Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo recently gave a talk on the topic of loneliness for the Zócalo Public Square Lecture Series. Cacioppo was interviewed here on Neuronarrative not long ago about his research and had several interesting things to say, especially about the physiological effects of loneliness. In this lecture (a five-minute clip of which is provided below) Cacioppo discusses whether people in individualist or collectivist cultures are more prone to loneliness, why we feel lonelier during the holidays, and whether introverts are lonelier than extroverts.
On that last topic — Cacioppo says that during his research he expected to find physiological differences between introverts and extroverts, but he didn’t. Rather, the big difference between them is how many social contacts they need. An introvert may only need one, or a handful, to not feel lonely, while an extrovert may need many more.
His remarks on introversion-extroversion reminded me of a study, conducted a few years back, about the relative happiness of introverts and extroverts. Extroverts reported higher levels of sociability than introverts, and sustained social relationships are generally considered a self-evident source of happiness. But, a substantial minority of the study subjects were classified as ‘happy introverts’ despite having fewer social contacts — and when the happy extroverts were compared with the happy introverts, no real differences could be found. Quoting from the study:
In terms of preference for solitude, relations with friends, and taking part in potentially introspective activities, the behaviors of happy introverts and happy extroverts were virtually identical.
The conclusion: introversion and extroversion are not variables that predict levels of happiness, but rather “mediate the ways individuals choose to achieve their own happiness.” Coming back to Cacioppo’s research — introverts and extroverts differ in how they choose to make social connections, be they many or few, but at the end of the day they reach the same place with respect to how lonely they feel. This is mainly a vindication of introversion, since many people (mostly extroverts) believe that it’s a beeline route to more loneliness and less happiness. Not so.
You can watch the complete 50-minute lecture here.
Here’s a link to a terrific and very funny article by Jonathan Rauch from The Atlantic a couple years ago entitled, “Caring for Your Introvert”.