24 May Going against your instincts can help make you happier.
via the Atlantic by Arthur C Brooks
A year before the pandemic changed all of our lives, a friend sent me a link to a survey based on academic research that rates your personality traits on a numeric scale. He was particularly keen to know my extroversion score, to see if the test was accurate. His results had shown that he scored at the 15th percentile. He sent it to me as the most extroverted person he knows. Sure enough, I scored at the 96th percentile.
“Lucky you,” he remarked, “extroverts are a lot happier.” He was right about that, on average. Decades of research have consistently shown that extroverts have a significant happiness edge over introverts. They report higher levels of general well-being as well as more frequent moments of joy.
COVID-19, however, has given us extroverts our comeuppance. Research published in March in the scientific journal PLOS One studied the impact of the pandemic on people with various personality characteristics. The authors found that mood worsened for extroverts but improved for introverts. As my friend said, only half joking, “Why don’t we just stay locked down forever?”
In ordinary times, American introverts are like cats living in Dogland: underappreciated, uncomfortable, and slightly out of place. A side effect of shutting down the world was to turn it into Catland, at least for a little while. That gave the introverts a chance to lord their solitary comfort over the rest of us, for once. To this I say, “Woof.”
But the temporary shift has also created a kind of social-science field experiment, highlighting all the ways in which introverts and extroverts can learn from each other. If we take the lessons to heart, we can all benefit.
Psychologists see extroversion as one of the Big Five personality traits, along with agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. The Big Five theory has been a staple of psychology since the 1980s, but the introvert-extrovert binary was first popularized in 1921 by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who posited that the two groups have different primary life goals. The former, he thought, seek to establish autonomy and independence; the latter seek union with others. Those stereotypes have persisted to this day.
The German-born psychologist Hans Eysenck further developed Jung’s theory in the 1960s, arguing that our genetics determine our relative extroversion. He believed that cortical arousal—that is, the brain’s level of alertness—was more difficult for extroverts than introverts, so the former seek stimulation in the company of others, ideally the fresh company of new people. Subsequent research has shown mixed results on Eysenck’s specific theory, but has found clear cognitive differences between the groups.
One common explanation for the happiness differential between introverts and extroverts follows from stereotypes like Jung and Eysenck’s: Humans are inherently social animals, so contact brings happiness; extroverts seek out contact, so extroverts are happier. The fact that introverts prefer solitude and often struggle with sociability doesn’t mean that avoiding contact makes them happier. It just means they prefer something that makes them unhappy. Nothing strange here—you can also prefer unhealthy food…
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