“‘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?
The problem with this sort of “study” is in definitions. The definition of “acting like” (an extrovert or an introvert). The definition of “feeling happy”.
Laurie Helgoe discusses the Carleton study in ch 5 of “Introvert Power” (2d ed) . In that study, she says, the introverts were instructed to act “bold”, “talkative”, “active”, “assertive, and “energetic”. Apparently, those people felt an increase in positive emotions. But, as Laurie points out, these people weren’t being subjected to a large party or an actual networking event.
Introverts are often talkative, assertive, active, or energetic. Just get a couple of introverts together to talk about a subject they really enjoy and they’ll talk your ear off. “Bold”, “talkative”, “active” “assertive, and “energetic” are not adjectives that apply only to extroverts, so acting this way doesn’t mean “acting extroverted”. It means “acting like a happy introvert”. No wonder the introverts reported positive emotions!
I also wonder what definitions they used for “positive emotions”. For many introverts, “happy” correlates to contentment, comfort, satisfaction, a feeling of a job well done.
So, an Introvert can have a deep, meaningful conversation with a small number of like-minded people. In this conversation, the introvert is excited, talkative, bold, and assertive. She and her friends talk for a few hours and feel the positive emotions of satisfaction and comfort.
But no one was “acting like an extrovert”. They were acting like healthy happy normal introverts.
Glenda Moore says
I am an introvert, I don’t try to pretend to be an extrovert, I don’t try to act like an extrovert, and I am very happy being just as I am–indeed I am happy nearly all the time. When I used to try to act like an extrovert in the way they express happiness, I was unhappy and constantly sapped of energy.
Also, I am very sure the article was either written by an unhappy introvert (unlikely), or an extrovert who doesn’t know how an introvert expresses or feels happiness the majority of the time.
I’ve discovered that the biggest difference between introverts and extroverts is: introverts accept extroverts as they are & don’t try to encourage them to act like introverts, and most introverts know that everyone is born being either an introvert or extrovert; extroverts believe there is something wrong with being an introvert, believe that introverts can change who they are & become extroverts, and therefore try to encourage introverts to be more like extroverts.
To make this even more laughable, studies show that extroverts are the Minority of the population, coming in at only about 35%! So, if we believe in “majority rule”, then guess who should do the changing?!….If they only could…
Matt Youngquist says
Beth: Great response to this article — which I spotted recently, as well, but assumed (correctly, it seems) you’d already seen or had forwarded to you by hundreds of others. While I really can’t dispute the official results of the study, or scientific measures involved, I would comment that several personality assessments I’ve taken over the years (the Birkman Method, most prominently) confirm that while I ACT in a very introverted manner — and am a pretty reserved person — I actually NEED and PREFER a certain amount of group involvement, inclusion, and the like. It’s sort of a case of “what you see isn’t always what you get” and might in part relate to what this article is suggesting — which is that if left to my own devices, I’ll tend to isolate myself in almost every situation, but when I force myself to go to social functions, attend events, and get involved with groups I tend to enjoy myself. So I certainly won’t speak on behalf of all introverts, but in my particular case, certain aspects of this article do ring a bit true. Interesting topic to debate, regardless, as you mentioned…
I think the most important message here is that introverts need to define their own happiness. I think we all know that the “accepted” versions of happiness tend to be extremely biased toward extroverts. So if introverts aren’t behaving that way, we must be sad (or angry, or disengaged, etc.). We introverts need to define our own happiness — and then take up the somewhat annoying task of convincing extroverts, “Yes, we really are happy.”
I’m thrilled to see your post on this aggravating topic, and also thrilled to see all these astute comments. I especially love the questioning of the definitions, and this idea that introverts don’t already socialize or show boldness. Argh.
Luckily, the increase in media coverage for introverts has mostly been of the helpful kind, even if all of it is oversimplification. Carl Jung must be turning in his grave.
I agree with you – William Fleeson is wrong!
used to feel very anxious when socializing and looking at the definitions of
introversion I would say that I was one.I would be, as you say, “temporarily extroverting.” It was me pushing through and putting on an
act, and was, quite frankly, exhausting.
Forgive me as I navigate this new world and terminology but I am newly fascinated
about this introversion extraversion discussion and am simply trying to
understand it better.Up until now I was
not familiar with the verb “extroverting”!
I discovered that I actually have an inherited and little-understood condition
called pyroluria, I use daily zinc,
vitamin B6 and evening primrose oil to keep my social anxiety symptoms in
check! And, it seems, many of my former introvert traits too!
also recently read the Huffpo article and was so intrigued by a probable introvert-pyroluria
connection that I blogged about it
http://www.everywomanover29.com/blog/anxious-introvert-because-of-low-zinc-and-vitamin-b6/ I list the 23 introversion traits and the 42
pyroluria questions and would love your thoughts on a possibly connection?
not saying introverts need to be changed. I’m simply proposing that there may a biochemical
component for some introverts that will make the “extroverting” easier, more
natural and less anxiety-provoking.Thanks!
Scott, Certified Nutritionist, author of “The Antianxiety Food Solution”
I’m also thrilled with the surge of Internet journalism that is pro-introversion, but as Beth has said there’s a need for academic research to create new concepts on how introverts live their lives. I’m doing an MBA research about the difference between extroverts and introverts and what career development strategies each employ. My initial observations are that extroverts devise the usual career planning strategies that include networking and self-promotion and they consider their career as a separate affairs than their personal lives.
On the contrary, introverts live their career life as an integral part of their identity and thus they usually devise a day-by-day career strategies to react to work contingencies (versus active career planning). One of the common career development strategies for introverts is self-development through continuous learning and experience-building, and they tend to excel on what they do to stand out from the crowd.
I hope my research piece will contribute to portray a positive image of introversion versus the current image ascribed by academia: neurotics! I hate this term because it looks like we have dysfunctional traits (anxiety, fearful, phobic .. etc) unlike extroverts(sociable, gregarious, liberal .. etc).
I like this.
Introversion isn’t a disease, or a disability that has to be cured. More than anybody else, the people who bring us up need to understand this. I grew up in a traditional household which believed that being outgoing was the only way of life. I was led to believe that my introversion was a disability, a weakness. And, being young and impressionable, I grew up believing that there really was something wrong with me; my childhood was a constant battle between my inner introverted self, and the society that didn’t understand me. And, as is with every battle, no side ever wins. I lost my teen and youth in desolation.
By telling me to act like an extrovert, you’re saying that I suffer from a dangerous, chronic disease, which can be cured. No, mister. It’s not a disease. And I won’t let you convince me to believe otherwise. Not this time.
Roger S says
You criticize the study for making sweeping generalisations, and yet you say this:
When we behave in ways that are not aligned with our core values and energy, we (and those around us) suffer.
THIS is also just as incorrect as the study you are refuting!
There is only circumstantial evidence that some people benefit from acting in a way aligned with their core values and energy. In general, being yourself is a load of rubbish, what you should really be is the best possible version of yourself.
For me this started off as being quite introverted and quiet, but I found by pushing out of my comfort zone and forcing myself to become more outgoing, I, along with those around me, have benefited mightily. Being content with what you are by nature is a load of rubbish, be as best as you can be, and if you wish to be an extrovert, then you should certainly push to become one! That is not to say that there is anything wrong with being introverted, if you like being introverted then by all means stay that way, but do not discourage those who are seeking to change themselves for what they believe they desire, with silly blanket comments like the one I quoted.
Beth Buelow says
Thanks for weighing in, Roger. I hear what you’re saying, yet stand by my original comment. I never said my statement was research-based, but it is based on years of working with coaching clients, personal reading and experience. No where do I say “don’t be your best self.” Life is a constant journey of self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-improvement. I would never discourage someone from that journey. I love being an introvert and have no desire to be an extrovert (not that there’s anything wrong with being an extrovert!). Just because I don’t want to be one doesn’t mean I’m not constantly stretching my comfort zone. It certainly doesn’t mean I’m sitting around in my introvert cave avoiding people. I’m happy – even content! – with making the me I am the best me I can be. And that “me” is definitely a happy introvert, aligned with my need for solitude and selected socializing with people I love while building a business that satisfies my core values of freedom and service.
I won’t even speculate about what values you’re honoring with your desire to stretch and grow; I don’t know you personally and wouldn’t assume. But it does seem to me that you ARE choosing to behave in ways that align with your core values, and you and those around you are benefiting. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Roger S In a word: No.
In several words: I truly feel sorry for you if you believe this.
Also: introverted does NOT mean quiet. There are outgoing introverts. Introversion is not something you can choose to change or “stay that way”.
If you do not understand the meaning of the word “Introvert”, I suggest you do some reading before commenting further, and please do not use the word “rubbish” when commenting on someone’s blog. It’s impolite and borders on trolling.
Roger, I hear what you’re saying, yet stand
by my original comment. I never said my statement was research-based,
but it is based on years of working with coaching clients, personal
reading and experience. No where do I say “don’t be your best self.”
Life is a constant journey of self-awareness, self-acceptance and
love being an introvert and have no desire to be an extrovert (not that
there’s anything wrong with being an extrovert!). Just because I don’t
want to be one doesn’t mean I’m not constantly stretching my comfort
zone. It certainly doesn’t mean I’m sitting around in my introvert cave
avoiding people. I’m happy – even content! – with making the me I am the
best me I can be. And that “me” is definitely a happy introvert,
aligned with my need for solitude and selected socializing with people I
love while building a business that satisfies my core values of freedom
Thank you – thank you – thank you: Thanks to your article I can finally “honor” myself by defocusing from the social realm to stay focused on my internal affairs; I am happy to exist presently as one who is “internally morivated” thanks to you.
The stupid website won’t let me comment so I say this here:
“So why don’t introverts try to act more extroverted?”
The most dumb line of text I have ever seen before in my life.
Unicorns are supposedly happy. So why don’t humans try to act more like unicorns? Because we’re not ****** unicorns, aren’t we?!
I am an introvert, a jovial introvert.
I just don’t talk in companies of people whom I am not comfortable with.
I laugh and do silly things too.
I just need my- time to recharge.
I believe we are all different in how we need to recharged.
I believe there are unhappy extroverts and introverts just like there are jovial introvert and grouchy extroverts.