Why Being an Introvert May Be Better for Your Mental Health
We value extroversion in education and work, but a recent study shows alone time may have earned an unnecessarily bad rep.
Illustration by Joel Benjamin
It's official: we're worn out. Scientifically knackered. Two-thirds of adults told researchers at Durham University that they need more rest, in a global study that surveyed 18,000 people. This is hardly surprising, though, since scientists have warned that our working hours are leaving us sleep-deprived.
But, less predictably, we seem to need to be alone to fully rest. Reading and spending time alone were listed as some of the most restorative activities, topping 58 percent and 52.1 percent of the polled people's restful activity lists. Weirdly, this makes it sound as though more people might benefit from an introvert's approach to life, where you recharge by spending time on your own. Since at least half of the population are extroverts – who don't need much alone time – I wanted to figure out if pop science has it all wrong, and if it isn't just introverts who need to shut themselves off from the world now and again.
The researchers from Durham University measured the participants' personalities, and found that introverts were more likely to find doing nothing and being alone to be restful. "But even extroverts viewed these solitary activities to be far more restful than socialising with friends," says Professor Felicity Callard, who led the study. "Across the sample as a whole, more sociable activities, such as spending time with friends and family, and drinking, tended to rank lower down. This certainly suggests that time alone might have beneficial outcomes for everyone."
Sanna Balsari-Palsule, PhD student in psychology from the University of Cambridge, says we all need time to restore and re-energise, and while that might be in different ways, we're all much more similar than we might think. She sees a difference between rest and what she calls "restorative niches." While rest, as a basic human need, looks similar to all of us, restorative niches are the places, activities and states of mind that let people recharge. In her research, Balsari-Palsule discovered subtle differences in what introverts and extroverts perceive as restorative niches.
"I found that both introverts and extroverts report that having lunch with their colleagues is a restorative niche for them during a busy working day. It was only when I probed further that I found that for introverts, lunch with one colleague is restorative, while extroverts report that having lunch with three or four colleagues is restorative. Also, both introverts and extroverts listed running as a restorative niche, but it was only when I examined more closely I found that introverts listed running alone as a restorative niche, while extroverts listed running clubs."
So do extroverts need restorative time alone, too? Not necessarily, according to Balsari-Palsule. "For extroverts who already spend a large portion of their day engaged in introverted roles and having to act out of character, I would expect that seeking out time alone would be an additional strain," she says. "On the other hand, extroverts who purposefully seek out alone time may be more productive in a work setting. Time alone can translate into time away from distractions and some of the strengths associated with introversion are the abilities to be introspective and to think things through."
It's no coincidence that 34-year-old Rebecca Lynch, creator of "introjis" – so-called emojis for introverts – calls herself a "super-introvert." But she disagrees with Balsari-Palsule, and says even if extroverts have to force themselves to spend time alone, they should. "I think extreme introverts are more aware of when they need to shut off and be alone for a while, because they get physically tired around others. Extroverts can just keep going," she says. "But alone time is important for everyone; that's when we do our deepest thinking, when we make creative discoveries. I know creative extroverts who struggle with that and have to force themselves to be alone."
Extrovert and English teacher Jack Dobson, 25, sees more of a balance. "I need a lot of social contact in my life, and the idea of spending time interacting with people, whether I know them or not, doesn't phase me. That said, being an extrovert doesn't mean you can't suffer from social burnout – it merely means you can handle a lot more social activity before you reach your limit. I think we all need time for self-reflection and to do our own things. I enjoy spending time on my own and I feel it gives me clarity of thought and much-needed rest. Although, I do find too much time spent alone can make me crave social interaction, and if that isn't forthcoming, can make me feel pretty down."
Our society generally rewards extroverted behaviour more, and as you're navigating school, first jobs and university (for those who go), spending time by yourself is easily looked down on as lazy or boring, rather than important for your mental health. But according to Robert de Vries, lecturer in quantitative sociology at the University of Kent, we should act more like extroverts, not introverts.
He analysed previous studies and found that extroverts tend to be more successful, and are 25 percent more likely to have high-paying jobs. "Several of the studies we reviewed tracked people through their teenage years through to adulthood and found that people who were more extroverted as teenagers were more likely to do well in career terms as adults," he says. "Extroverted people are more confident, sociable, and assertive. It's easy to see why these qualities might help you both in terms of doing well at school and in getting on in your career."
Rather than saying we all need time alone, de Vries says it depends on the person and their circumstances. "Most of the academic research on time alone focuses on the negative side, like loneliness and a lack of social support," he said. "On the other side of the coin, there are lots of people who are overwhelmed by constant social interaction," he says.
Until the research catches up, we'd do well to try and pick the best from both worlds. So many of us are deprived of rest that we can't "have it all", but meeting somewhere in the middle seems as a good a place to start as any. We could end up better-rested and happier at work – and find it easier to say we'd rather just stay in sometimes.
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