I used to think so. But gradually over the past 10 years I’ve realized that I was putting far too much weight on this concept of happiness while failing to notice how satisfying it is to be content or peaceful.
I just finished a great book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. The Antidote is not about introversion, but I think happiness is something that’s on a lot of introverts’ minds.
Over the years there’s been a number of studies (study 1, study 2) which found that extraverts are happier. Many of my fellow introvert bloggers (Beth Buelow, Susan Cain, Arnie Kozak) have already discussed their reactions to this research, and have suggested that the researchers’ definition of extroversion may be flawed. The conversation about whether extroverts are happier is far from over, but The Antidote brings up an important question. Should we focus on trying to be happy while ignoring all the other positive things in life and suppressing the negative ?
One of the first arguments the author, Oliver Burkeman, states against striving for happiness involves thinking about a white bear. In 1863 Fyodor Dostoevsky, when writing about his travels in Western Europe, observed: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Social psychologist Daniel Wegner thought that was such an interesting concept that he tested it. The result of his research is the Ironic process theory, which states that when you deliberately try to suppress a thought, the thought is more likely to come up. According to Burkeman, it may be “our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”
His quest to examine happiness brought him to the Nairobi slum of Kibera, where people living in extreme poverty are happy. Why it is that communities which exist in extreme poverty don’t show up at the bottom of every assessment of happiness levels? Can it be that the things we think will make us happy and therefore strive for and hold on to – security, material objects, money, etc. – don’t actually hold the key to happiness?
The book also looks at length at the beliefs of Buddhism and Stoicism. According to the Buddhist point of view and its belief in non-attachment, if everything is unified then there is no such thing as attachment or separation. A Stoic similarly tries to “remain undisturbed by undesirable circumstances.” And one of the ways a Stoic may try to achieve that is by negative visualization. What would happen if you lost everything you value? By occasionally asking ourselves this we can learn to value what we have and what’s good in our lives.
So how does all of this relate to introversion? Well first of all, the jury is still out on whether we are actually not as happy as extroverts. But if we find out that we aren’t, so what? We are often happy. We are also often content, peaceful, and calm. Life is not a race where whoever is the happiest wins.
And if we have these negative thoughts in the back of our mind which we’re trying to suppress- maybe I’m not social enough, maybe I’m not doing enough to be happy, etc. – those thoughts might actually make us even less likely to be happy. By suppressing those questions we may make them more likely to bubble up into our conscious thoughts. What would happen if instead of trying to “out happy” extroverts, we live life on our own terms? And what would happen if we realize that unhappiness and insecurity are as much a part of life as happiness, serenity, and calm. I don’t think, and the author of the book doesn’t seem suggest, that we shouldn’t have goals or plan for the future, but that we might not want to run away from uncertainty or imperfection.
Maybe happiness doesn’t have to be the most important thing in life, maybe ALL of life is important.
Meet Sarah Van Winkle. She’s is a physical therapist who taps into her introvert strengths when working with patients.
What was your reaction when you first learned you were an introvert?
I was reading about it in a psychology class in high school and as I was reading I thought, “Huh, that sounds about right.” I had always known there was something different about me, but I couldn’t place it, so when I read about it I felt almost relieved; it was like I finally had answers to why I didn’t have a ton of friends or why I liked to be home by myself if I had a choice.
What first drew you to being a physical therapist?
As I started to get older I started to enjoy the sciences, especially human biology and anatomy. As I thought about things more I knew that I wanted to be in the medical field, but I did not want to be a doctor (way too much schooling) and I did not want to be a nurse (my aunt had many stories that made it seem rather unappealing to me). My dad actually suggested being a physical therapist; I looked into it and thought it sounded pretty interesting.
As I looked into the job description and observed different settings of physical therapy I really liked how much of an impact I could make on someone’s life. I liked the fact I could work one on one with someone, and that the job would be different every day. I also realized that each patient is like a puzzle waiting to be solved as well; I like to solve puzzles.
How much of an effect do you think being an introvert has had on your career?
I think it has made a profound effect on my career. On the whole, introverts tend to have better observation skills than most. This is extremely helpful when it comes to my patients. I need an eye for detail to see slight changes in how someone is moving or performing a certain task. It is also a plus being an introvert because, again as a whole, introverts seem to read people well and are good listeners. This helps me because I can see when someone is in pain and still trying to push through it, or just notice that something is “off” with a patient and give them the opportunity to share what is going on if they choose to; a little mind therapy as well as body therapy. Read More
Guilt, the less intense but still powerful cousin of shame, has a certain knack of creeping up on us introverts. It can pop up at any time, if we let it. Don’t want to take that call right now? *guilt* Don’t want to go to that cocktail party? *guilt* And then of course there are the times we feel guilty with the help of well meaning family and friends who make comments like “you don’t go out enough.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd edition: “Guilty individuals are pained by their evaluation of failure. Guilt is often associated with a corrective action that the individual can take (but does not necessarily take) to repair the failure and prevent it from happening again.”
Summarizing the above, guilt is:
a) painful, and
b) sometimes followed by the wish to change
So in the case of declining a cocktail party invitation our guilt mental chatter may sound like “Oh man, I’m being so rude by not going. She’ll be offended. I need to stop being so selfish and just go to these things.” Guilt is an important emotion. It helps us to be empathetic and kind, and to make up with people we’ve slighted. But the mental chatter quoted above brings up two important questions. Is the slight imagined? And is the situation really something we need to feel guilty about?
It’s not worth the mental and physical exhaustion of feeling guilty for something that’s imagined or not a big deal, particularly if you’ve silenced a phone call or declined an invitation because you need some downtime.
Here are a few ways to combat your social guilt:
- Ask yourself if it really is something you should feel guilty about (and therefore a behavior that needs to be reexamined). Perhaps your guilt is the product of an extrovert-biased society, or you’re projecting your own feelings onto someone else.
- If you did genuinely make a mistake, is there anything you can learn from the situation?
- Realize that the past is finished, and therefore beyond improvement. The future however can be changed.
- Determine ahead of time what kind of social situations you should unequivocally accept an invitation to. For instance, you could make it a personal pledge to go to all birthdays and retirement parties for at least one hour and to try to be present and open during that time. This will help with the “will I/won’t I” mental anguish we sometimes feel. And once you’ve put in your hour you can leave if you want.
- Realize that you are not responsible for the other person’s feelings and reactions (though of course this should not be used as an excuse to be mean or decline an invitation in a rude way). Sophia Dembling, in her book The Introvert’s Way, says the magic words to repeat to yourself are “Not my responsibility. Not my problem.”
- If you’re very worried you hurt someone else’s feeling, ask them.
- If you’ve confirmed that you’ve hurt the person’s feelings, you could apologize and see if you can come to a compromise about social situations going forward.
- When declining an invitation from a good friend, make plans to meet one-on-one later on. If you regularly ignore their phone calls, trying scheduling Skype video calls instead.
- Set a timer and give yourself 5 minutes to feel guilty. Once the 5 minutes are over, forget about it and go on with the rest of your day.
And finally, explain your introversion to the people around you. They may not be ready to listen the first time you say it, but please, keep talking about it!