Recently, I’ve been pondering to what extent you should follow your own path versus the path that the experts recommend. In other words, what should you do if seemingly sound advice runs counter to what you believe in your heart is right for you?
A few weeks ago, I watched a fascinating series of videos from the Human Longevity Project, which were all about how to live a longer and – more importantly – happier and healthier life. Alongside all the information you might expect about the importance of a healthy diet, staying active and getting enough sleep, there was a whole video devoted to the importance of social connection. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that loneliness is bad for our health. Published research has shown that loneliness is a risk factor for physical and mental illness (for references see this article). But if you’re an introvert, like me, a lack of social connection doesn’t necessarily equate to loneliness. Loneliness is a state of sadness or dissatisfaction that occurs when you don’t have the level of social connection that you want. But what about those of us who are happiest with little social connection, who see spending time alone as rewarding rather than depressing?
Published studies have shown that extroverts are happier than introverts. This bothers me. Being an extrovert or an introvert is just the way we are – we don’t get to choose. But, I genuinely believe that everyone has the ability to be happy given the right circumstances. So why is it that introverts have a harder time achieving happiness?
I think part of the reason is that we live in a society dominated by extroverts – a society molded to the needs of extroverts. So being an introvert means that we constantly feel as if we don’t quite fit. We feel we are being judged for who we are. All of us, even introverts, need to feel as if we belong, we need to feel accepted. But our society doesn’t quite accept us. And so it’s easy to wonder whether we should change, whether we should make more of an effort to fit in. During my last course of CBT, my counsellor tried to encourage me to socialize more. I think she honestly believed it would be good for me. But I find socializing exhausting. I do have a few friends. I do go out occasionally. And I feel I have the right balance in my life. To socialize more than I do would be stressful for me, even though the majority of people would thrive on it.
Which brings me back to the question that has been bothering me. If being sociable is good for our health, should an introvert like me who doesn’t enjoy it, but who wants to live a long healthy happy life, make an effort to be more sociable? I haven’t been able to find any published studies that have looked at the effect of socializing on the wellbeing of introverts in particular. So, I’m forced to go with my gut feeling. And that tells me that stress is a far greater predictor of poor mental and physical health than is loneliness. For extroverts, those two things can be one and the same. For an extrovert it would be very stressful to spend too much time alone. But for us introverts, it’s the socializing that’s stressful. And I don’t think we should push ourselves to do any more of it than we feel comfortable with.
The spectrum between introversion and extroversion is just that – a spectrum. Very few of us fall at one end or the other. We are all somewhere in between. So the level of being sociable that is “too much” is different for each of us, just as the level of loneliness we can cope with before we become stressed is different for each of us too. We all have to find our own level, and make sure we build a social network that supports our own individual optimum level of social connection. We shouldn’t listen to the experts who make blanket pronouncements that a busy social life is good for us. We should each decide for ourselves what is right for us. We should be true to ourselves, because the stress of trying to do otherwise is certainly going to harm us.