“‘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,’ said William Fleeson, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.”
This amazing quote comes from a Wall Street Journal article published a few weeks ago, “How an Introvert Can Be Happier: Act Like an Extrovert.” Given how many times the article was shared with me, I’m guessing it pushed more than a few introverted buttons.
Over the past three years of focusing my business and energy on introverts and their place in the world, I’ve come across a number of incendiary pieces of journalism. I’ve learned not to have a knee-jerk reaction to headlines designed to provoke our outrage, or statements like the one above that over-generalize and put people’s personalities in black-and-white terms.
So I’m only going to say this: William Fleeson, you’re wrong.
What his statement fails to recognize is that who I am and what I do are inseparable. My choices (what I do) are the very essence of who I am.
It fails to acknowledge that there are as many different definitions and manifestations of “being happy” as there are people.
And it fails the introverts who have been on a journey of self-acceptance, telling them once again that acting like themselves isn’t going to lead to happiness (whatever that is).
What’s wrong with acting like an introvert and being happy with that?
What’s wrong is that “acting like an introvert” means that we’re going to talk less and listen more, actively seek out opportunities to be alone more than to be with others, think before we speak, and be with the crowd as long as it’s fun, and when it’s not fun anymore, leave.
Gosh! I can see how all of that would make for a miserable, unmotivated, empty life. I’m so glad that studies have shown that acting like an extrovert can save me!
Sarcasm aside, here’s what I know (no controlled, academic studies required):
When we behave in ways that are not aligned with our core values and energy, we (and those around us) suffer.
An aligned introvert honors a need for solitude and turning inward as a way to store up the energy needed for projecting outward. And rather than acting like an extrovert in those situations, we can project from our own space, in our own way… not relative to extrovert standards, but relative to our own energy. (An interesting – and ironic – point from the article: “We found acting like an introvert tended to wear out extroverts.”)
It’s up to each individual to define happiness for him or herself.
The pursuit of happiness does not require that I strive for an existence where I feel constantly connected to others, engaged and gregarious. I identify with Clark Powell’s observation in the article, “I may not share my happiness as willingly as other people…but I consider myself just as happy and I’m extremely motivated to learn and grow as an individual.”
You cannot judge an introvert (or any person, for that matter) by its cover.
Our happiness, our motivation and reward triggers, the way we choose to express ourselves is not going to look like an extrovert’s, and we don’t want it to! By our very nature, we are internal processors and internally motivated. Expecting us to be happy by pretending to be external processors or externally motivated is just plain silly. And it makes me wonder, who really benefits from introverts acting like extroverts? The introverts, or the frustrated extroverts who would be spared the discomfort of not being able to read us? Hmmm…
In addition, context has an enormous influence on how we appear to others (and, I would guess, our happiness). That’s one of my criticisms of this article: when making its generalizations, it omits the importance of context. It’s only acknowledged at the conclusion: “Luke Smillie, a senior lecturer of psychology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, notes that most studies of introverts and extroverts take place in the U.S. and other western countries where extroversion is often perceived to be more valuable. ‘The question is, would you observe the same effects in cultures that didn’t have this sort of value placed on being outgoing and assertive and so forth?’ he said.”
There’s not only the cultural context to consider, but the social context as well: who’s in the crowd or at the party, how a group activity is structured, the amount and type of stimulation, how long it lasts, what happens before or after the activity, how much control someone has over the situation, etc.
Here’s my bottom line:
I prefer to think of myself as an introvert who controls how my energy flows in and out. This is very different from thinking I am an introvert who has to act extroverted.
One is an organic, from-my-core choice that allows my energy to advance outward or recede inward as the situation requires. My energy is on a continuum.
The other is more like flipping a switch. I’m “off” (introverted) or “on” (extroverted), creating an either/or scenario that doesn’t respect all of the different strengths I bring to my relationships and work.
I do appreciate this about the article: it offers some contrary views, and it doesn’t say outright “BE an extrovert to be happier.” It conveys a sentiment I’ve shared many times before, “release yourself from believing you have to become an extrovert to be successful. Instead, learn to extrovert, as a verb, from your natural introverted nature.” Learn to project your energy out in a healthy way.
The difference is in the underlying motivation. Is it about someone else’s definition of happiness, success, connection? If I’m temporarily extroverting to meet new people at an event, that’s a healthier motivation than deciding to pretend extrovert because I believe my introversion is unacceptable.
While there’s so much more to say about the article, I’m going to stop right there. It’s a to-be-continued conversation that’s bound to go on for years, if not decades. I’ve learned to take these studies and the subsequent declarations with a grain of salt. They provide interesting information, and I’m happy they’re happening. I simply think we need to read them with a critical eye and rely on our own truth when deciding how to live and be happy.
Please share in the comments: What do you think of the article? What did you agree with? Disagree with?