How an Introvert Can Be Happier: Act Like an Extrovert

Date: 23-07-2013
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Extroverts are generally happier, studies show. And research shows introverts feel happier when they act extroverted.

Both introverts and extroverts can be adept at public speaking. But whereas an extrovert might afterward want to interact with others in a large group, introverts might feel the need for self-reflection and time alone, such as by taking a walk.

Extroverts, those outgoing, gregarious types who wear their personalities on their sleeve, are generally happier, studies show. Some research also has found that introverts, who are more withdrawn in nature, will feel a greater sense of happiness if they act extroverted.

Experts aren’t entirely sure why behaving like an extrovert makes people feel better. One theory is that being talkative and engaging influences how people respond to you, especially if that response is positive. Others speculate that people get more satisfaction when they express their core self and opinions. Another possibility: Happiness might come simply from having successfully completed a goal, such as giving a speech.

“If you’re introverted and act extroverted, you will be happier. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s all about what you do,” said William Fleeson, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Other studies have shown that extroverts are more motivated than introverts. Researchers believe this is due in part to extroverts’ greater sensitivity to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a big role in behavior driven by rewards.

Clark Powell considers himself an introvert, but his job as vice president of a media relations and multimedia production firm means he often must act out of character. “My job requires me to be on TV…and to do media training and presentations in front of large groups of people, as painful as that can be sometimes,” said the 46-year-old in Columbia, Ohio. Though he may dread making a presentation, he says he is exhilarated afterward. “I do feel a sense of relief and elation, but I don’t know if that’s because of the experience or because the experience is over,” he said.

Mr. Powell disagrees with research findings that extroverts are happier and more motivated. While extroverts might derive happiness through feedback from others, Mr. Powell says his sources of pleasure include learning new things and reading a good book. “I may not share my happiness as willingly as other people…but I consider myself just as happy and I’m extremely motivated to learn and grow as an individual.”

Whether a person is an extrovert or introvert is one of the big five traits commonly used by psychologists to classify personalities. (The others are openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism.) Researchers say people generally fall somewhere in the middle, with attributes of both types. Extroverts tend to thrive off of interaction with other people. Introverts are typically more reserved, but not necessarily shy. They prefer solitary behavior or engaging in small groups.

Researchers say genetics may play a large role in whether we are more extroverted or introverted. Social experiences, especially those outside of the family environment, are also important, particularly as a child and young adult when the connectivity between neurons is being established.

Dr. Fleeson, of Wake Forest University, reported in a 2012 article in the Journal of Personality the results of an experiment that found introverts experience greater levels of happiness when they act more extroverted. In the weeklong study, researchers followed 85 people who recorded on Palm Pilots how extroverted they were acting and how happy they were feeling. Other studies of introvert behavior have reached similar conclusions.

So why don’t introverts act like extroverts more often? John Zelenski, a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, and fellow researchers probed that question in an April article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

A series of studies, which included more than 600 college students, found that introverts misjudge how they would feel after acting extroverted. They often predicted feelings of anxiety and embarrassment, which never transpired.

“Introverts kind of underestimate how much fun it will be to act extroverted,” said Dr. Zelenski. “You don’t think you want to go to a party and then go and have a great time.” Dr. Zelenski and other researchers also considered whether people acting in a way that goes against their natural disposition might wear themselves out. In two studies, a total of about 150 college students were instructed to behave in an extroverted or introverted manner during a group activity. Questionnaires and cognitive tests measured how much mental energy was depleted.

“We didn’t find a lot of evidence for…the idea that acting like an extrovert would wear out introverts,” said Dr. Zelenski. However, he said: “We found acting like an introvert tended to wear out extroverts,” who performed worse on cognitive tests.

Still, Brian Little a psychology professor at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, believes that acting out of character can take a physiological toll on the nervous and immune systems. Dr. Little says he’s an introvert who often has to engage in extroverted behavior, such as making speeches, in order to advance his work. Afterward, Dr. Little says he often needs to emotionally recharge.

While extroverts might benefit from interacting with others during a break at a conference, Dr. Little prefers to go for walk if he has time. If not, he might hide in the restroom. “As an introvert acting as an extrovert I need to escape from the vicissitudes of overstimulating colleagues,” he said.

Dr. Little says some of his students are starting a study to explore the cost of acting out of character. “I’m quite confident that we can show that going against your traits is going to use up resources,” such as glucose, he said. “Anything that requires concentration is going to deplete glucose resources,” he said.

Researchers say genetic differences also can account for why introverts don’t seek to act extroverted. That’s because introverts don’t get the payoff for that behavior that extroverts do, in the form of heightened sensitivity to the neurotransmitter dopamine. The reasons this occurs aren’t fully understood, says Richard Depue, a professor of neuroscience in the department of human development at Cornell University. The bottom line: Extroverts are wired to act more motivated to get that reward.

Luke Smillie, a senior lecturer of psychology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, notes that most studies of introverts and extroverts take place in the U.S. and other western countries where extroversion is often perceived to be more valuable. “The question is, would you observe the same effects in cultures that didn’t have this sort of value placed on being outgoing and assertive and so forth?” he said.

“We live in a culture that very much subscribes to the extrovert ideal of being bold and assertive,” said Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer who wrote a book last year called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” which argues that introverts are unfairly maligned. Rather than trying to get introverts to act more extroverted, she argues that society should be drawing on their natural strengths, which can include being a good listener and working creatively

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