The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Living with Your Introvert

A guide to care and feeding

Yup, I'm one of those weird people who appreciate driving with long periods of silence while others are in the car with me. Love it, actually. I like music, but I don't get why people play the radio in the car when they are sitting in a rare silence bubble.

Introverts feed on silence like extroverts feed on words. Silence is necessary to sustain us, just like food, and without enough of it, we get weak. We're not shy, we just don't see the need to work out ideas with others when we have a perfectly good conversation going on in our heads. So, how can introverts develop the rich social lives that produce health and happiness if we talk less to others?

Here's my playbook. It comes from my decades-long study of the molecule of connection, oxytocin, in laboratory and field experiments. And, from my realization that I'm an introvert who still wants to be around the humans sometimes.

1. Romance. Introverts can be the slightly quirky folks who show up on science-themed sitcoms. But we tend to avoid bars and big gatherings. But, put us in small groups or one-on-one and we shine. So, seek out groups of friends to hang out with, join a book club or gym and look for folks with shared interests. Often, introverts are attracted to extroverts because the latter can draw us out, and in social situations hand the verbal load others expect. Look for opportunities to have coffee or dinner with a few other people and really get to know them.

2. Friendships. Find some introvert friends who you can take that long ride with in the car without constantly talking. Cherish them. Then, realize that your extrovert friends work out their ideas verbally. Just be quiet and let them. Introverts do this, too, but just less often. When my extrovert pals call with an idea they want to explore, I just listen and let them come to their own conclusions. As my extrovert wife said to me when we were first married, "Just look at me and nod occasionally while I speak so I don't seem like a crazy woman talking to myself." Good advice.

3. Home life. I have a painting I bought when I was a college student by the Colombian artist Orlando Agudelo-Botero called "Solitude and Passion." It has crisscrossed the country with me to the many places I've lived. It reminds me (and now my family) that to express my passion requires solitude. I need big chunks of quiet time and will find it in a corner office, a coffee shop with ear buds on, or out walking by myself. I'm not sad or alone at these times, but am energized that I can work out whatever I'm thinking about in my head. Find a spouse that understands this and then carve out private time for yourself.

And now one little plea: can we have some quiet time?

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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