We’ve been exploring the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths
and the Three Marks of Reality
. Today we’ll explore the question: Are extroverts happier than introverts?
Popular and scientific opinion answers this question in the affirmative. Extroverts are happier. Research shows a strong correlation between extroversion and happiness. I believe these findings are, at least in part, artifacts of how extraversion is measured. When studies report differences between introverts and extroverts they are reporting relative differences on a measurement of extroversion. The NEO PI measures the presence or absence of extroverted qualities. It does not measure positively valued introvert qualities or the absence of extroversion.
As I discussed in my book, The Everything Guide to the Introvert Edge, extroversion is:
This personality factor is concerned with the ‘quantity and intensity of interpersonal interaction; activity level; need for stimulation; and capacity for joy.’People who score high on this measure are described as ‘sociable, active, talkative, person-oriented, optimistic, fun-loving, affectionate.’People who score low on this measurement (presumably introverts) are described as ‘reserved, sober, unexuberant, aloof, task-oriented, retiring, and quiet.'
Missing from this conception are low-arousal positive emotions such as tranquility, calm, serenity, and peacefulness. Also missing are equanimity, ease, and mindfulness. Low scorers on a measure of extroversion are not necessarily unhappy, they are just less “exuberant” and “high spirited.” If exuberation is not the reference standard, then we are having a different conversation about what happiness is.
The research captures a limited form of introversion; an almost caricaturized and certainly less nuanced portrayal of what introverts have to offer.
Another recent study lends support to this view that the definition of introversion contributes to their being less happy. A study conducted by Zelenski and others in the journal Emotion, asked participants to behave like introverts and extroverts, regardless of their personality. Not surprisingly, subjects felt better when they acted like extroverts, even the extroverts in the group. But let’s look closer at the study design. How were extroverts supposed to act? And how were introverts supposed to act?
Here again we see people acting “happier” and this notion of happiness is the definition of extroversion. The script for extroverts encouraged subject to be bold, talkative, energetic, active, and assertive. The script for introverts instructed them to be reserved, quiet, lethargic, passive, compliant, and unadventurous. These scripts represent antiquated versions of extroversion and introversion. Introverts can certainly be energetic and assertive about things they care about. They can even be talkative. The instructions for introverts sound like a directive to be a depressed introvert. No wonder everyone felt better following the extrovert script.
Think about the Buddha’s version of happiness. He is often represented, half-smiling, with a supreme countenance of calm, presence, and forbearance. On the night of his awakening when he was asked by his cynical mind: “who would witness his accomplishment?” he didn’t speak aloud. He simply reached down and touched the ground. A very introvert thing to do.
Happiness is not about maximizing and accumulating pleasurable experiences. As the Buddha pointed out, impermanence is the order of the day. Pleasures are inherently fleeting and don’t provide a solid foundation for enduring satisfaction.
Pioneering positive psychologist Martin Seligman has mapped PERMA to capture the facets of happiness. PERMA stands for: Positivity, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.
When you take care of meaning, positivity has a way of taking are of itself. In other words, you don’t have to strive to be happy and collect all those extroverted types of “happy” experiences. Instead, when you engage with meaningful projects in the present moment, particularly ones that benefit others, positive emotions naturally follow.
The Buddha’s version of happiness might be most aptly captured by the term that often get’s translated as equanimity. Equanimity refers to being there in the middle of things, without needing things to be different than they are. Equanimity brings acceptance and interest to what is happening in the moment.
From this perspective, it is possible to be “happy” even when things are not going well. There is a great freedom found in the capacity to be equanimous. Perhaps this is why the Buddha always has that contended little half-smile on his face.
The Buddha didn’t need excitement, thrills, and “good times” to be happy. His happiness was a quiet contentment that abided in every moment, regardless of what was happening. Introverts, like the Buddha, have access to a rich interior experience. We need to learn to keep that inner intensity from becoming obsession, rumination, and worry.
We can embrace this aspect of our Buddha-nature when we expand our definition of happiness to move beyond a high arousal, extrovert-dominated one to include low-arousal introverted-based feelings.
Happiness resides in contentment, peacefulness, and appreciation of everything that is happening around us in every moment. This version of happiness is more robust, available, and enduring. Happiness is always ever a breath away.
Be happy, introvert fashion.