Photo credit: Jeremy Hockin, “Solitude” (CC BY 2.0)

As I was recently reading Psychology Today article The Revenge of the Introvert by Laurie Helgoe, I become aware of the fact that the very reason I found the article in the first place was due to introversion. I had some time before my class would start, which meant that my first impulse was to spend that time not finding colleagues for a chat or dropping in the union to see who was available to talk, but in the library, where I found a comfy chair and surrounded myself with issues of The Writer and The New Yorker and, yes, Psychology Today. What could be better?

There was a time when I was at best ambivalent about my preference most of the time for solitude and reading and, quite frankly, my own company. However, I am slowly coming to appreciate and even relish this part of who I am, this introversion that I misunderstood for so very long as shyness, as Helgoe explains:

“On the surface, introversion looks a lot like shyness. Both limit social interaction, but for differing reasons. The shy want desperately to connect but find socializing difficult, says Bernardo J. Carducci, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. Introverts seek time alone because they want time alone. An introvert and a shy person might be standing against the wall at a party, but the introvert prefers to be there, while the shy individual feels she has no choice.”

A few years ago a lot was made of studies that suggested not only that extroverts are happier than introverts, but that “extroversion can actually cause happiness.” The advice for introverts was to pretend to be extroverts, to “act chirpy.”

But what if, as Ms. Helgoe suggests, happiness simply has a different meaning for introverts?

“In the United States, people rank happiness as their most important goal. That view has a special impact on introverts. Happiness is not always their top priority; they don’t need external rewards to keep their brains in high gear. In fact, the pursuit of happiness may represent another personality-culture clash for them.”

“In a series of studies in which subjects were presented with an effortful task such as taking a test, thinking rationally, or giving a speech, introverts did not choose to invoke happy feelings, reports Boston College psychologist Maya Tamir. They preferred to maintain a neutral emotional state. Happiness, an arousing emotion, may be distracting for introverts during tasks. By contrast, extraverts reported a preference to feel ‘happy,’ ‘up,’ or ‘enthusiastic’ and to recall happy memories while approaching or completing the tasks.”

One danger in this kind of discussion is to assume an us vs. them attitude that goes something like this: Introverts are often misunderstood; therefore, introversion must be somehow “better” than extroversion. That is, of course, just as damaging as saying that introverts just need to act like extroverts in order to be happy. By learning more about the effect introversion has on my life, I also have come to appreciate more fully the unique gifts of extroverts, in part because I feel less pressure to be like them. (I’m tempted to write, Some of my best friends are extroverts!

Helgoe’s article offers insights for introverts and extroverts alike, especially in her final “What Not to Say to an Introvert” list. Even fellow introverts can make the mistake, for example, of asking pointed questions as a way to avoid having to talk about themselves, forgetting that the introvert to whom they are speaking may not want to give on-the-spot answers or opinions.

That’s where social media and email can be godsends for introverts, as long as we manage these tools and toys rather than letting them manage us. We can choose, for example, against the popular “email is dead” mantra, to continue to prefer email to texting, because it allows us time for longer, more well thought out responses. We can use blogging or Facebook or Twitter in ways that work for us, discarding or ignoring what doesn’t, without feeling a whit guilty.

Maybe living the introverted life is an alternative to extroverted happiness, something altogether different, and just as potentially rewarding.