Quiet: The Power of Introverts

How to thrive in a world that can't stop talking.

Are Extroverts Happier Than Introverts? Yes, But...

There are many different ways to define happiness.

Before you read on, please take this poll

This question is prompted by a line of research suggesting that introverts, as a group, are not as happy as extroverts. Here is John Zelenski of the Carleton University Happiness Lab, describing some of the data.

As a person with a pretty high baseline level of happiness, I always scratch my head about these findings. And then I start thinking about how we define happiness. Is it joy, exultation, and a wide smile, or does it have many different expressions? Philosophers have pondered this question for centuries, joined recently by positive psychologists. I think the answer matters a lot when it comes to introverts and extroverts.

Studies show that extroverts tend to be more exuberant than introverts, and brain scans suggest that the reward networks in their brains are more responsive to anticipated delights, like winning money or viewing a picture of an attractive stranger. But there are many other kinds of happiness, and some of them are hard to measure. Here are five alternative forms of happiness; you may have many others to add!

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1. The happiness of short social bursts -- followed by blissful solitude: Zelenski points out a famous study (well, famous in psychology circles) showing that everyone is happier after socializing, introverts included. Which raises the question: why do introverts like to stay home? The jury is still out, but here's a theory. Studies also show that there's no correlation between extroversion and caring/agreeableness/need for attachment. Introverts want company just as much as extroverts do, but they prefer it in either short doses or with people they know well. Yet most socializing doesn't fall into these categories, so over the course of a lifetime they learn to avoid it, as a kind of default mode. Also, because introverts enjoy lower-stimulation environments than extroverts do, they learn to cultivate the pleasures of solitude, and of deep friendships with a select few -- and they weigh these pleasures against any social invitation that comes their way.

2. The happiness of melancholy: I’m crazy about the famously melancholic singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who has probably never written a single song outside the minor key. When I listen to Cohen’s musings on love and loss, yearning and sorrow, I feel happy. But why? It’s not an exultant kind of happiness. It feels more like a marveling at the fragile beauty of the human condition, and a pleasure in having someone articulate it so sensitively. But if you scanned my brain while I listen to Cohen’s “Anthem,” which parts would light up? Maybe the reward networks, but probably also the ones suggesting melancholy. Leonard Cohen’s fans (many of whom are introverts, judging by the people I saw at a recent concert) are mirroring his “negative” emotions, and through his music he mirrors theirs. But the very communion of this act is happy-making – if you define happiness broadly enough.

3. The happiness of flow: My book QUIET is coming out in January, and there’s been a lot of exciting advance press. My reaction to this is usually to note it contentedly, and then get right back to work. But the other day, my mother-in-law told me that she wished I would celebrate more. And she’s right that it takes a grand slam home run to get me to rejoice. (I did jump for joy when the great psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, about whom more in a minute, gave the book a great review.)

I’ve thought a lot about my mother-in-law’s wish. She and my husband (her son) both have warm-hearted, champagne bubble personalities, and a delightful tendency to whoop it up. I love their ability to transform the everyday. Achievements that might have struck me as ho-hum come to seem wonderful in their telling. They would score very high on any happiness measure you gave them, whether a questionnaire or a brain scan -- probably higher than your typical introvert would.

But for me, when I get right back to work, this is not a turning-away from happiness but an embracing of it. People who love their work often reach a “flow state,” an optimal condition in which you feel totally engaged in an activity. When you’re in flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your own adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing.

But people in flow don’t necessarily look exuberant, or even content. They might frown, or furrow their brows in concentration. Here, in fact, is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who invented the very concept of flow. His description of it is vivid enough (and his books are so well written) that I wager he’s in that state a lot. But he sure doesn’t strike me as exuberant -- at least not outwardly.

4. The happiness of gratitude: I often feel grateful for what I have, especially my family and my work. Every time I walk outside I notice how beautiful it is – the weather, the trees, the hillside -- and comment on it (my kids have started to do this too, which makes me happy). But again, none of this is joy or exultation; it’s not the sort of happiness that brings a spontaneous smile to the face. It’s much more internal and quiet than that.

5. The happiness of meaning: I'm going to use parenting to illustrate this one. Research repeatedly finds that parents of young children are less happy than the childless. Yet most people will tell you that their children bring them meaning and joy. They may not be happy to pick up mashed peas from the floor, or to get only five hours sleep a night, but their connection with their kids, and the chance that parenting affords to play the roles of Mentor and Guide, and the funny and miraculous things that children say all day long, transcends all this. The sheer existence of children is deeply satisfying.

So how to measure all this? It’s easy to know whether someone is miserable on the one hand, or ecstatic on the other. But how do you quantify the states in between? You can determine how grateful a person feels, or whether they’re in a state of flow at any given moment, or how well they like a sad song, but how do you add all these things up to conclude that one person is happy and another is not? I'm not even sure it works to just ask them (as I did with the poll above), because introverts have been found to give less extreme answers on polls than extroverts do. They might be less likely to check off the "extremely happy" box.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How did you score on the poll, and are you an introvert or an extrovert? What modes of happiness do you usually experience? What brings you down?

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Susan Cain is the author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, a popular blog and forthcoming book about introversion.

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