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The subtitle of Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet is “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The idea that introverts can still flourish despite the cultural message of the “extravert ideal” clearly resonated with a lot of people.
However, until recently, the science of well-being really didn’t support this idea. Study after study looking at the link between personality and well-being kept pointing to the conclusion that extraverted people tend to experience higher levels of happiness than do those who are introverted. But in recent years, a number of more nuanced studies have challenged this strong conclusion, and suggests that there is much more to this story than meets the eye. As we’ll see, it is very possible to thrive and flourish as an introvert, even in a world that can’t stop talking.
We’ll take a closer look at these studies, but first things first: what is introversion?
What is Introversion?
There are a number of different conceptualizations of introversion floating around the internet, so let me clarify how introversion is treated in the scientific literature. In modern day personality research, extraversion is considered one of the main factors of personality. Extraversion comprises a constellation of characteristics-- such as being outgoing, sociable, expressive, and assertive-- that are all linked by a high sensitivity to rewards in the environment. Therefore, introversion lies simply on the other end of this pole, and is characterized by being more reserved and quiet, and a lower threshold of sensitivity to rewards in the environment.
That’s it. There are a lot of common misconceptions about introversion, however, such as the idea that introverts are necessarily shy (that’s only the case if introverts also score high in the personality trait neuroticism) or are more likely to be creative and imaginative (that’s only the case if introverts also score high in the personality trait openness to experience). Personality neuroscientist Colin DeYoung explains it as follows:
“People who score low in Extraversion are not necessarily turned inward; rather, they are less engaged, motivated, and energized by the possibilities for reward that surround them. Hence, they talk less, are less driven, and experience less enthusiasm. They may also find levels of stimulation that are rewarding and energizing for someone high in Extraversion merely annoying or tiring (or even overwhelming, depending on their level of Neuroticism). Their reserved demeanor is not likely to indicate an intense engagement with the world of imagination and ideas, however, unless they are also high in [openness to experience].”
The New Science of Introversion
With that out of the way, we can now dive deep into the “new” science of introversion. I refer to it as the new science to distinguish it from the earlier conclusions that were much more black-and-white (extraversion = happiness). As early as 2001, the literature started to observe a substantial subset of “happy introverts” in their samples.
One recent line of research suggests that there are multiple personality pathways to well-being. In this series of studies, I teamed up with Jessie Sun and Luke Smillie to take a more finely grained look at the multiple aspects of personality and the multiple dimensions of well-being (not only happiness but also important sources of well-being such as meaning, self-acceptance, autonomy, and personal growth). We found the following five aspects of personality were most predictive of a wide range of indicators of well-being: enthusiasm, low withdrawal, industriousness/grit, compassion, and intellectual curiosity. Therefore, regardless of one’s overall levels of introversion, if one of these other paths to well-being is cultivated, it is still possible to be a very happy introvert.
Another line of research led by Rowan Jacques-Hamilton investigated the costs of sustained extraverted behavior in everyday life. I highlighted the word “sustained” because it turns out this is a really important caveat. Prior research had shown that no matter one’s placement on the extraversion-introversion continuum, those who more naturally acted extraverted were more likely to feel authentic in the moment. Consistent with that finding, Jacques-Hamilton and his colleagues found that asking participants to “act extraverted” for one week in everyday life had “wholly positive” benefits for positive emotions and reports of authenticity for the sample overall.
However, the important nuance is that more introverted people displayed weaker increases in positive emotions, experienced increased negative emotions and tiredness, and experienced decreased feelings of authenticity over the course of the experiment. This research highlights the costs of repeatedly acting out of character, and also the costs of being forced to act of character (the experimenters explicitly instructed the participants to act in a certain way).
This has deep implications for the well-being of introverts who live in cultures where extraversion is highly valued and emphasized as the ideal way of being. C. Ashley Fulmer and her colleagues investigated the relationship between extraversion and happiness and self-esteem across 7,000 people from 28 societies and found that the positive relationship between extraversion and happiness and self-esteem was much greater when a person’s level of extraversion matched the average level of extraversion of their society. This research suggests that person-environment fit matters quite a bit when looking at the relationship between introversion and well-being. The researchers proposed a “person-culture match hypothesis” that argues that culture can function as an important amplifier of the positive effect of personality on self-esteem and happiness.*
Importantly, not all of these studies are quantitative. The qualitative approach offers a way to more deeply understand the lived experience of introverts. In an important qualitative analysis of introverts in the context of medical school in the United States (a context in which extraverted behaviors are frequently rewarded), Ralph Gillies and colleagues found that self-identified introverts mentioned feeling at times like misfits, questioning a need to change their identity to succeed in medical school, and being judged as underperformers. Here are a few reports from the self-identified introverts in the study:
“One of the issues that people may have with introverts in general is that they just don’t know what’s going on with them. I know more than a few people who have said that I was intimidating or seemed standoffish, just because I didn’t talk much. Just because we aren’t constantly talking and letting everyone know everything that’s going on inside our heads we come across as the weird ones.”
“After reading Dale Carnegie's book on how to influence people, I felt the writer was telling me that I would have to change my personality/identity in order to make positive changes in other people's lives.”
The researchers offered some recommendations for how medical school can be more welcoming and appreciative of introverts, such as pausing between a question being asked and the initial response and differentiating between anxious and introverted behaviors. Critically, some of the introverts in the study expressed immense relief and validation after viewing Susan Cain’s TED talk on the potential strengths of introverts.
All of this research suggests that perhaps the biggest key to being a happy introvert is simply self-acceptance; not forcing oneself to repeatedly act out of character, or to think of oneself as merely deviations from an “ideal” personality. This conclusion is strongly supported by a 2019-published study in the Journal of Happiness Studies by Rodney Lawn and colleagues.
The Australian researchers had people indicate their placement on the extraversion-introversion continuum, and then asked them to indicate their ideal placement on the same continuum. It was clear that there was a distinct cultural preference for extraversion. They found that a whopping 96% of people believed that extraverted characteristics were more valued than introverted characteristics in their society, and 82.2% of the participants also believed it was necessary to display extraverted characteristics in going about their daily life. What’s more, the majority of participants (53.6%) wanted to be more extraverted, and those who were more introverted were particularly likely to want to be more extraverted. These findings are consistent with prior work showing that in the West, 87% of people explicitly express a goal of becoming more extraverted.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Lawn and colleagues found that the introverts in their sample who were comfortable with their introversion showed higher levels of authenticity than did those who wanted to be more extraverted, and were able to achieve a level of well-being that came close to the level experienced by extraverts. These findings suggest that simply making a change in one’s judgment about one's placement on the extraversion-introversion continuum can have a profound effect on well-being and authenticity. As the researchers note,
“Introverts who can learn to be more comfortable with their place on the introversion-extraversion continuum, for example, better thrive in our schools, universities, and workplaces despite the fact that in the West these institutions are often geared toward extraverted behavior. We speculate that introverts might learn to become more comfortable with their own introversion in these environments by focusing on eudaomonic concepts such as maintaining a positive attitude toward oneself, and cultivating good character and practicing more self-acceptance, and developing their ‘signature strengths’.”
My advice: if you can’t change your environment, you can always change how you view yourself. Don’t let anyone make you feel less than simply because you are different. Embrace the unique strengths you can bring to the table, and you are more likely to be happier, healthier, and feel more authentic in your everyday life. You, too, can be a very happy introvert.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.