It’s the thing we all want to know: What is the key to happiness? How can we find more enjoyment in life? The absolute glut of articles offering the inside secret to enduring happiness indicates this is something a lot of people wish they knew more about.
Scientific research has shown that personality has a lot to do with it, especially with regard to the dimension of extraversion. While studies have shown that extraverts are generally happier than introverts, and sometimes tend to experience more momentary happiness, it doesn’t mean that people at all points along the extraversion-introversion scale can’t be happier. And interestingly, the ways to achieve that end are generally the same, which will probably surprise the introverts. The same types of things make a lot of people happier, regardless of their level of extraversion.
Extraverts tend to be happier not only because they get a stronger, positive charge out of enjoyable things in life, but also because they have a very keen reward system that prompts them to go after the things they know they really enjoy. So an extravert, for example, is more likely to recognize that activity X is rewarding and really boosts his or her level of happiness. Recognition of that connection will prompt him or her to pursue this activity in the future in order to continue to benefit from the happiness boost.
Introverts can, of course, be happy; they just don’t tend to get quite as happy as extraverts, nor are they as excitable and easily aroused. Introverts are also less inclined to go after something that will make them happier and often have a fuzzier image of what this may actually be.
But, whether extraverted or introverted, the research shows that you can boost your happiness. Here’s how:
Things are Better When We’re Together
No matter what the activity is and no matter what the individual’s level of extraversion is, we all tend to experience higher levels of happiness when we’re doing things with others. This might be especially surprising to introverts who tend to think they’ll be happier and more content in solitude.
One of the studies done by Wido G. M. Oerlemans and Arnold B. Bakker explained:
“It is interesting to note that when introverts are in a highly social situation, even they respond with positive affect. Nonetheless, these individuals do not expect this to be the case. Instead, these individuals expect to feel embarrassed and self-conscious in social situations. …These individuals do not expect socializing to be enjoyable, but in fact they do find it enjoyable once they engage in it. …Even though social situations are quite enjoyable, introverts have failed to form memory associations accurately reflecting that this is the case. Perhaps as a result, they fail to seek out these situations.”1
Here’s the thing, introverts: your brains are simply less likely to associate social interaction with reward, but you’re actually going to enjoy it once you do it. So although going to that party seems daunting and inviting a few friends to lunch feels like a chore, you’re probably going to be really happy once you get there. Not as happy as an extravert, of course, but happy enough to make it worthwhile.
Healthy interaction with others, no matter what the activity, boosts happiness for both extraverts and introverts. So bring others into what you’re doing, whether it’s a project at work, going for a bike ride or grocery shopping, you’re likely to be happier when you’re doing it with others.
Reward over Pleasure
When we think about what we really want to do to make ourselves feel good, we might think about relaxing, shopping or watching TV. These passive activities, considered “pleasurable, but not rewarding,” often act as short-term replacements when we want to feel good. However, they actually don’t bring much pleasure at all and are a poor use of time for those looking to be happier.
As mentioned, extraverts are highly sensitive to reward and acutely aware of the activities that produce reward. That might be working for financial gain, creating art, learning or exercising. They find these activities rewarding and thus, particularly “happiness-producing.” The passive activities, however, even when done in the presence of others (which would normally raise the happiness level), produced very little boost in happiness.
And the results were the same for introverts – though introverts may be more inclined to pursue these sorts of activities in search of good feelings or a sense of happiness. Although neither group found the passive pleasure activities to be particularly happiness producing, introverts were more likely to do them anyways, perhaps because they tend to be less in tune with what makes them happy.
In the end, activities like aimless shopping and watching TV are minimally rewarding and therefore, minimally happiness-boosting. Skip them in favor of something that’s actually going to make you happy and then have a friend or family member join you.
Most people groan at the thought of group projects or working in teams, but this also tends to increase the good vibes. You may simply need to accept that working socially or collaboratively is better for your happiness quotient. Introverts tend to dip a little in happiness when having to do work tasks in general, so finding work that is rewarding and that can be done with others is particularly important to them.
Research across multiple disciplines shows that there’s no joy tonic quite as effective as good old fashioned exercise. There’s no way around it as you probably can’t be truly happy or sane without it. It’s also rewarding, giving you that extra buzz of having accomplished something useful and good. And if you’re an extravert, it makes you feel like a rock star. If you want to really increase the happiness factor, add people into the mix. Both extraverts and introverts showed a rise in happiness levels when they worked out alone, but even more so when they did it with others by either participating in group fitness activities or team sports.
The secret to happiness might not be such a secret—science shows which activities and contexts tend to boost our happiness levels. For extraverts, being aware of the happy sense of reward and fulfillment they experience in these settings will pursue them naturally. The challenge lies for introverts who, although they will be happier if they do these things, may be less inclined to associate them with happiness and not as prepared to pursue them.
Oerlemans, W. G. M., & Bakker, A. B. (2014). Why extraverts are happier: A day reconstruction study. Journal of Research in Personality, 50, 11-22.
1 Oerlemans, W.G. M., & Bakker, A. B. (2014).