Introversion and Well-Being
A recent British study has suggested that the exhibition of certain personality dispositions in youth can serve as reliable indicators of well-being in later life . The data obtained in this longitudinal study suggest that subjects who score highly for extroversion in youth tend to report greater well-being in later life. In contrast, those who score highly for neuroticism in youth report lower satisfaction with life in follow up questionnaires; the authors also posited that these subjects also experienced indirect detrimental effects on their well-being by virtue of the psychological distress and poor physical health that has been linked to neuroticism.
Before considering the implications of these findings, it is important to be clear about the nature of the study and some of the key concepts involved. The study used data on 4583 men and women from the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council (MRC) National Survey for Health and Development. These participants completed assessments of Neuroticism and Extraversion at ages 16 and 26 years. Neuroticism and Extraversion are two of the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality traits on the Five Factor Model of personality. On this model, extraversion is characterised by a pronounced engagement with the external world; broadly speaking, extroverts enjoy being the centre of attention, and the company of others. The opposite of extroversion is introversion. In contrast, neuroticism is characterised by a tendency to experience negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and depression; similarly, those who score highly for neuroticism may find it difficult to regulate their emotions. As such, we might say that the opposite of neuroticism is something like emotional stability.
This study used data about participants who were tested for these domains of personality with Eysenck’s short Maudsley Personality Inventory (MPI) at 16 and again at 26 (Eysenck, 1958). This inventory consists of six Extraversion items that assess sociability, energy and activity orientation, and six Neuroticism items that assess emotional stability, mood and distractibility.
The study then analysed well-being self reports that the participants completed between the ages of 60-64. Participants in the study were asked to complete two well being assessments. One measure, Diener’s Satisfaction with Life Scale, assessed the subject’s global life satisfaction, using a purely hedonic understanding of well-being. On the other hand, the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, assessed well-being in a broader manner by measuring positive affect, psychological functioning (autonomy, competence, self acceptance, personal growth) and interpersonal relationships. The authors of the study found significant correlations between extraversion and high scores for well-being on both of the aforementioned measures. They also found significant correlations between neuroticism and low scores for well-being on both measures.
It may be relatively uncontroversial to say that we should be encouraging our children to be less neurotic and more emotionally stable. However, since our personalities are most malleable in our early years, does this research also mean that we should all be encouraging our children to be extroverts rather than introverts so as to ensure that they will enjoy greater well-being later in life? I assume that some people might wish to avoid this conclusion. In order to do so, there are a few areas where one might wish to raise concerns.
First, there are well documented problems with data obtained from self-report questionnaires. In particular, we might point out that introverts characteristically spend a longer time reflecting upon a question than extroverts, and are thus more likely to reach a more balanced (and perhaps more realistic) judgement about their own well-being. As such, there might be some scope for claiming that encouraging an introvert to become more extroverted may not actually increase their happiness per se; rather it will merely serve to change the way in which they reflect upon the question of their own well-being, and the way in which they report their attitudes.
Second, it might be argued that the well-being measures used in the above study are unfairly weighted towards extroverts. For instance, the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale asks respondents about the extent to which they are interested in other people, and whether they feel close to other people; however, it does not ask respondents about aspects which might be more integral to the success of an introvert’s life, such as the respondent’s happiness in their own company, or the enjoyment they get from their own personal reflection.
It seems that we now live in a society in which extroversion is progressively becoming a social norm; one need only look at the prevalence of social media and the rise of interest in celebrity culture and reality TV shows for evidence. However, as Susan Cain argued in her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, this may not be a change for a better, since, generally speaking, introverts have many skills which extroverts lack. So, even if it is true to say that extroverts are happier people on some measures of happiness, encouraging everyone to become more extroverted is not the only response to this. Instead, we could seek to change the social environment to become more accepting of introverted personalities and acknowledge the value of this misunderstood dimension of personality.
 Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, London Viking, 2012.