As an introvert, I’ve lost count of how many times my quiet nature has been pointed out to me in the same manner you would call attention to someone who has lettuce stuck in their teeth, toilet paper attached to their shoe, or a giant purple octopus clinging to their head.
“Why are you so quiet?” they ask. In other words, “You might want to do something about that… It’s embarrassing.”
Newsflash: We’re introverts, and we know.
Being asked this question is probably one of my biggest pet peeves. I know being a quiet introvert isn’t a bad thing at all. Still, anytime someone points it out, I get anxious and feel judged. It triggers a chain reaction in my mind, making me doubt myself. I start feeling like there’s something wrong with me — that somehow I’m not “good enough.”
I recognize that most people are probably asking this question because they feel uncomfortable. Many people can’t stand silence. Empty air is something that is unfamiliar and even unwelcome for them, so they immediately seek to fill it with something, anything. So they try badgering words out of us: “You’re being awfully quiet. Say something.”
Why This Question Annoys Introverts
To explain why this question annoys introverts, let me share with you something that happened to me a couple of years ago.
I was a graduate student majoring in psychology, and I was sitting in a class with other would-be therapists. The conversation was flowing, and I was quietly listening and processing. Then, out of nowhere, someone piped up and addressed me: “Why are you so quiet? You never talk.”
I sat there, stunned, horrified, and embarrassed for being placed under the glaring spotlight of the class. Then, to my complete dismay, everyone else started chiming in about how quiet I was. When I answered that I’m usually just listening and trying to absorb all the information, they started making excuses for me. “It’s okay that you’re a little shy,” one woman said. “I guess we’re just not that interesting!” another student teased.
Sound familiar? My classmates didn’t understand, and they didn’t try to. They didn’t know what I’m about to tell you. The “why are you so quiet” question annoys introverts so much because most of the time, we’re already feeling a little self-conscious in a group — especially when it’s people we don’t know well. Drawing attention to our quiet ways just makes it worse.
But, more importantly, it implies that choosing your words carefully is a bad thing. It’s a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of introversion.
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As introverts, we’ll speak when we’re ready and comfortable, so telling us we’re quiet is like telling someone the sky is blue: You’re pointing out the obvious, and you’re not likely to get the response you want.
And in that particular class, there was an additional reason that I was often quiet. Sure, sometimes it was because I felt tired or was daydreaming. I wasn’t lying when I told my classmates I was usually just listening and trying to process.
But sometimes, my quietness has to do with the people around me. I might seem quiet, but it’s because their energy is so loud that it overwhelms me! I have no trouble opening up around people who listen thoughtfully and authentically seem to care about what I have to say.
Why Quiet Is a Beautiful Thing
Many introverts hear these uncomfortable comments on a regular basis. I know I do. But, my quiet tribe, I want to tell you that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. Being quiet can be a thing of beauty. Here are six reasons why; I hope you remind yourself of these the next time someone makes you feel “less than” for your quietness.
1. Quiet people really know how to listen.
How many times have you found yourself in the midst of a conversation with a colleague, friend, or partner, only to look over and notice a glazed look in their eyes? They’re not really listening. In a world that hardly ever stops talking, it’s rare to find someone who can listen with a quiet intensity to every word you speak. Enter, quiet people.
2. We speak with purpose.
Because we don’t speak often, when we do, it’s going to be after giving it some thought. This doesn’t mean that we always overthink, but it does mean we tend to be more careful with our words. Anytime a quiet person talks, especially in a group or around people they don’t know well, there’s most likely a purpose — which means we’re not just going to say the first thing that comes to mind. This is good, because sometimes the first thing that comes to mind isn’t necessarily the right or best thing to say out loud.
3. Just because we’re quiet doesn’t mean we don’t have leadership skills.
Many quiet people are able to take charge when necessary. According to Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader, quiet people can actually make better leaders because of their ability to look beyond the surface level. Similarly, the CEO Genome Project found that over half of the CEOs who did better than expected in the minds of directors and investors were actually introverts, not gregarious extroverts, as one might expect.
Indeed, roughly 40 percent of leaders describe themselves as introverted — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Charles Schwab are just a few. Introverted leaders learn by listening, are prudent, demonstrate humility, manage uncertainty, and leverage their quiet nature. Clearly, the myth that introverts are less effective leaders than their extroverted brethren is just that.
4. We see things that escape others.
Quiet people tend to be very observant. Sure, sometimes we zone out and daydream, but other times, we notice things that others miss. This can even happen in a conversation with a large group of people. Because a quiet person is listening rather than talking, we’re more likely to pick up on bits of conversation or verbal cues that might escape others.
5. We tend to be easygoing.
Quiet introverts are often perceived as calm and easy to hang out with. In other words, we’re chill. We don’t usually make a fuss about where we’re going, and we allow others to vent their hearts out because we’d rather listen than be the ones talking… as long as what they’re saying is worth listening to.
6. We know ourselves well.
Those of us who talk less out loud have a tendency to talk more with ourselves internally. This builds a healthy friendship with ourselves. It’s easy for anybody to lose themselves when they’re constantly surrounded by other people. Being quiet helps you listen to your own inner voice.
Sometimes it seems like being outgoing is better. But think of this: Could you imagine if everyone was a talker? The world needs quiet people — be proud that you’re one of them.
You might like:
- If You Relate to These 21 Signs, You’re Probably an Introvert
- 6 Things Your Office Introvert Does That Might Seem Rude, But Aren’t
- Here’s What Makes Each Introverted Myers-Briggs Personality Type Angry
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People who can be reserved often get frustrated when someone blurts out, “Why are you so quiet?” in the middle of a conversation. They get particularly annoyed if the person calls them quiet in a “funny” way, like, “Whoa, I can’t hear myself think over all the noise Mark is making” or, “Oh my God, you said something! I didn’t know you could talk!”
If they wish they could be more talkative, but are too shy to say more, getting called quiet makes them feel embarrassed and exposed. If they don’t think there’s anything wrong with hanging back, having attention drawn to their quietness makes them feel misunderstood. Either way, they often feel like they have to come up with a clever answer to justify and explain their quietness, ideally while also subtly putting the commenter in their place. So what is the best way to respond?
There’s no perfect response that will fix everything
Sorry if that’s not the easy, satisfying answer you were hoping for. If someone’s pointed out you’re too quiet they’ve already formed a certain impression of you. Like they may have been in a group conversation with you for half an hour and noticed you haven’t said much the entire time. In my experience there’s nothing you can say that will instantly reverse their opinion of you. If you care about how they see you, you might be able to act differently and change their view in the long run, but in the moment accept they’ve already decided you’re untalkative and you’re probably not going to wave that aside with a few sentences.
Two responses that don’t work as well
The first is to try too hard to explain yourself, e.g., “Uh uh, well I prefer to listen. and everyone is talking about a topic I can’t contribute to. and I’m a little tired. but I’m not normally like this, I swear!” That tends to make you look unconfident. The second is to make a more cutting comeback such as, “Why am I so quiet? Why are you so loud?” or, “Why? Does that make you nervous?” Quiet types mostly fantasize about giving this type of reply, but if they actually say one it mainly just makes them look touchy and bitter.
The best way to respond is to be comfortable with your quietness, acknowledge it, and quickly move on
Basically you want to politely, casually brush the comment off. If you want you can briefly explain why you’re being quiet, but the point isn’t to justify your behavior. It’s just to give some sort of response, so you can proceed to another topic.
With this approach it’s all about the non-verbal communication. You should act as if you’re confident and comfortable with the fact that you can be quiet sometimes. You should give off a vibe that it’s okay for people not to talk all the time and the “Why are you so quiet?” remark wasn’t a valid thing to bring up (again, do all this in a friendly, low key way).
“Wow, you’re so quiet!”
- “Eh, I’m like that sometimes.”
- (Not saying anything, and just shrugging or nodding)
- “I’m just listening right now.”
- “Ah, I don’t really know about this topic, but you guys seem into it.”
- (If they ask if something is wrong) “Nah, I’m fine.”
- (If they’re concerned because there are some silences in the group while everyone sits around a campfire) “Ha ha, don’t worry about it. Not everyone has to be chatting the entire time.”
- (If you’re fine being open about it) “Yeah, I can be shy around new people until I warm up a bit”
Once more, none of these are meant to be clever retorts that will change the commenter’s opinion of you or subtly get back at them. It’s more that if you’ve already been called quiet, and the “damage” is done, you may as well give a short reply that will move things along as quickly as possible.
Calling someone quiet is a bit of a social faux pas
As you know, people often feel irritated, put on the spot, and insecure when they’re called quiet. Anything that makes someone feel that way obviously isn’t good form, which means that when a person points out you’re being quiet, they’re the one making a social mistake. Hopefully that knowledge will help you feel more self-assured and like you’re on the right side when you apply the ideas above. It’s okay to affably blow off their observation, since they were being a little inappropriate by even bringing it up.
If you get called quiet in a situation where it’s fine to be that way, you can nicely educate them about it
People tend to get called quiet in two contexts. The first is in group discussions where they aren’t contributing much. The second is in one-on-one or group situations where people often talk, but they don’t always have to, like during car or bus trips, or if two or more friends are hanging out and watching a movie at home. If someone tells you you’re quiet and it’s the second case, you’re justified if you want to politely point out you’re not doing anything wrong; “Ha ha, dude, people don’t have the talk the entire time on road trips. I’m just listening to the radio and looking at the scenery.”
People’s motivations when they call someone quiet
When people point out that you’re quiet they usually don’t mean anything malicious by it, even if they are blurting out their thoughts in an insensitive way.
- They may simply find your quietness curious. They may have no problem adding to conversations themselves and have a hard time understanding why someone else could be different.
- They may be insecure and think if you aren’t talking it means you don’t like them. When they say you’re being quiet it’s more about them than you. They’re looking for reassurance.
- They may be a little too talkative, and get uncomfortable if everyone isn’t chatting constantly. Again, it’s more about them than anything you’re doing wrong.
- They may think you’re angry or upset if you’re not saying much, and think they’re helping you talk about it by mentioning you’re quiet.
At times their motivation for telling you you’re quiet isn’t as innocuous. They may have made the common mistake of assuming you’re not saying a lot because you’re snobby and aloof. When people believe this about someone they often focus on the person’s outer behavior of not speaking much, and don’t consider how the broader context may make it hard for them to speak up. For example, if someone goes to a party and sits down with a giant group of old buddies who ignore them and talk with each other through in-jokes, the situation is stacked against them adding much to that conversation. Overall, it can be tiring when people say dumb things and don’t “get” you, but it’s an annoyance we all have to put up with.
Last Updated: March 31, 2021
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Being a talkative person is okay, but actively listening to others is also important. Some situations, such as school and work meetings, may require you to be quiet for long periods of time. Being quieter can help you dramatically improve your relationships because you’re able to show how much you really value what they have to say. You can start being a quiet person by working on your demeanor and changing the way you participate in conversations. You can also make a few changes to your lifestyle to live a quieter life.
Licensed Social Worker
Your words can make more of an impact when you choose them carefully. Klare Heston, a social worker, says, “Instead of filling up the air with many words, choose your words carefully when you feel you have something to contribute. You don’t have to be the center of the group to have confidence. In fact, sometimes it is just the opposite!”
How much talking do you do on an average day, and how much listening? I mean real listening, where you focus on what the other person is saying and take it in, instead of planning the brilliant thing you’ll say the moment the other person finishes speaking?
If you’re like most of us, the answer is: Not enough. Most people tend to treat conversation like a competitive sport, in which the person who says the most, makes the cleverest point, persuades others of an opinion, or even speaks the longest and loudest is the winner. All of us fall into this trap. All of us find ourselves interrupting, speechifying, insisting, and coming up with witticisms–all to support our point of view or display our superior knowledge.
If you stop and think about it, though, this approach is the opposite of the one we should take. In most conversations, the person who speaks least benefits most and the person who speaks most benefits least.
1. Knowledge is power.
In fact, in our information-driven world, how much you know makes more difference to your long-term success than how much money you have or almost anything else. A person who’s talking is giving away information–often more than he or she intended. A person who’s listening is receiving information. Who gets the best deal in that exchange?
2. You won’t reveal anything you’ll later regret.
If you don’t share a piece of information today, you can always share it tomorrow. Conversely, if you do share a piece of information today, you can never take it back again.
How many times have you revealed something and then later wished that you hadn’t? Or expressed a thought you might better have kept to yourself? We’ve all had these experiences one time or another. The less you say, the smaller the chances you’ll share information and later wish you hadn’t.
3. You won’t say anything dumb.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” I’m not suggesting you remain silent all the time. But it’s all too easy to speak thoughtlessly, with insufficient information, or out of a wrong assumption. That can make you look less intelligent than you are, and you will minimize the chances of it happening if you listen more than you speak.
4. You won’t use up your material.
Have you ever tuned in to an interview or attended a webinar by your favorite business guru, only to hear that guru tell the audience a story that you’ve already read in his or her latest book? It happens all the time, and for a simple reason: Most of us have a limited supply of interesting personal anecdotes, experiences, and pearls of wisdom. Inevitably, we wind up using the same ones over and over.
Stories feel freshest and have the most impact when someone is hearing them for the first time. By saving yours for the right moment, you give them the most power.
5. The person who’s doing the talking will feel understood and cared about.
Most people go through life wishing to be listened to more. So by listening rather than talking, you are giving something valuable to the person who’s speaking. Especially if you really are taking in what that person is saying and not thinking about something else. The speaker will appreciate that gift and you will have created a bond. He or she will feel understood and validated. It’s a powerful relationship-building tool, and an especially powerful sales tool.
6. You may gain inside information.
As someone who’s done thousands of interviews, I can attest to the power of saying nothing. I sometimes use it by accident, when a source finishes answering a question and I’m caught off-guard for a moment or two before coming up with my next question. Very often, the other person will jump in to fill the silence with further information–sometimes something he or she had not planned to share.
You may or may not want to use this manipulative tactic on purpose. But it’s almost always true that the less you say, the more information the person you’re speaking with will share.
7. When you do speak, people will listen.
Who do you listen to more closely–someone who never shuts up, or someone who only speaks once in a while? As with anything else, the law of supply and demand holds true: If you constantly share your opinions, no one will seek them out. If you only say what you’re thinking on occasion, or only make a point one time instead of over and over, your words are likely to have more weight.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you always keep your opinions to yourself. The people around you need to know what you’re thinking, doubly so if you’re in a leadership role. But if you spend more time listening than you do speaking, so that the people you’re speaking to feel understood and bonded with you, when you do speak your mind, they’ll be listening much more closely.
Do you know someone who never seems to have much to say? According to one article we read, Quiet People are everywhere, from theвЂ¦
Do you know someone who never seems to have much to say? According to one article we read, Quiet People are everywhere, from the kid taking notes in class to the party guest standing in the corner. Of course, loud people get a lot of attention – you can’t help but pay attention to the loudest person in the room. However, quiet people are often pegged as shy, uninteresting – maybe even not that bright. That’s not the case. In fact, a lot of them are very bright, and very famous, like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In the past five years, he hasnвЂ™t spoke up once during oral arguments. No other justice has been totally silent for one year вЂ“ let alone five. According to White House history, a young woman was sitting next to our quietest president, Calvin Coolidge at a dinner party. She told him sheвЂ™d bet she could get at least three words of conversation out of him, and without even looking at her, he reportedly said, вЂњYou lose.вЂќ
Experts say that being quiet is not the same as being shy or a loner. Nicholas Christenfield is a psychology professor at University of California, San Diego. He says that unlike shy people, quiet people are very sociable, and often have lots of friends. They donвЂ™t stay quiet because theyвЂ™re afraid to speak up. They just donвЂ™t want to waste time saying anything that isnвЂ™t worth saying. Since talk encourages more talk, they choose to stay silent, instead of having meaningless conversations.
Being quiet can be powerful. When youвЂ™re silent, other people feel uncomfortable. They often feel compelled to fill the silence, so they reveal more about themselves. ItвЂ™s actually a tactic that law enforcement uses to get people to confess. Bottom line: Quiet People are the really good listeners of the world. When a Quiet Person speaks, itвЂ™s usually a well-thought-out, high-quality comment or opinion. So, youвЂ™d be smart to listen.
By Liz Fosslien and Mollie West
This is an excerpt from No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions At Work , by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy
“I’ll go if I don’t have to talk,” says Elaine when Jerry asks her to join him for coffee on Seinfeld . Some of us need more quiet time than others. If you prefer one-on-one conversation to group discussion, want to think things through before acting, and feel drained after office happy hours, you’re probably an introvert. If none of that makes sense to you, you’re an extrovert.
Introverts and extroverts have different needs. Extroverts tend to react to social interactions more quickly. Introverts have a higher base rate of arousal: put an introvert in a crowded, noisy room and he’ll quickly become overwhelmed. This might explain why introverts perform best in quiet environments while extroverts do better when it’s noisy.
It’s not immediately obvious whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert, especially when you’re just getting to know each other. In the workplace, introverts often try to mask their introverted qualities to fit in. But without talking openly about differences, extroverts and introverts drive each other nuts. Introverts are more sensitive to external stimuli (an introvert will salivate more at the taste of lemon juice than an extrovert, as Susan Cain explained in Quiet ) and need quiet time to recharge. When introverts turn down lunch invitations or start to shut down after back-to-back meetings, it can be hard for extroverts to swallow.
How to better communicate:
Tips for introverts:
- Let people know when you need space. Start by saying something like, “I enjoy working and talking with you.” Then explain you work best when you have quiet time by yourself. Expect to make some concessions; you do still have to work with others.
- Avoid sending extroverts excessively long e-mails. Extroverts, who often prefer to discuss issues or ideas in person, might only skim through the first paragraphs.
- Prepare for meetings in order to feel more comfortable speaking up and then try to chime in during the first ten minutes. Once you’ve broken the ice it will be easier to jump in again. And remember, a good question can contribute just as much as an opinion or statistic.
Tips for extroverts:
- Send out agendas before meetings to give introverts a chance to prepare their thoughts. Giving everyone a chance to review the agenda will help facilitate equitable discussion. For example, email a prompt to the group ahead of a meeting and then start by going around the table and having each person share their thoughts one-by-one.
- Don’t rush to fill in pauses, and let introverts finish speaking before you chime in.
- Suggest breaking into duos or small groups to discuss ideas and then report back to the larger team.
- And our biggest pieces of advice: give an time introvert time to come out of his shell and don’t stop extending invitations!
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a healthcare journalist and fact checker. She has co-authored two books for the popular Dummies Series (as Shereen Jegtvig).
People don’t outgrow introversion, so the introverted adult was once an introverted child. What is true of one is true of both. Contrary to popular opinion, introverts are not asocial, nor are they friendless loners who lack social skills. They simply have different social needs and preferences.
It is not easy for introverts to make new friends because getting to know someone takes so much energy. However, introverts don’t need a wide circle of friends.
They prefer one or two close friends, even though they may know many people and have a large number of acquaintances. In spite of this preference, introverts are frequently criticized for not making an effort to make more friends and are often seen to be lacking social skills.
Introverts need a lot of personal space. They like being in a room alone with the door closed and those who don’t understand introverts believe this desire to be alone is a sign of depression. However, for introverts this behavior is normal; it is not a sign of withdrawing from life. Being around others is tiring for them so they need time alone in order to regain some of their energy.
Being alone also gives them a chance to think and figure things out uninterrupted. Introverts don’t enjoy large parties and if they have to attend one, prefer to spend their time with just one or two others, talking about what they all know a lot about. Introverted children may prefer to play on the side with one or two other children.
Introverts enjoy activities they can do alone or with just a few others. It’s not surprising, then, that so many introverted gifted children love to read. They also tend to prefer activities that allow for creative expressions, like creative writing, music, and art. Introverted children also enjoy a quiet and imaginative play.
When presented with an opportunity to participate in a group activity or game, introverts prefer to hang back and watch before they join in. Many people see this as shyness, but it’s not. They feel more comfortable with situations that are familiar to them and they are simply trying to become familiar with the activity before they join in.
Introverts tend to be quiet and subdued. They dislike being the center of attention, even if the attention is positive. It’s not surprising, then, that introverts don’t brag about their achievements or knowledge. In fact, they may know more than they’ll admit.
It may be the introverted gifted children who are more at risk for “dumbing down” since they would be more likely to want to hide their abilities. When introverts are tired, in a large group, or if too much is going on, they may show little animation, with little facial expression or body movement.
Introverts tend to have two distinct personalities: a private one and a public one, which is why they can be talkative in comfortable settings, like home, and quiet elsewhere.
While introverts may appear to lack social skills or be antisocial, neither is true. Their style of social interaction is simply different from that of extroverts. They tend to listen more than they talk and are excellent listeners. They are attentive and will make eye contact with the person they are listening to and rarely interrupt.
When they do talk, introverts tend to say what they mean and may look away from the person they’re talking to. They dislike small talk and would rather say nothing than something they feel is insignificant. Although introverts are quiet, they will talk incessantly if they’re interested in the topic. They also dislike being interrupted when they talk, or when they’re working on some project.
If given a choice, introverts would rather express their ideas in writing than in speech. When they do speak, they need time to think before answering a question. Sometimes they even feel the need to mentally rehearse what they want to say before they say it.
The need to think before speaking often results in the introvert being slow to respond to questions or comments. When they talk, they may also pause quite often and even have problems finding the right word.
Emotions and Emotional Responses
Introverts become emotionally drained after spending time with others, particularly strangers. They don’t like crowded places and introverted children can even become grouchy and irritable if they’ve been around too many people for too long. Even when introverts enjoyed a party or activity, they can feel drained afterward.
Parents often sign their introverted children up for numerous activities to help them improve their social skills, but an activity-filled schedule is overwhelming for these children. Introverts are also rather territorial.
They dislike sharing space with others for too long and may find house guests intrusive. Introverts also have a hard time sharing their feelings and feel deeply embarrassed by public mistakes.
Other Traits and Preferences
Introverts can concentrate intensely on a book or project for a long time if they find it interesting and like to explore subjects deeply and thoroughly. That may be why introverts don’t like to be bothered when they are reading or working on a project. Introverts are highly aware of their inner world of perceptions, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and feelings.
They are also highly aware of their surroundings, noticing details that others don’t see. However, they are not quick to discuss their thoughts or observations. They may, for example, wait days or weeks to talk about events. Introverts also favor consistency over change and cope with change best when they know ahead of time what to expect and have enough time to prepare for it.
By Susan Cain
You’re standing at the checkout line at the grocery store, pondering tomorrow’s to-do list. The cashier greets you with a grin. You’re not in the mood to chit-chat, but out of politeness you do anyway—and feel curiously happy afterwards. A big smile plays across your face as you leave the store.
What just happened?
A famous study answers this question. Researcher William Fleeson and his colleagues tracked a group of people, every three hours for two weeks, recording how they’d been acting and feeling during each chunk of time. They found that those who’d acted “talkative” and “assertive”—even if they were introverts—were more likely to report feeling positive emotions such as excitement and enthusiasm.
Everyone feels happier when they socialize, concluded the researchers—introverts included.
So should introverts force themselves to attend parties even when they’d rather stay home and read? That’s what people often take these findings to mean.
But this is too glib an interpretation. Here’s why.
Sure, socializing makes us feel good. Sometimes it’s worth it to push ourselves. We’re all social animals; on some level, love really is all you need.
But if the spike of happiness introverts get following that nice exchange with the grocery clerk is real, so are the feelings of exhaustion and over-stimulation that come with too much socializing. Tolerance for stimulation is one of the biggest differences between introverts and extroverts. Extroverts simply need more stimulation—social and otherwise—than introverts do. Research suggests that acting falsely extroverted can lead to stress, burnout, and cardiovascular disease.
All of this seems to leave introverts in a tight spot: socializing makes us happy—but also over-stimulated and even anxious. This inner conflict sounds like a huge pain—a reason to curse the gods for having made you an introvert.
But it can also be a great gift.
Many introverts find ways to spend their time that are deeply fulfilling—and socially connected—but where there is no conflict. Here are five of these ways:
1. Read: Marcel Proust once said that reading is “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” Books transcend time and place. They don’t even require reader and writer to be alive at the same time. Studies also suggest that reading fiction increases empathy and social skills.
2. Enter a state of “flow” by doing work or a hobby that you love. Flow is the transcendent state of being, identified by influential psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You’re in flow when you feel totally engaged in an activity—whether long-distance swimming, song-writing, or ocean sailing. In a state of flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your own adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing. In flow, says Csikszentmihalyi, “a person could work around the clock for days on end, for no better reason than to keep on working.”
Flow is my three-year old playing with his trucks, sometimes accompanied by his best friend, sometimes not—time seems to float by as he lies contentedly on his stomach, watching the wheels go ‘round. Flow is my 80-year-old father, a medical school professor, sitting at his desk for hours reading medical journals. When I was a kid and saw my father come home from a long day at work only to crack open those forbidding-looking papers, I worried that he worked too hard. Now I know that he was spending time the way he loved.
People in flow don’t tend to wear the broad smiles of enthusiasm that Fleeson’s research focused on. When you watch them in action, the words “joy” and “excitement” don’t come to mind. But the words “engagement,” “absorption,” and “curiosity” do.
3. Keep an informal quota system of how many times per week/month/year you plan to go out to social events—and how often you get to stay home. This way, you don’t feel guilty about declining those party invitations. When you do go out, hopefully you’ll have a good time and make a new friend you wouldn’t have met in your lamplit living room. The right party can be a delicious experience. But when you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re less likely to drive yourself crazy thinking you should’ve stayed in. Your night was what it was, and that’s fine.
4. Have meaningful conversations. Pleasant chit-chat with the grocery clerk notwithstanding, research suggests that the happiest people have twice as many substantive conversations, and engage in much less small talk, than the unhappiest. (The researchers were surprised by their findings, but if you’re an introvert, you’re probably not!)
5. Shower time and affection on people you know and love — people whose company is so dear and comfortable that you feel neither over-stimulated nor anxious in their presence. If you don’t cast your social net too wide, you’re more likely to cast it deep—which your friends and family will appreciate.
Yes, love is all you need. But love takes many forms.
(Thanks to my friend Gretchen Rubin of the inspiring blog “The Happiness Project” for urging me to focus on the paradox of Fleeson’s research!)