The Happiness Gains of Going Against Your Instincts

Posted by on May 20, 2021 6:00 am
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How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.


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A year before the pandemic changed all of our lives, a friend sent me a link to a survey based on academic research that rates your personality traits on a numeric scale. He was particularly keen to know my extroversion score, to see if the test was accurate. His results had shown that he scored at the 15th percentile. He sent it to me as the most extroverted person he knows. Sure enough, I scored at the 96th percentile.

“Lucky you,” he remarked, “extroverts are a lot happier.” He was right about that, on average. Decades of research have consistently shown that extroverts have a significant happiness edge over introverts. They report higher levels of general well-being as well as more frequent moments of joy.

COVID-19, however, has given us extroverts our comeuppance. Research published in March in the scientific journal PLOS One studied the impact of the pandemic on people with various personality characteristics. The authors found that mood worsened for extroverts but improved for introverts. As my friend said, only half joking, “Why don’t we just stay locked down forever?”

In ordinary times, American introverts are like cats living in Dogland: underappreciated, uncomfortable, and slightly out of place. A side effect of shutting down the world was to turn it into Catland, at least for a little while. That gave the introverts a chance to lord their solitary comfort over the rest of us, for once. To this I say, “Woof.”

[Read: The coming conflict between introverts and extroverts]

But the temporary shift has also created a kind of social-science field experiment, highlighting all the ways in which introverts and extroverts can learn from each other. If we take the lessons to heart, we can all benefit.

Psychologists see extroversion as one of the Big Five personality traits, along with agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. The Big Five theory has been a staple of psychology since the 1980s, but the introvert-extrovert binary was first popularized in 1921 by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who posited that the two groups have different primary life goals. The former, he thought, seek to establish autonomy and independence; the latter seek union with others. Those stereotypes have persisted to this day.

[From the March 2003 issue: Caring for your introvert]

The German-born psychologist Hans Eysenck further developed Jung’s theory in the 1960s, arguing that our genetics determine our relative extroversion. He believed that cortical arousal—that is, the brain’s level of alertness—was more difficult for extroverts than introverts, so the former seek stimulation in the company of others, ideally the fresh company of new people. Subsequent research has shown mixed results on Eysenck’s specific theory, but has found clear cognitive differences between the groups.

One common explanation for the happiness differential between introverts and extroverts follows from stereotypes like Jung and Eysenck’s: Humans are inherently social animals, so contact brings happiness; extroverts seek out contact, so extroverts are happier. The fact that introverts prefer solitude and often struggle with sociability doesn’t mean that avoiding contact makes them happier. It just means they prefer something that makes them unhappy. Nothing strange here—you can also prefer unhealthy food.

There are complementary cultural explanations for the happiness differential. To begin with, extroversion is highly rewarded in American society, and predicts a significant edge in earning power—on average, extroverts make about $12,000 more per year than introverts. Extroverts attain other advantages in the workplace as well, such as promotions to leadership positions and high performance evaluations.

[Read: When schools overlook introverts]

Some resent these patterns, and believe they show a lack of cultural depth. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain lists the many advances made by introverts—from the theory of gravity to Google—and argues that admiring and rewarding extroversion is not just unfair, but hinders progress. If you ever feel disillusioned by Americans’ habit of elevating egotistical-yet-charismatic leaders, you might have to admit that Cain has a point.

Whether we are introverts or extroverts, we don’t need to regret our sojourn to Catland or dread the return to Dogland. On the contrary, each group can teach the other a lesson that can improve all of our well-being.

1. Introverts should focus more on the future, like extroverts do.

In 2001, a group of Oxford scholars broke a sample of survey respondents into four groups: happy extroverts, unhappy extroverts, happy introverts, and unhappy introverts. As expected, the happy extroverts outnumbered the happy introverts, by about two to one. But the researchers were more interested in what drove the rare happy introvert’s relatively high well-being.

They found the same characteristics among both happy groups: optimism, a sense of life purpose, and self-esteem. Extroverts, of course, love to talk to others about the future, their dreams, their life’s purpose. As psychologists have long shown, we tend to act according to the commitments we have articulated to others, so the extrovert habit of telling everyone you meet about your goals makes you more likely to reach them and therefore get happier.

[Read: Make room, introverts—everyone needs time to recharge]

Happy introverts have figured out how to envision the future without all the (uncomfortable, for them) personal sharing with lots of people. They tend to have close one-on-one friendships instead, where they can share their dreams if and when they choose.

2. Extroverts should work on deep friendships, which introverts tend to have more of.

Intimate friendships are not only good for sharing your dreams. They are also a clear and direct producer of happiness. In particular, forging close friendships with people from whom you have nothing to gain is an intense source of satisfaction. But doing so isn’t easy, especially for extroverts, because of their love of crowds, audiences, fresh contact, and excitement.

The pandemic’s pause in life’s rhythms has left society’s dogs in a state of social withdrawal, explaining the current happiness inversion. But it also presents an opportunity for extroverts to cultivate more real friendships like introverts have. While this might not be the natural tendency—research shows that extroverts tend to have a lot of low-depth friendships with other extroverts—it is more optimal for happiness. Extroverts should set a goal for the next few weeks and months to deepen one friendship before life returns to normal.

[Read: Two competing impulses will drive post-pandemic social life]

If they don’t know how to begin, they should just watch a happy introvert do it. I am a dog, but my 18-year-old daughter is a cat. She and her closest cat-friend talk for an hour or two every day, making a point to update each other on their life plans. Find your nearest happy cats and act like them.

Beyond the specifics of introversion and extroversion, there is one important lesson in all this: Watching and learning from people very different from you is a great way to learn to be happier. Indeed, a love of human diversity of all types, from culture to character to politics, is required for a full education in well-being.

None of us has a lock on the best practices, and surrounding ourselves with people just like us will not inspire new ideas to raise our life satisfaction. For the happiest world, we need cats and dogs—together.

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