Sometimes introverts need to “act extroverted”—or just let their true extroverted side out. It’s not only doable, it’s appealing if the interaction is meaningful.
My wife Adrianne and I, along with two of our kids, were on a Sunday stroll at a nearby park, basking in the warm temperatures and savoring the grass and trees surrounding us.
We were practically alone at the place, save for the presumably married couple we said hello to early on as we passed them on the sidewalk.
Near the end of our walk, though, we ran into this same couple again.
And out of the blue, they stopped us.
“It’s so nice to see a family out walking together. You hardly ever see that anymore,” the wife said to us, as she literally patted me on the shoulder.
“Good for all of you.”
It was an energizing interaction.
Strong introvert that I am, I hadn’t sought it out. But I gladly rode the extroverting wave when it came; it made me feel good.
Some Extroverting Is Draining
A few days prior, though, I’d had a similar experience that had produced the opposite result.
I was standing in line at Walmart when the older man behind me caught my eye, smiled, and said: “You’re a tall one.”
I am a tall one; 6-foot-4.
But I already knew this.
So I simply nodded my nonverbal thanks, hoping the discussion would soon be over.
But afterward I felt bad—because it wouldn’t have killed me to talk to the guy a little more.
For me, though, this type of extroverted interaction is off-putting.
It seems pointless. And it’s draining.
Let’s summarize, then:
At the park, I “acted extroverted” and wound up feeling better.
At Wally World, I “acted introverted” and felt worse.
These results would seem to line up with the key finding of a 2020 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General:
“Acting extroverted” boosts your well-being; “acting introverted” worsens it.
But that’s not the whole story.
Humans Really Are Social Animals
During my first two years as an undergraduate in college, I was a mathematics major.
I enjoyed math when numbers were involved.
But then numbers gave way to letters and Greek symbols, which in turn led to us completing complex mathematical proofs.
Eventually, a mathematics concept called the axiom drove me a) quietly insane, and therefore b) in another academic direction.
An axiom is something that is assumed, or believed to be true. It is where mathematical proof starts; you cannot prove the axioms, you merely believe them [emphasis mine] and use them to prove other things.
But as you can perhaps understand, I questioned (and still do) using an assumption to “prove” anything at all.
Still, axioms have a defensible place in our regular daily lives, outside of math.
That’s why I got to thinking about them as I read the recent Journal of Experimental Psychology: General study, “Experimental Manipulation of Extraverted and Introverted Behavior and Its Effects on Well-Being.”
The study rests, broadly speaking, on an axiom we’ve all heard many times: That we humans are social animals.
We are. I absolutely accept this premise—I do assume or believe it to be true—and I think most people, introverts and extroverts alike, would agree.
But don’t we, as individual humans, prefer to be social—to “act extroverted”—in different ways?
More to the point in the context of the study: Don’t we introverts in particular see “acting extroverted” not as a binary concept (i.e., you’re either “acting extroverted” or you’re not) but, rather, as an activity that comes in different forms—some well worth the cost in energy, others not so much; some mood-enhancing, others irritating … or worse?
This question and others like it are crucial to consider, as the study’s authors—to their credit—acknowledge themselves.
“Act Extroverted” vs. “Act Introverted”
In the study, researchers Seth Margolis and Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California-Riverside asked 131 undergraduates to “act extroverted” for one week and to “act introverted” for another.
Margolis and Lyubomirsky didn’t use the terms extroverted and introverted, however. Instead, they told participants to be “talkative,” “assertive,” and “spontaneous” (for extroverted) and “deliberate,” “quiet,” and “reserved” (for introverted).
The students completed surveys throughout the experience, along with assessments of personality, happiness, life satisfaction, extroverted behavior, and extroversion desire.
“Did changes in extroverted behavior coincide with changes in well-being?” Margolis and Lyubomirsky ask in the article.
“Participants reported marked growth in positive affect during the extroversion week and marked decline in positive affect during the introversion week,” the researchers note in answering their own question.
They go on, though, to point out several nuances in their findings.
When You Act Extroverted …
They note that “unsurprisingly, people who found acting extroverted to feel relatively more natural, enjoyable, and meaningful than acting introverted experienced larger boosts in well-being after acting extroverted (vs. acting introverted).”
Similarly, the researchers write that “people who had a stronger desire to become more extroverted may have been impacted more by the interventions because they value extroversion more and likely mustered more effort into acting extroverted.”
Margolis and Lyubomirsky then go on to raise a key question:
“Which specific behaviors led to changes in well-being?”
“Unfortunately,” they say, “we do not know the particular behaviors that participants enacted and their unique effects.”
That information is critical— because as I’ve known for years and as I’ve reconfirmed in my own life:
Not all “acting extroverted” activities are created equal.
Meaning is everything.
“Act Extroverted” the Introvert’s Way
One day a while back, I spent several hours with my wife’s grandmother Lorna as we watched my son (her great-grandson) play in a high school soccer game.
Lorna, as I have (slowly) come to find out, sees herself as having a strong introverted side to her personality.
I don’t know her particularly well, and vice versa, but we ended up having a great time together at the game, eventually having an extended discussion about introversion and how it plays out in people’s lives.
At one point, Lorna turned to me and said: “We haven’t spent much time with each other, but we’re getting along like old friends.”
And we were.
I think it’s because we were “acting extroverted” the introvert’s way …
With targeted purpose.
Our interaction wasn’t superficial and random.
It was deep and meaningful.
And that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, makes all the difference.