Introverts have been having their moment. Ever since the best seller Quiet came out in 2012, the reserved among us have been stepping up and speaking out, eager to take power back from the endlessly chattering extroverts.
The book, written by former lawyer and professed introvert Susan Cain, argues that our society coaxes introverts into unnecessarily behaving like extroverts. As a result, she contends, we miss out on introverts’ unsung virtues, and quiet people should not be forced to endure gregarious gaggles of people that actually exhaust them.
Psychology tells us a slightly different story about “acting extroverted,” in particular when it comes to well-being, where decades of findings suggest extroverts come out ahead in feelings of contentment. “There are benefits of introversion,” says University of California, Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. “But research shows that extroverts are happier.”
A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in August offers a rare look at this issue through the lens of an experiment conducted by Lyubomirsky and U.C. Riverside graduate student Seth Margolis. They presented evidence that acting like an extrovert might actually boost well-being—even for introverts.
For the study, Lyubomirsky and Margolis had 131 undergraduates initially undergo a number of assessments to set a baseline for their health, well-being and personality. Next, the researchers asked the students to alter their behaviors in specific ways for one week. Some had to be more “talkative, assertive, and spontaneous”; others were instructed to be “deliberate, quiet, and reserved.” (Although these behaviors were not labeled “extroverted” or “introverted,” Margolis and Lyubomirsky essentially pushed the students to act within those categories.) At week’s end, the two groups took the same tests that had established their baseline, and then they reversed roles for the second week. Afterward, they took the assessments one last time.
The researchers analyzed responses to suss out whether acting as an introvert or extrovert had any effect on well-being. They discovered that leaning into extroverted behaviors resulted in participants reporting higher measures of well-being, including positive emotions, a sense of social connectedness and “flow” (full immersion in an enjoyable activity).
And the opposite was also true: people who acted more introverted than usual saw declines in well-being. “I kind of wish the research didn’t show that, but it does,” Lyubomirsky says.
Before you try the experiment at home, however, you might consider a similar one published earlier this year. In that study, which included 147 people, some of the participants behaved like extroverts for a week—but only the true extroverts among them gained in positive emotions. The introverts suffered when they pretended to be extroverts. Lyubomirsky and Margolis did check for that pattern in their data—but they did not see it.
University of Melbourne psychologist Luke Smillie was one of the co-authors of the older paper. He suggests his intervention may have had different results because it included more reminders: multiple daily smartphone alerts in contrast to just three weekly e-mails. “Possibly, this made our intervention a bit more potent—perhaps analogous to a stronger dose of a drug,” Smillie says.
Lyubomirsky is open to that possibility. “It could be that if we did it for a month or longer, the introverts would have been depleted or fatigued,” she says. Lyubomirsky adds that her research may simply indicate that introverts benefit from a few minutes of extroverted behavior each day.
A bigger question is why happiness and extroversion might go hand in hand. One hypothesis is that extroverted tendencies, such as being high-energy and outspoken, are highly valued in many societies. Studies have suggested that extroverts are happy because they live in cultures that reward their behavior. (That idea is central to Cain’s message; she advocates that societies that place a premium on outgoing behaviors should take steps to support introverts.)
In line with that concept, another research team at the University of Melbourne, which includes psychologist Dianne Vella-Brodrick, has found that the more introverts wish they were extroverts, the less happy they are. But introverts who accept themselves as they are feel more content. Lyubomirsky and Margolis also showed that people in their study who had a strong desire to be extroverted experienced more significant swings in well-being from one week to the next.
Vella-Brodrick offers an additional interpretation for the extroversion findings in Lyubomirsky’s paper: “The novelty of behaving differently for one week could have led to the benefits rather than the extroverted behavior per se.”
Another explanation for extrovert happiness has to do with how being sociable can be a powerful predictor of well-being. Humans are, after all, social animals. “Just saying, ‘Hi,’ to your barista and talking to someone on the train makes people happier,” Lyubomirsky says. “I really think connection is what makes life worth living.”
She and Margolis did attempt to control for the possibility that simply being more sociable drove the gains in extroverts’ contentment with an unpublished follow-up study. In it, they ran a similar experiment, asking students to just be assertive, sociable or energetic—and found similar positive effects in all three groups.
But it is hard to extricate extroversion from social behavior. In several studies, for instance, Smillie and his colleagues have found that acting extroverted not only leads people to be outgoing but also more bold and assertive. As a result, Smillie says, these confident, outspoken people feel like they are “contributing more to social affairs [and thus are] making a difference.” And that sensation, of making meaningful contributions to a larger community, increases happiness.