This research explores the links among the trait of introversion-extraversion, momentary behaviour, thoughts and emotions. Decades of research have shown that people who are more extraverted (i.e., outgoing, bold, active, lively, etc.) also report higher levels of happiness. This is particularly true when we think of happiness as the experience of positive emotions (especially high energy ones like enthusiasm and joy), but seems to extend to other ways of viewing happiness such as judgments of life satisfaction. This does not mean that there are no happy introverts, that the trend applies equally across cultures, or that introverts and extraverts would agree on what the ‘ideal happiness’ feels like. Nonetheless, on average, people who score higher on trait extraversion also tend to tell us that they are happier.

There are many things that could contribute to this personality difference in happiness, and it is likely that more than one explanation is correct. There are probably many things that have some influence. For example, extraverts tend to spend more time in social situations, and social situations tend to be pleasant. Extraverts may also seek out these social situations because they are stimulating or a source of attention, rather than pleasant per se. Part of the reason extraverts are happier may be that they spend more time in social, happy situations, and they may evoke positive responses from others with their outgoing behaviour.  On the other hand, we have found that when people (both introverts and extraverts) are in pleasant moods, they also feel more social and prefer social situations. It’s possible that happy moods sometimes cause extraverted behaviour, rather than the other way around. Consistent with this idea, it is easier to put extraverts in a good mood. For example, even in controlled laboratory settings, extraverts have stronger reactions to positive mood inductions and when exposed to rewards. Other research shows that extraverts also maintain these pleasant moods longer than introverts do. Extending these findings outside the lab, extraverts’ tendency to experience stronger and longer pleasant moods might lead them to more outgoing, lively, ‘extraverted’ behaviour.

The clear differences in people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are most obvious when we look at averages over time. (This is sometimes what we mean by personality.) However, it is also true that people demonstrate wide variation in momentary thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. At any particular moment, it is not uncommon to find a trait introvert acting very outgoing and warm (e.g., maybe they are trying to impress a romantic interest), or an extravert acting more quiet and subdued (e.g., maybe they are attending a lecture or theater production). This variation in momentary behaviour is associated with moods in a way that is very similar to what we see with traits.  That is, when acting extraverted, people report high levels of happiness, and this applies to trait introverts and extraverts equally. It appears that even introverts enjoy acting extraverted. Similarly, almost everyone reports less happiness when acting more introverted. Such findings beg the questions: 1) why don’t introverts act extraverted more often (if they want to be happy)? and 2) could we increase someone’s happiness by increasing their extraverted behaviour?

We reasoned that one reason people (especially introverts) might avoid extraverted behaviour is because they underestimate how much fun it will be. Think of the person who needs to be dragged to a party only to have a fabulous time once they get there. Across a number of studies, we have found some support for this idea; introverts often don’t anticipate how much fun extraverted behaviour will be. This is particularly true, however, when we explicitly tell them to act like extraverts. It might be easier to convince an introvert to find a social situation (where they will end up acting extraverted anyway), rather than explicitly asking them to change their behaviour.

Still, before advocating an ‘act extraverted intervention’, we thought it would be important to explore some potential costs of acting out of character. Building on previous research, we invited people to the lab, and asked them to participate in a few group tasks. We also asked some of the people to behave extraverted, others to behave introverted, and some to just act normally. (We had measured their personality traits earlier.) Similar to past research, we found that almost everyone enjoyed acting extraverted, even the trait introverts. We also asked about unpleasant emotions (perhaps the introverts also felt stressed?), but did not see any personality differences. Even if acting extraverted feels good, it could still come at a cost if it takes a lot of effort or self-control. In other words, behaving in a way that is contrary to our dispositional habits might be more effortful, and thus deplete self-control resources. As a way to assess this, we asked our participants to complete an effortful cognitive (Stroop) task after their group tasks. Consistent with our thinking, trait extraverts performed more poorly on the cognitive task if they had been asked to behave introverted (i.e., counter to their disposition). However, we did not see a similar trend for trait introverts –even when they behaved extraverted, they performed well on the cognitive task. In other words, we did not observe a cost for introverts acting extraverted. Perhaps even most surprisingly, trait introverts tell us that they feel more authentic when behaving extraverted, compared to introverted, in the moment. We suspect these feelings of authenticity come from expressing other important parts of themselves via extraverted behaviour, and there may be some strongly identified introverts who are less inclined towards experiencing such counter-dispositional authenticity. These are ideas that we continue to study.

In summary, there is clearly more research to be done, but so far our results suggest that extraverted behaviour and social situations can promote pleasant emotions. There may be limits, but acting extraverted seems beneficial for most people, at least in some circumstances. We have no interest in forcing extraverted behaviour on anyone, but introverts might think of it as a helpful tool to boost moods or get certain tasks accomplished. Trait extraverts might also want to strategically plan their introverted behaviour, or breaks from it, as there seem to be some short-term costs when they behave out of character.

For more details, see these articles (and even more sources on our publications page):

van Allen, Z. M., Walker, D. L., Streiner, T., & Zelenski, J. M. (2021). Enacted extraversion as a well-being enhancing strategy in everyday life: Testing across three, week-long interventions. Collabra: Psychology, 7(1), 29931.

Zelenski, J. M., Sobocko, K., & Whelan, D. C. (2014). Introversion, solitude, and subjective well-being. In R. J. Coplan and J. C. Bowker (Eds.), The Handbook of Solitude: Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone. (pp. 184-201). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Zelenski, J. M., Whelan, D. C., Nealis, L. J., Besner, C. M., Santoro, M. S., & Wynn, J. E. (2013). Personality and affective forecasting: Trait introverts underpredict the hedonic benefits of acting extravertedJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(6), 1092-1108.

Zelenski, J. M., Santoro, M. S., & Whelan, D. C. (2012). Would introverts be better off if they acted more like extraverts? Exploring emotional and cognitive consequences of counterdispositional behaviorEmotion, 12(2), 290-303.