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How Introverts Can Make It in an Extraverted World

New research shows how introverts can learn to become happier with themselves.

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People high in introversion can feel like they’re square pegs in round holes within a culture that values extraversion. When you think about the people who get the most attention in your social circle at work or back when you were in school, it’s quite likely that you remember the bright stars who shined in every social situation. Whether it’s volunteering to be the first to offer a toast while celebrating a special occasion or the one most likely to answer a question that the boss or teacher asks of the group, the extraverts can be counted on to stand up and be counted. In a world that seemingly adores the extravert, what is an introvert to do?

Of course, not all cultures believe that extraversion is the most highly valued personality trait of all. Indeed, being extraverted can get you in trouble if you’re traveling in a country or culture that regards such outwardly focused behavior as brash and impolite. Even putting exclamation points in your email to people from such backgrounds can make you look rudely uninhibited. Therefore, when introverts compare themselves to extraverts, the result may be highly culture-bound.

According to Rodney Lawn and colleagues (2018) at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, the ideal person in the “individualistic West” is “autonomous, expressive, and comfortable in the spotlight” (p. 2). By conforming to this ideal image, the person high in extraversion should, therefore, be happier than the person who prefers to inhabit the shadows. Moreover, because happiness is so highly valued, the preference that introverts have for escaping public notice should lead people high in this trait to be deeply unhappy with themselves for not thriving in that spotlight. The Australian researchers believed that people around the world who are high in introversion may not share the same dissatisfaction with themselves. It’s only when the “extraversion deficit” is regarded by a society as a weakness that people with introverted personalities would, according to this view, have low levels of happiness.

The other component of the introversion-happiness relationship, Lawn and his coauthors propose, is the quality of “authenticity.” If introverts are forced to don the outward appearance of extraverts due to the social pressure to be outgoing, they will lack a sense of authenticity. In other words, if you have to appear to be bubbly and talkative when you’d rather sit quietly or listen to other people, your satisfaction with yourself will dip, because you feel like you’re being a fake. Although writing from a different perspective, some of the mid-20th century psychoanalysts, such as Karen Horney and Alfred Adler, also discussed the psychological cost of struggling to maintain a false self. People feel much better about themselves, according to this longstanding wisdom, if they believe they can stay true to their own inner guideposts. If your culture maintains that you need to be extraverted, and you are extraverted, you will have no need for this false front.

The 349 participants in the Lawn et al. study ranged from 18 to 61 years (with an average age of 24), and all were living in Australia at the time of the study, although only 58 percent had been born there, and 42 percent had been born in China or Southeast Asian countries. Australia, according to the authors, is a country that values individualism and extraversion, but to take into account the multiple nationalities in the sample, the authors controlled for ethnicity (Eastern Collectivist versus Western Individualist). The online measures included standard questionnaires assessing introversion-extraversion and well-being. The authors measured extraversion-deficit beliefs by comparing the ratings participants gave of their own introversion-extraversion traits with what they regarded as the ideal along this scale. To measure cultural attitudes toward introversion-extraversion, participants also rated the extent to which they felt these qualities were socially desirable. Finally, the researchers measured authenticity with questions along the scales of self-alienation, authentic living, and accepting external influence.

Although a correlational study and cause and effect cannot be determined, the authors adopted an analytic strategy that allowed them to test their predictions showing the impact of authenticity and scores on the extraversion-deficit scale in altering the relationship between introversion-extraversion and well-being. Most of the participants, regardless of cultural origin, indeed believed they lived in a country that valued extraversion, and most stated that they wished to be more extraverted than they were. People high in introversion also scored higher on the extraversion-deficit scale. Finally, those with high extraversion scores rated themselves as higher on the authenticity scale.

The findings, according to Lawn et al., support the idea that people high in introversion who adhere to the extraversion-deficit model become unhappy with themselves as the result of comparing themselves to an extraverted cultural ideal. On the other hand, if people high in introversion can avoid adopting the extraversion-deficit mindset, they could be far less unhappy. Furthermore, because extraverts feel more authentic than do introverts, they provide themselves with a natural route to greater well-being. As the authors conclude, “Perhaps this just serves to further illustrate the extent of the natural advantages that extraverts enjoy, in terms of a person-environment fit, in a Western cultural context” (p. 16). However, if introverts can come to adjust their worldview and feel more authentic with themselves, introversion and all, they can “catch up” with those high in extraversion and become more comfortable with who they are.

To sum up, the Australian study’s findings provide new insights into the ways that introverts can be happier with their “square peg” status. By recognizing that not everyone can be an extravert, and that it’s fine to be their authentic, quiet selves, they can indeed flourish and achieve long-term fulfillment.

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Lawn, R. B., Slemp, G. R., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2018). Quiet flourishing: The authenticity and well-being of trait introverts living in the west depends on extraversion-deficit beliefs. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. doi:10.1007/s10902-018-0037-5.