The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

A Quiet Positive Psychology

A quiet positive psychology would be a scientifically reasonable one.

If I could I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results. — Emily Bronte

I just finished reading a terrific book written by Susan Cain (2012), who also writes blog entries for Psychology Today. Her book Quiet is a best-seller, deservedly so, and many of you readers are no doubt familiar with its content. Her focus is on the 1/3 to 1/2 of all people who are introverted. Introversion is not to be confused with shyness. Rather, the introverted person is reflective and thoughtful and often prefers to be alone and to work alone. Too much social interaction leaves the introvert depleted and overwhelmed. Introverts have friends and social skills, just in different ways than their extroverted* counterparts.

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Introverts also have a bad reputation, at least in the modern western world, and Cain argues that in such domains as business, school, and even religion, extroversion is idealized. That said, introverts have many virtues, and some of the world’s most important accomplishments have been made by introverted individuals.

I will not repeat her further arguments here — see her book or her blog entries — but I will observe that she is a very good writer and a very good thinker. And by her own report, she is an introvert, proof positive of her book’s thesis.

 

Rather, the point of this essay is to consider positive psychology vis-à-vis the ideas put forth so powerfully in Quiet. What Cain calls the Extroverted Ideal is not explicit in positive psychology’s vision of the good life, but it often lurks there.

When positive psychologists focus on positive emotions, we privilege activated feelings like happiness and shoulder aside more quiet feelings like contentment. When positive psychologists — like me in particular — proclaim that “other people matter,” it is easy to hear this slogan as implying that the most meaningful life is one abuzz nonstop with lots of other folks. When positive psychologists discuss achievement, we point to the role played by teams and workgroups, never mind the fact that many accomplishments result from long hours of solitary work.

Positive psychology holds that the good life can take different forms, and we should take this pronouncement seriously. There is a noisy and extroverted view of what it means to live well, but there is also a quiet and introverted view. Both deserve our scientific attention. One size does not fit all, and introverts should not be measured against extroverts (or vice versa, although no one seems to be doing much of that these days).

My apologies to all who invite me, but I dislike positive psychology conferences, at least after the first day, because they are attended by people who seem extremely extroverted: happy and humorous, boisterous and bouncy, hugging strangers and hollering out to any and all. My persona is that of an extrovert, but that is just a way of behaving that I have adopted over the years in my roles as a teacher and a speaker**. Deep down, at the level of my nervous system if not my overt actions, I am an introvert.

So too are many if not most of the leaders in the field of positive psychology, which of course is ironic. Perhaps when positive psychology began, its earliest proponents were careful not to prescribe their own personality styles as a way to lead a good life. This is regrettable, in retrospect, because a quiet positive psychology would not only be an appealing complement to the noisy one that exists but also a scientifically reasonable one. So, the character strength of curiosity can be shown in a loudly inquisitive way (“I am always asking other people questions”) or in a quietly observant way (“I am always sitting on the sidelines and paying attention to what is happening”). Mixing these together obscures what are likely important differences in what it means to be curious.

Thoughtfully, I call for a quiet positive psychology.

* I will follow the lead of Quiet and use extroversion rather than extraversion to describe people who are outgoing, gregarious, and energized by social encounters.

** When I first began my career as a teacher, I was absolutely terrible ... way too abstract and way too serious. So, I studied — and I really mean studied — joke books as well as the common culture to create skills at glibness, meaning humor and small talk. I even subscribed to The National Enquirer and deducted the cost on my federal tax form as an unreimbursed business expense. I became to all outward appearances a funny guy and a chatty guy, and there were professional and even some personal benefits to doing so. But I remained an introvert, and I thank Susan Cain for reminding me that the person I really am is as okay as the person I appear to be.

Reference

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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