Can Becoming an Extravert Make an Introvert Happier?
New research shows that introverts are happy just the way they are.
Posted Feb 02, 2019
Do you believe that introverts would be happier if they could only become more extraverted? Are there unmistakable benefits associated with extraversion involved in being outgoing, sociable, cheerful, and likely to relate well to others? Are these the qualities that introverts secretly wished they possessed? Perhaps you tend toward the introverted yourself and prefer to retreat to the background. Whether it’s a social gathering, a work event, or a volunteer meeting, you’re just as happy to let other people shine their lights while you stay in the shadows. However, your partner or best friends keep urging you to become more outgoing. They insist that you’d have more fun and be more successful socially if you, as the song goes, “put on a happy face.” It’s not that you’re unhappy, but your quiet behavior leads them to think you are. You wish they’d refer to the song lyrics “don’t go changing” instead.
Previous research on the happiness of introverts suggests that living in a culture that values outgoing and gregarious behavior can create a set of maladaptive “extraversion deficit” beliefs. However, correlational studies can’t quite get at the link between introversion-extraversion and happiness. Using a unique experimental design, University of Melbourne’s Rowan Jacques-Hamilton and colleagues (2018) recently tested the hypothesis that people’s well-being could be manipulated by controlling the extent to which they’re encouraged to act in an extraverted manner across a one-week interval. Noting that in previous diary-based and laboratory studies, “people feel happier in moments when they are acting more extraverted,” the researchers wondered if they could actually create higher levels of well-being in people who are actually told to act in a more extraverted manner. On the other hand, though, they also wondered whether people high in introversion would be made more miserable by being forced to put on the façade of extraversion, even if only for a brief time. It can be exhausting, not to mention emotionally debilitating, to be someone you’re not, as it drags you further and further from your true self.
For the Jacques-Hamilton et al. experiment, a sample of 147 adults ranging from 18 to 55 years of age (average of 24 years old) met with the researchers in small groups, while they received instructions on how to use the smartphone app through which they would provide their daily behaviors and happiness levels over the course of the one-week intervention. The 71 participants who were in the “Act Extraverted” group received the following instructions: “In your interactions with other people across the next week, act in a bold, talkative, outgoing, active, and assertive way, as much as possible.” In the so-called “sham” condition (one of two control groups), researchers instructed the participants to “act in an unassuming, sensitive, calm, modest, and quiet way, as much as possible.” Luckily, to prevent any unintended consequences, the researchers instructed participants in both conditions to ignore the instructions if the situation demanded it, such as needing to be quiet when they were in a library. Throughout the week, participants also were reminded of the instructions corresponding to their conditions. A true control in the form of a contact-only group completed the same questionnaires and daily measures as those in the two experimental groups, but had done so in an independent study, so their data were considered “archival.” All participants received questionnaire measures at the outset of the study assessing their levels of extraversion, positive and negative affect, trait “authenticity” (the extent to which they felt their behavior reflected their true self), and a “tiredness” scale in which they assessed their levels of fatigue, lethargy, impulsivity, and alertness.
Throughout the one week active portion of the experiment, participants completed six so-called “experience sampling method (ESM)” questionnaires on their mobile apps at one randomly-determined point in the day between the hours of 9 am and 10 pm. These questionnaires included items assessing their momentary (within the past hour) levels of extraversion, positive and negative affect, authenticity, and tiredness. They also provided an estimate of how focused they had been on socially oriented activities in the past hour. At the end of the week, and then two weeks later (for the extraverted and sham groups only), participants also rated how closely nine extraversion-type items described them in the previous week, as well as their affect, authenticity, and tiredness. Participants received monetary compensation for completing the questionnaires but only partial compensation if they failed to complete 75% of all the measures.
Putting yourself in the place of the participants, think about how you would respond if someone instructed (and paid) you to act in a specific manner when you’re with other people. Would you find it easy to change your own natural inclinations and behave in the opposite manner for an entire seven-day period? Would forcing yourself to step outside of your comfort zone actually make you happier if that comfort zone of yours wasn't ideal, from a happiness perspective? The answer, as you might surmise, is only in part. People high in the trait of extraversion had little difficulty acting in an extraverted way and their happiness levels rose accordingly. However, people high in introversion really could not, and they therefore didn't receive the same "happiness benefit," as it were. It was only the participants high in extraversion at the start of the study who became even more extraverted, which in turn led them to feel happier, more authentic, and less tired in their daily assessments.
These findings may not surprise you, but they did lead the study’s authors to have to take a step back: “in sharp contrast to virtually every previous study in the literature, we found that these effects [of acting in a more extraverted way] depended on one’s level of trait extraversion.” All previous studies in the literature, unlike the Jacques-Hamilton study, relied on assessing the correlation between introversion-extraversion and happiness as they naturally occur in people's lives (at least as stated on self-report questionnaires). Using the experimental method along with the ESM approach allowed the authors to determine the effect on well-being of becoming more extraverted, taking into account pre-existing introversion-extraversion scores.
The authors also conclude that being told to act in a more extraverted manner for people who are true introverts is just not a sustainable approach. The only way to urge such individuals to become noisier and more gregarious, the team maintain, would be to try to nudge them in that direction in small doses with different instructions than to "become as extraverted as possible." If highly introverted people have the opportunity to return to an introverted “restorative niche," they can ratchet up their gregariousness in small and acceptable doses. You might be asking yourself, at this point, “Why bother?” Can’t introverts be happy the way they are? The simple answer to this question would be “yes,” but there was an overall correlation between extraverted behavior and positive affect as, it turned out, even among the two control groups.
Despite the overall effect of the intervention on positive affect for the true introverts, the authors reported a small, fleeting effect related to momentary assessments of well-being. As they conclude, “Introverts might ‘feel good’ after naturally expressing extraverted behaviors, or when enacting extraversion for short bouts.” The costs come when the behavior is expected to continue for a longer duration. To feel better, introverts could benefit from other interventions such as mindfulness and focusing on their positive self-thoughts. However, the authors warn that being happier might not be the most important goal of an introvert, and assuming that they need to live up to a certain happiness standard may be “misguided."
To sum up, becoming more extraverted can benefit people’s happiness along a broad spectrum of the personality trait of extraversion, but only up to a point. True fulfillment may come from being able to follow your natural inclinations, with occasional prompts to be more outgoing serving as temporary mood boosts. If you’re an introvert, you can try talking yourself up to raise your energy level in a social situation as needed, but when you’re done, that “restorative niche” might be the best place to remain.
Jacques-Hamilton, R., Sun, J., & Smillie, L. D. (2018). Costs and benefits of acting extraverted: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi:10.1037/xge0000516