I came across two very interesting and contrasting articles about introversion yesterday. One was entitled “How an Introvert Can Be Happier: Act Like an Extrovert”. It’s pretty obvious what that article was about. The other one was called, “This is who I am, deal with it”. This article related how the author’s efforts to behave like an extrovert led to her downward spiral into depression.
The vastly different perspectives of these two articles shocked me. Clearly, further investigation was necessary.
In “How an Introvert Can Be Happier”, William Fleeson, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. makes the following brazen claim:
“If you’re introverted and act extroverted, you will be happier. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s all about what you do.”
The fact that this statement came from a real live, lab coat-wearing, psychology researcher gave it more weight, but I still wasn’t convinced (neither were the other thousands of introverts who were infuriated by his claims).
Nevertheless, I carefully read the article in hopes of discovering how Professor Fleeson came to such a bold conclusion.
It turns out, Fleeson’s findings were based on a weeklong study in which researchers followed 85 people who recorded on Palm Pilots how extroverted they were acting and how happy they were feeling.
Eighty-five people? Were these individuals truly an accurate cross section of the introvert population? Is one week a long enough time frame in which to gather relevant data? And who the heck uses Palm Pilots nowadays anyway? I for one would not be making any sweeping statements based on such a small-scale study.
Furthermore, I think it’s important to ask, how is happiness defined? The definition tends to vary between people. Introverts and extroverts can have vastly different perspectives regarding happiness. Studies show that introverts favor a neutral emotional state over exhausting emotional highs and lows. We may seldom feel the ‘buzz’ that extroverts associate with being happy, but we don’t want to. Our happiness looks different than theirs and that’s okay.
The other important question that was left unanswered by the article was, what is “acting extroverted”? There is no such thing as an exclusively extrovert behavior or activity. Extroverts don’t have a claim on bowling any more than introverts have exclusive rights to reading and writing.
The gaping hole in Fleeson’s findings lies in the fact that he doesn’t seem to consider energy levels over time. Sure, we can all “act extroverted” for a little while. Maybe during thirty minutes of forced extroversion (plus the two minutes it takes to record our feelings in a Palm Pilot) we are fairly content, but what about one, two, or three hours later? After a while, we’ll probably want to shove those Palm Pilots where the sun don’t shine.
Wendy Squires talks a lot about energy levels in her article, “This is who I am, deal with it”.
“What I see now was happening was that I was not allowing myself time to recharge, to be alone, to say nothing and just be after socially active periods. Instead, I would believe such plateaus were a depression descending which, dammit, I refused to accept or needed to block, forcing me out the door and back to people and alcohol and the pressure to be up – the very triggers that shot me down in the first place.”
It sure doesn’t sound like being extroverted made Squires happier – quite the opposite.
“How an Introvert Can Be Happier” also fails to address the importance of motivation. In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain talks about how our “core personal projects” influence our behavior.
She proposes that introverts can and should behave out of character if it helps us achieve something that we highly value (a fulfilling relationship, career advancement, personal growth, etc.). Perhaps, acting extroverted will make us feel happy, but only because it results in the fulfillment of work we consider important.
As a recovering pseudo-extrovert, I can confidently say that behaving like an extrovert is not the path to happiness. Instead, true contentment springs from embracing your most authentic self and metaphorically flipping the bird at anyone who tells you to do otherwise.
So, here it is, Professor William Fleeson: a metaphorical middle finger straight from my keyboard to you.