conduct research in this area, unless they specifically look to control for personality, they will, just by sheer force of numbers, end up working with far more extraverts than introverts, with this sure to make an impact on the trends reported in their results. Against this backdrop, introverts can get lost in the shuffle somewhat.
What I was reminded of that day was what – for me at least – had been a neglected thought; namely, that happiness can never be a one-size-fits-all, and so what works for one personality type may not work for another.
Put simply, an introvert will tend to derive happiness and joy from different things than an extravert will, and the worst thing an introvert could do is to try to be more like an extravert, in the belief that doing so will somehow yield the desired results. Such an approach would be akin to trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole.
However, it is understandable if the introverts among us despair somewhat when they read or hear about psychological research on what tends to work for increasing happiness or what habits the happiest among us tend to have, given that most of the time these findings are derived from extravert-heavy research populations.
The simplest way to put it is that introverts are different. For the most part, they are not shy extraverts who need to ‘come out of their shell’, and thinking otherwise will only bring us back to the square peg and round hole scenario. Because they are different, what works for the typical extravert will most likely not work for them. Where the extravert craves human company and thrives in buzzing social settings, sometimes the introvert can dread the very prospect of, for example, going to a social gathering where they don’t expect to see many people they already know.
It’s not that introverts spend all their time home alone – although they do tend to need that personal space and ‘down time’ much more than extraverts – but they think differently, feel differently, and have different preferences.
None of this means that introverts are doomed to be unhappy. Quite the opposite is the case. Yes, it may be that the happiest extraverts may be at the top of the happiness league table, but introverts are perfectly capable of cultivating their happiness. The key is that because the introvert has a specific set of personality traits, what works for him or her is going to differ from what works for the typical extravert, and understanding this basic truth is key.
How that plays out on a day-to-day basis and what strategies introverts can look to pursue to boost their happiness will be the focus of our next post. For now, the key take-home point today is that happiness is not a one-size-fits-all and despite the way this topic tends to be handled when covered in the media, introverts do not need to somehow attempt to emulate the habits and behaviours of extraverts when seeking to boost their own happiness.
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.