Extraversion is a personality trait frequently discussed in the media, especially in North America. According to the self-help books and research, extraversion—one of the “Big 5” personality traits—is an important trait to have for ensuring a happy life. That is, extraverts, compared to introverts, are often thought to have a satisfying life.
Is it possible that extraversion might not be an essential determining factor of happiness to everyone in the world? Despite its positive associations with various life experiences, such as being popular in school and having many friends, extraverts in North America may be happier than introverts without the same being true for extraverts in some Western European and East Asian countries. According to research, extraversion might not make a big difference to your satisfaction with life if you are from countries such as the UK, Germany, and Japan, suggesting that cultural context is an important enabling factor for extraverts.
Who are the extraverts?
Extraverts are people who are sociable, talkative, outgoing, who exhibit energetic behaviors and who seek positive stimulation and reinforcement from the environment, whereas introverts generally show the opposite affective and behavioral tendencies. Simply put, if you are a person who voluntarily spends Friday evenings outside hanging out with a large group of friends or with people you have never met before, you are probably an extravert. If you are a person who spends Friday evenings watching TV or pursuing hobbies alone or with your loved one at home, you are more likely to be an introvert. Or to put it in context, if you are doing and feeling fine entering the Nth week of self-quarantine, you might be more introverted than extraverted.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people around the world are forced to practice social distancing and some are not even allowed to leave their house. Everyone is forced to stay home and limit their social interactions with others and the world and forced to find their own ways to spend time at home. There are clear advantages of being an introvert during this time of crisis—up to a certain point. And people have been tweeting jokes and memes reflecting how the current situation may be biased in favor of introverts (e.g. “Introverts have been preparing for this for their whole lives”). I expect many research groups to follow up on these thoughts, examining whether and how introverts were able to handle and overcome the crisis a little better than extraverts.
However, I’d like to focus on the premise that extraverts are happier than introverts under normal circumstances.
You can probably think of a few people in your life who are more extraverted or less extraverted than you. Do you think that those extraverted people are happy with their life? Would you answer the question differently if you think of someone from an East Asian country?
Does the cultural context matter?
Many research findings attest to the positive association between extraversion and happiness. Steel and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of previous studies and found extraverts, compared to introverts, to be more satisfied with their life and to experience more positive emotions such as joy. These results are perhaps not surprising considering that one component of extraversion is positive emotionality. Positive emotionality refers to the tendency to be positively engaged with others and the surrounding environment, and refers to the degree to which someone feels excited and enthusiastic, thus, reasonably, it might be thought that extraverts compared to introverts are happier with their life.
However, it is important to note that there are other components of extraversion such as sociability, warmth, assertiveness, activity, and excitement seeking. All these components make up the trait extraversion, and considering them, it is not as clear that extraverts would be happier than introverts. Furthermore, prior studies were mostly based on North Americans, therefore, further cross-cultural investigation is required to understand the relationship between extraversion and well-being. And cross-cultural studies can move beyond the comparison of North Americans and East Asians and include diverse countries and cultural groups.
Interestingly, in recent studies, cross-cultural differences emerged in the relationship between extraversion and life satisfaction. Specifically, a study, conducted by me and my colleagues, looked into nationally representative and university student samples of 40,000 individuals from five countries (US, Canada, UK, Germany and Japan) and found extraversion to be related to higher life satisfaction in the US and Canada. However, extraversion did not predict or weakly predicted higher well-being among individuals from the UK, Germany and Japan. Importantly, the unique relationship between extraversion and well-being in North America was not as large as previously reported after accounting for the halo bias—a cognitive bias referring to a tendency to perceive a person as more positive than the person actually is. There are other factors, such as income, health and neuroticism, that contribute more to happiness than extraversion.
Differences in cultural values have been suggested as a plausible explanation. That is, the US and Canada are prototypical individualistic countries with a cultural focus on positive emotionality. Feeling and expressing positivity are more desirable and appropriate in North America compared to other countries. Extraverts who show positive emotionality are more likely to thrive and be satisfied with life in an environment when their personality is compatible with the culture of the environment.
Another possible explanation has been attributed to cross-cultural differences in residential mobility, which refers to the frequency of changing one’s residence. North Americans, compared to British, Germans and Japanese, move a lot throughout their lifespan, whether it’s for school, university, work or other reasons. In comparison, people from the UK, Germany and Japan don’t change their residence as much. Thus, being extraverted—being sociable, and friendly and forthcoming towards other people—might help North Americans to build new relationships in the new environment. For instance, many North American students move away from home for university in the US. They are left with no choice but to meet new people and to form new social relations.
Therefore, extraversion may be a valuable trait to have in highly mobile and individualistic countries—with changing social networks and where the ties between individuals are loose and the focus is on the self and immediate family rather than the cohesive in-groups and community. In comparison, people who do not have to move to a new city or move out of their home are not faced with a situation where one has to build new social networks, thus, extraversion does not lead to higher well-being for people from these countries—with relatively unchanging social networks and social relationships.
Extraversion is a trait seen favorably, especially in North America. And there are benefits of being extraverted. For example, extraverts generally have more friends, are rated as being more popular and are seen as more attractive, on average. However, recent research suggests the positive relationship with well-being is not universal. Cross-cultural variations in cultural values and residential mobility have been suggested as possible explanations for the lack of or weak positive effect of extraversion on well-being in certain Western European and East Asian countries.
That is, the phrase “happy extraverts” might only be true if the condition “in North America” is added at the end.
Steel, P., Schmidt, J., & Shultz, J. (2008). Refining the relationship between personality and subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 138–161. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.1.138
Kim, H., Schimmack, U., Oishi, S., & Tsutsui, Y. (2018). Extraversion and life satisfaction: A cross-cultural examination of student and nationally representative samples. Journal of Personality, 86, 604-618. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12339