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Is Our Definition of "Happiness" Extrovert-centric?

Do introverts and extroverts pursue different types of happiness?

The body of research connecting extroversion and happiness kinda bums me out. One study out of Wake Forest University even tells us that people are happier, including introverts, when we act like extroverts.

For this research, subjects completed a standard measure of the Big Five personality traits. Introversion was measured in relation to extroversion; people who measured high in extroversion are assumed to measure low in introversion.

Then researchers conducted several studies in which subjects, at various intervals--every three hours in one study, once a week in another--recorded on a seven-point scale how extroverted they were behaving and how happy they felt.

What the researchers found is that even people who measure low in extroversion are happier when they are behaving extroverted.

I called lead researcher, psychologist William Fleeson, to talk about this. First we defined our terms.

"There are different definitions of extroversion out there," Fleeson said. "The one that has the most evidence supporting it is how much you are the ways that are described by certain words."

None of Jung's energy-in, energy-out stuff for this research. Rather, Fleeson had subjects rate their behavior with words that are consistently used to describe extroversion: talkative, enthusiastic, assertive, bold, energetic, adventurous.

The research also used a specific set of words to describe happiness--or, more specifically, positive affect: excited, enthusiastic, proud, alert, interested, strong, inspired, determined, attentive, active.

I don't pretend to be a scientist, I'm a writer. So excuse me if it seems like a dip into the shallow end of the psychology pool when I ask: Are these extrovert-centric words for happiness? Should we also include more introvert-centric words such as peaceful, content, engaged?

Do semantics count in our pursuit of happiness?

For his research, Fleeson drew on a three-component model of happiness, using just one of the three components: Positive affect. That's the happy other people can see and hear, and it is strongly related to extroversion. The second leg of the stool is life satisfaction, which is more cognitive than emotional: Even if you're not feeling great at the moment, you know your life is pretty good all around. (Introverts have a little bit less of that kind of happiness than extroverts. We think too much, right?)

The third component of happiness is absence of negative affect--not having anxiety, fear, anger, frustration. "And the opposite of that is feeling at peace, at ease," Fleeson explained.

At peace, at ease. Those also sound introvert-ish to me.

So one could argue that introvert happiness here is being described as a sort of negative space. Feeling peaceful is not positive affect, it is the lack of negative affect.

Is that right?

Is peace the absence of anxiety? Is introversion the lack of extroversion? Or does introversion take up its own space in the world?

Of course, Fleeson points out, positive affect does not preclude peace and calm. We can all have both. And I have no argument with the conclusion that if you want to feel a particular kind of happy-doodle energetic happiness, you can get there by being outgoing, enthusiastic, and talkative. William James proposed essentially the same thing: Emotion follows behavior.

"Introverts already act extroverted. You can do what you do already and you will have more positive affect most of the time," Fleeson says.

This is a tool many of us use in our daily life. If nothing else, acting extroverted means people won't annoy us by asking if we're OK. (Because, of course, anyone who is not acting extroverted must not be happy.) Whether and how often you want to feel that particular kind of happy is a up to you; it's a philosophical question. Should life be one long Mountain Dew commercial? If it isn't, does that mean you are not happy?

Oh, and whether introverts pay a price for behaving like extroverts is research for another day. Fleeson didn't explore the energy cost for introverts behaving extroverted, although he personally understands the need to crawl into a dark room after a stretch of interaction.

But he did say that when he had subjects sit at a table and assigned them to act either introverted or extroverted for ten minutes at a time, the subjects who got most exhausted by the task were extroverts who had to behave introverted.

Maybe extroversion is a force so strong that suppressing it is exhausting. Or maybe introversion generates energy of its own, so intense it wears extroverts out.


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Photo by meddygarnet via Flickr (Creative Commons).