Saturday, December 28, 2013

Different Words for Happiness

In today’s culture, there is a growing myth that suggests that extroverts are happier than introverts. A lot of research too seems to support this theory and tacitly, even introverts buy into this. But how true is this research?  

In her engaging book, The Introvert’s Way, Sophia Dembling cuts through all the smoke and mirrors. She talks about research done by psychologist Will Fleeson, PhD, of Wake Forest University, which found a strong correlation between acting extroverted and feeling happy. In several studies, Fleeson asked students to periodically record how extroverted they were behaving as well as how happy they felt at such times. Fleeson’s research ended up suggesting that behaving like extroverts would make introverts happier. 

Dembling talks about delving deep into this research and coming up with questions that she later posed to the researcher. “The first thing Fleeson explained to me is that he used a very specific definition of extroversion. None of Jung’s energy-in/energy-out stuff. Instead, he had people describe how they were feeling in words he says are most consistently used to describe extroversion: talkative, enthusiastic, assertive, bold, energetic. He also used a specific set of words to describe positive affect (science-speak for looking happy): excited, enthusiastic, proud, alert, interested, strong, inspired, determined, attentive, active.” 

In fact, most of the words used to describe both feelings as well as happy behaviour were extrovert-centric. Dembling goes on to say: “Where are introvert-centric terms such as peaceful, content, engaged, engrossed, focused, amused, composed, and calm?”   

Fleeson had based the design of his study on a three-legged stool description of happiness commonly used by researchers, but had ended up using only one leg of this stool – positive affect. According to Dembling, positive affect is basically “the kind of “happy” that other people can see: visible, external, noisy happy.” Fleeson didn’t include either life satisfaction (our own judgement of how our lives are working overall, instead of our happiness or unhappiness at a specific moment) – or the absence of negative affect (an absence of negative feelings like anxiety, fear and anger, which means we are at peace with life and feel calm) in his overall design. 

Isn’t feeling calm an “introverted” way of being happy? Dembling says: “But Fleeson didn’t use that leg in his research, and so one could argue that words describing introvert happiness are not even included in the way Fleeson measured happiness.” With an incomplete design and research that was biased towards what Dembing calls“extrovert-style happiness,” Fleeson had reached a conclusion that added to the narrative of extroverts as happy and introverts as “should-be-extroverts.” 

As human beings, we all exist on a continuum and introverts can “act” extroverted when the situation calls for it. But a lot of our unhappiness stems from the fact that we feel pressured to constantly behave like extroverts. And in societies that prize extroversion, like America, we are not the in-group. Being on the fringes obviously affects our happiness as well. 

But owning our true nature can point us to our true north. If being happy means that I feel content or connected or whole, I can channel my energy towards activities that bring me those feelings instead of worrying about what’s wrong with me when I don’t feel like attending a big party. Claiming our own words for happiness can help us connect to our own sources of happiness.


  1. its funny you mention about a party... I find that on my birthdays.... It just that when its your birthday everything is about you.. there's so much pressure!!! I am like... " It's my birthday.. shouldn't I be allowed to feel happy... or sad" ...

    And why is everything about our feelings... psychologists are obsessed with that.. aint they ??

    1. Yes, I can imagine ! It's great if you enjoy big parties, but even if you do, what you feel right then could be anything, like you said.

      I don't think everything is about our feelings, but feelings are an important part of who we are. But more important than them are the underlying values we want to live by. Many times, I think that I get swept up in momentary feelings and regret it. I wish I could behave more objectively.

  2. momentory feelings ??? you mean you are tempremental??---- see if you keep telling yourself that it's not about you...your life isn't yours... then you wont be tempremental...!!! Its the first chapter in this book called 'Purpose driven life'... Truly was a life changing book for me... Purpose driven life by Rick Warren!!!m[He is from California]

    1. Thank you. I mean that sometimes I feel things so much, I think they are the only reality. I feel in that moment that I am my feeling. But that's not true - there's a bigger, objective principle that I want to follow. I think both things are true: that your life is completely your own and your own responsibility as well as that it's not. Thanks for the book suggestion Hersh.