Jane Masterson is tired of everyone asking if she’s okay. Though she’s quiet at parties and tends to fade into the background before dipping out unseen, the 31-year-old music teacher insists she has a great time in social situations — she just wants to leave about four hours before everyone else does. She’d also rather not talk to anyone except her close friends. “I’m more of a listener,” she tells me. “I’d rather watch than participate. Sometimes, I don’t talk at all. It’s more comfortable that way.”
Because of this, people constantly assume she’s upset. And to be honest, sometimes she is — as a self-described “total introvert,” her baseline personality contains few of the sociable or expressive traits many Western cultures like ours consider to be ideal. Long, lively social situations tend to exacerbate her reality and highlight just how far she deviates from the gregarious exemplar, a frustrating truth that she admits can sometimes leave her feeling “less than.”
Such a feeling, which psychologists often refer to as “extroversion deficit,” is a real and distinct problem for introverts who buy into to society’s belief that quietness, a need for space or quick fatigue after social interactions are less valuable qualities compared to extroverted traits like sociability, assertiveness and the ability to socialize for hours on end without needing to pop a Xanax. Understandably, this persistent feeling of being less-than can lead many introverts toward negative mental-health outcomes like depression.
One way experts recommend people deal with these feelings is to use the old “fake it till you make it” maneuver — basically, pretend to be someone else until your attitude follows your behavior. However, it’s unclear how effective this method actually is for introverts struggling to conform to the extrovert ideal. Would introverts like Masterson actually be happier if they simply acted more extroverted? Can “faking it” invent an outgoing personality where one didn’t exist before?
Researchers at the University of Melbourne have been wondering the same thing. Noting that previous studies found people do actually feel happier when they’re acting more extroverted, Rowan Jacques-Hamilton and his colleagues ran an experiment last year to see if introverts could experience greater well-being if they were instructed to act in a more outgoing manner. Would simply pretending to be gregarious increase their happiness, or would having to put on a show in social situations make them even more miserable?
To find out, they separated 147 adults with both extroverted and introverted qualities into two groups. The first, dubbed the “Act Extroverted” group were told to spend a week acting in a“ bold, talkative, outgoing, active and assertive” way that exaggerated the qualities we expect extroverts to have. The other group (affably named the “Sham” group) received instructions to do the opposite — play up introverted characteristics by acting particularly “unassuming, sensitive, calm, modest and quiet.” Throughout the week, both groups completed questionnaires that assessed their extraversion, desire to socialize, positive and negative affect, how tired they felt and their trait “authenticity,” or how much they felt their assigned behavior matched their true personality.
Overall, researchers found a positive correlation between acting more extroverted and positive mood. Regardless of how inherently sociable someone was, putting on a friendly, energetic face did seem to make them feel happier, more authentic and less tired, even if doing so caused them to deviate from their baseline personality. They called this observation the “happiness effect.”
However, that effect only went so far for introverts. While their more extroverted counterparts experienced significant improvements in positive affect during the course of the experiment, natural introverts felt only slightly livelier. Actually, many introverted participants regressed from their baseline state — many felt more tired, less authentic and more negative than they did before their week-long extrovert experiment.
Masterson, who says she often tries to act peppier and more sociable than she actually is in order to fit in, has a pretty good idea of why that may be. “For people who are naturally quieter, more reserved and more inwardly focused, pretending to be more outgoing and assertive than they actually can be really stressful,” she says. “I can’t tell you how exhausting it is to act like you’re someone you neither are nor want to be just to fit some sort of social mold. I’ve only got so much ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ in me until I need to go home, take a bath and be seriously alone.”
Interestingly, other research has found that “faking it” in order to impress others or to fit into certain situations can backfire in exactly the same way Masterson is talking about. Case in point: One Journal of Consumer Research study found that people who tried to prove their worth to others were more likely to dwell on their shortcomings than to believe they were actually as badass as they were pretending to be. As Amy Morin writes in Psychology Today, putting on a show really only works when you’re “interested in changing yourself on the inside, not simply trying to change other people’s perceptions of you.” Introverts, then, have to really want to be extroverted in order to reap the happiness effect their chummier companions do.
However, many introverts like Masterson like how they are just fine. Despite the social capital our culture places on extroverted traits, quiet-types aren’t all buying the narrative that their thoughtfulness and aversion to the spotlight are personality flaws. “I’m cool with how I am,” she says. “I’m not interested in changing myself; I just have to work harder than most to balance my needs with other people’s expectations. Is it draining? Sure. Would I be happier if I was a natural extrovert? Maybe. But I’m not, so I have to focus on what makes me happy, not what does it for other people.”
At the same time, the authors of the University of Melbourne study also caution that being “happy” in the traditional sense of the word might not be introverts’ number-one goal. Instead, happiness for them might look more like what Masterson describes — a balance of internal and external forces that can be explored on their terms, when they’ve had enough time to recharge in solitude. Other happiness interventions that play into their introspective tendencies can help, too — Jacques-Hamilton suggests mindfulness and focusing on positive self-thoughts as more effective techniques than telling them to go out and act like Barack Obama at a campaign fundraiser. That said, the occasional reminder to perk themselves up extrovert-style might still serve as an intermittent mood-boost — doing so was shown to have a mild positive effect on mood, after all.
To Masterson, all of this sounds like a shining endorsement for another age-old maxim “Fuck everyone else, do you.” Introverts can pretend to be someone else all they want, but when it comes to truly being happy, judging themselves by their own standards — and giving themselves 24 hours of blissful solitude to decompress after a work party — will always be a better solution than putting on a show.