You’re standing at the checkout line at the grocery store, pondering tomorrow’s to-do list. The cashier greets you with a grin. You’re not in the mood to chit-chat, but out of politeness you do anyway—and feel curiously happy afterwards. A big smile plays across your face as you leave the store.
What just happened?
A famous study answers this question. Researcher William Fleeson and his colleagues tracked a group of people, every three hours for two weeks, recording how they’d been acting and feeling during each chunk of time. They found that those who’d acted “talkative” and “assertive”—even if they were introverts—were more likely to report feeling positive emotions such as excitement and enthusiasm.
Everyone feels happier when they socialize, concluded the researchers—introverts included.
So should introverts force themselves to attend parties even when they’d rather stay home and read? That’s what people often take these findings to mean.
But this is too glib an interpretation. Here’s why.
Sure, socializing makes us feel good. Sometimes it’s worth it to push ourselves. We’re all social animals; on some level, love really is all you need.
But if the spike of happiness introverts get following that nice exchange with the grocery clerk is real, so are the feelings of exhaustion and over-stimulation that come with too much socializing. Tolerance for stimulation is one of the biggest differences between introverts and extroverts. Extroverts simply need more stimulation—social and otherwise—than introverts do. Research suggests that acting falsely extroverted can lead to stress, burnout, and cardiovascular disease.
All of this seems to leave introverts in a tight spot: socializing makes us happy—but also over-stimulated and even anxious. This inner conflict sounds like a huge pain—a reason to curse the gods for having made you an introvert.
But it can also be a great gift.
Many introverts find ways to spend their time that are deeply fulfilling—and socially connected—but where there is no conflict. Here are five of these ways:
1. Read: Marcel Proust once said that reading is “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” Books transcend time and place. They don’t even require reader and writer to be alive at the same time. Studies also suggest that reading fiction increases empathy and social skills.
2. Enter a state of “flow” by doing work or a hobby that you love. Flow is the transcendent state of being, identified by influential psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You’re in flow when you feel totally engaged in an activity—whether long-distance swimming, song-writing, or ocean sailing. In a state of flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your own adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing. In flow, says Csikszentmihalyi, “a person could work around the clock for days on end, for no better reason than to keep on working.”
Flow is my three-year old playing with his trucks, sometimes accompanied by his best friend, sometimes not—time seems to float by as he lies contentedly on his stomach, watching the wheels go ‘round. Flow is my 80-year-old father, a medical school professor, sitting at his desk for hours reading medical journals. When I was a kid and saw my father come home from a long day at work only to crack open those forbidding-looking papers, I worried that he worked too hard. Now I know that he was spending time the way he loved.
People in flow don’t tend to wear the broad smiles of enthusiasm that Fleeson’s research focused on. When you watch them in action, the words “joy” and “excitement” don’t come to mind. But the words “engagement,” “absorption,” and “curiosity” do.
3. Keep an informal quota system of how many times per week/month/year you plan to go out to social events—and how often you get to stay home. This way, you don’t feel guilty about declining those party invitations. When you do go out, hopefully you’ll have a good time and make a new friend you wouldn’t have met in your lamplit living room. The right party can be a delicious experience. But when you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re less likely to drive yourself crazy thinking you should’ve stayed in. Your night was what it was, and that’s fine.
4. Have meaningful conversations. Pleasant chit-chat with the grocery clerk notwithstanding, research suggests that the happiest people have twice as many substantive conversations, and engage in much less small talk, than the unhappiest. (The researchers were surprised by their findings, but if you’re an introvert, you’re probably not!)
5. Shower time and affection on people you know and love — people whose company is so dear and comfortable that you feel neither over-stimulated nor anxious in their presence. If you don’t cast your social net too wide, you’re more likely to cast it deep—which your friends and family will appreciate.
Yes, love is all you need. But love takes many forms.
(Thanks to my friend Gretchen Rubin of the inspiring blog “The Happiness Project” for urging me to focus on the paradox of Fleeson’s research!)