The ‘Happy’ of Introverts
“Are you sure you’re having fun?” “Why are you so quiet, is something bothering you?” “You’re going to the cafe alone?” “Why is your playlist full of slow, sad songs?”
As a teenager, often confused about the origin of these questions, I’d ask myself if I was doing something wildly wrong. It did not feel wrong to me, however, it made me adversely contemplate the ways in which I felt happy and about the things that made me feel relaxed and recharged. I thought of my quiet, reserved ways of being a flaw that needed to be addressed. From self-exploration, I discovered that I was an introvert!
The ideas of introversion and extroversion were traditionally proposed by Swiss Psychologist and Psychiatrist Carl Jung (1921). Jung proposed that the source and direction of an individual's expression of energy is a motivation for a variety of behaviours. Primarily sociability, communication styles, decision-making, behaviour in social situations and emotional expressiveness – wherein introverts are thought to be “private, reflective, and thoughtful people, whereas extroverts are thought to be gregarious, assertive, and happy people who like to take risks” (Houston, 2021). Theoretically, introversion and extroversion fall at the extreme ends of the bell curve, but individuals really fall somewhere between this introversion-extroversion spectrum – which end of the curve one is closest to, is where the distinction in observable traits comes from.
I suddenly felt validated for using more than average alone time, for how I felt so drained after too many emotionally stimulating social interactions, for wanting to be at a quiet dinner with a few close friends as opposed to being out at a concert, or for my choice of music and movies, even. This awareness helped me recognise the preference that culture has towards extrovert ways of self-expression. Introversion is often erroneously perceived as being ‘anti-social’, and confused with shyness (an introvert might not fear social judgments, but simply prefers to be in a quieter setting). Schools and colleges, in my opinion, are designed mostly for extroverts and an extrovert’s need for stimulation. This is all very effectively picked up by the media and fed to us as the “extrovert ideal” (Cain, 2013).
Speaking of which, it was disappointing to realize that during the most formative years of my life, I did not see someone like myself – an introvert – reflected in a positive light in popular media; for instance, films, music, etc. Nicole Martins of Indiana University calls this ‘Symbolic Annihilation’ – which is the idea that: “if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.” I assume the same is true when the representation we see is too limited and conservative to feel empowered by it. For the people around me, the cumulative impact is that it makes them believe what they are seeing on-screen is somehow the 'normal’. It can even work as a proxy for experiences that viewers haven't had firsthand, in influencing their perceptions of others and even perceptions of themselves (Kubrak, 2020).
Having quite the exemplar of extrovert characters, the 'extrovert experience' of happiness is what feels normal for those who are unaware of the existence of a continuum of introvert and extrovert traits. The transportation of augmented narratives of story-consistent beliefs from the screen to real-life reasons the favourable evaluations of extrovert behaviours (Green & Brock, 2000).
In a study of extroverts and introverts in Disney and Nickelodeon teen sitcoms (Zhou, 2017), it was observed that extroverted and introverted characters interact and compete with one another, resulting in a complex relationship between the two. They are frequently sloppily stereotyped and placed in this rigid box of awkward, shy, geeky (Sheldon Cooper, from The Big Bang Theory), needing-a-makeover-to-achieve-things (Hiccup, from How to Train Your Dragon; Clark Kent, Superman) or to-serve-as-comic-relief (Zeke and Justin, Wizards of Waverly Place). This predilection of extroverts over introverts takes focus to the loud, and expressive ‘happy’ of the extroverts and away from the quiet, intimate experience of happiness that introverts experience. I believe, introverts often find themself in a place of self-doubt due to their forceful compliance with extroverted ways of feeling and expressing happiness, for it to feel normal.
To elucidate, in 2003, Wake Forest University researchers (Walker, 2003), found that simply acting more extroverted induced feelings of happiness. So, congratulations, you helped your brain release happy chemicals if you were singing your favourite song on the radio out loud, struck up a conversation at a party, or even asked a question in class. Those are some of the things introverted people tried out for two weeks, in the study. People who participated in outgoing activities like these reported higher levels of pleasure and contentment, even if they weren't naturally extroverted. People who acted more naturally extraverted were more likely to feel real during that moment, regardless of where they fell on the extraversion-introversion spectrum. In line with this conclusion, Jacques-Hamilton (2018) and colleagues discovered that asking participants to "act extraverted" in everyday life for one week had "wholly beneficial" effects on positive emotions.
However, the sustained energy costs of ‘acting extroverted’ for introverts was ignored until this point. It was found that more introverted people reported lower increases in pleasant emotions, experienced higher negative emotions and exhaustion while also experiencing decreased feelings of authenticity. The consequences of compelling introverts to act out of character to experience ‘true’ happiness, are highlighted in this study by Fleeson & Wilt, 2010.
Furthermore, extroverts had been labelled as the happier personality type because they reported experiencing more positive feelings in their daily life than introverts (Steel et al., 2008). In a meta-study of the relationship between personality traits and happiness (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998), extroverted people had higher levels of happiness than introverted people. Why introverts don't report higher levels of happiness is unclear, but it could have a lot to do with how introverts define happiness (Zelenksi, 2014). A number of more nuanced studies have questioned the validity of these studies in recent years, indicating that there is much more to this conceptualization.
Earlier conclusions that left no grey areas and focused too much on classifying people into types suggested that extraversion equalled happiness. Surprisingly, it was only in 2001 when Hills et al., noticed (Hills & Argyle, 2001) a significant ‘subset’ of “happy introverts” in their study. They studied various components of personality as well as the dimensions of well-being at a finer level, which included purpose, self-acceptance, autonomy, and personal growth. It was then discovered that enthusiasm, low withdrawal, industriousness/grit, compassion, and intellectual curiosity were the most predictive of overall well-being – which included happiness (Kaufman, 2017). It thus became conceivable to be a very happy introvert despite the overall level of introversion, if one among these other avenues to well-being was cultivated.
In a 2005 study, researchers found that this could all be linked to dopamine (colloquially, the ‘happy hormone’) – with extroverts' reward systems responding differently than introverts'. Introverts' sensitivity to dopamine has the benefit of requiring less of it to feel happy. Introverts require less stimulation from the outside world to stay awake and aware than extroverts (Bushak, 2014). Introverts are more easily overstimulated as a result of this. Introverts' brains are powered by an energy-saving neurological system, while extroverts' brains are powered by an energy-spending nervous system. This is why when introverts read a book, think intensely, or dive into their rich inner world of ideas, they feel fulfilled and energized (Cohen, 2005).
Constant questioning of our ways of experiencing happiness, which doesn’t even feel normal to ourselves at times are, I believe, the cause of unhappiness, low self-esteem, and non-acceptance of our authentic selves. This is hence your reminder to appreciate, value, and show curiosity about the things that make all 50.7% of us (introverts) in the world happy; and trust me, you will not be disappointed. If you are an introvert, this is your reminder to continue to preserve and cultivate your own little pockets of peace and happiness – in your perfect cup of warm coffee on a chilly morning, in listening to that playlist with the most meaningful lyrics, in stargazing and philosophizing about life, or in going to that cafe by yourself!
Aasawari Gharat (she/her) is a part of the Mental Health Advocacy team at Nolmë Labs. She graduated with a BSc. in Neuroscience and Psychology and is presently pursuing her Masters' in Psychology.