When Does Socializing Make You Happier?


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 or 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 how my father would 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 lamp-lit livingroom. 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!)



  1. Timaree (freebird) on 07.02.2011 at 18:56 (Reply)

    Found your blog via another blog. I am a great grocery store conversationalist. Talking with my sister, we were saying it’s funny but that is enough for us most days. Now I see we aren’t alone! I took your introvert test and got almost all T’s. I already knew that I was an introvert but didn’t think I was that much of one. I love to converse via blogging and yahoo groups. I didn’t see that on your list but we do have real conversations this way also.

  2. Susan on 07.02.2011 at 19:35 (Reply)

    That’s a great point! I actually talk in my book about the prevalence of introverts in social media, but forgot to mention it here. Thanks! (Do you have a blog, too?)

  3. chel on 07.02.2011 at 22:53 (Reply)

    Thank you so much for this entry and this blog- after years of thinking I was somehow broken for not enjoying socializing more, finding out I was an introvert was a tremendous relief.

    I keep thinking if I don’t follow the “recommended” amounts of socialization, I’m going to suffer ill health effects (EVERY magazine and doctor recommends active socialization to maintain both physical and mental well-being). It’s good to know that it’s actually the other way around- the more time I spend trying to make myself be comfortable in huge group gatherings and getting upset with myself that I’m just *not*, the worse off I will be.

    1. Emily on 10.01.2012 at 12:20 (Reply)

      Chil, I just visited your blog. I think you are just one of a kind.(in a good way) Most creative creatures find it hard to find someone to connect with

  4. Helen Palmer on 08.02.2011 at 03:57 (Reply)

    What a lovely post adn really struck an introverted chord with me. I was the typical child bookworm, who would always choose reading over any other activity, inc. playing with others. It took me a long time to realise that I was okay. As an adult, I have learnt (and learnt to enjoy) networking socialising, but more importantly, know my limits. I remind myself that introverts gain energy and strength by time spent alone, and that extroverts gain energy and strength by time spent with others!
    Found you via Gretchen Rubin and look forward to reading more of your posts!

  5. Helen Palmer on 08.02.2011 at 04:21 (Reply)

    PS have just blogged on this and linked to you!

  6. Luna on 08.02.2011 at 07:39 (Reply)

    Funny all the special occasions (Christmas unhinges me with all the flurry of forced visits and activity!) that derail me because of having to socialize with people and make small boring, chit,chat. Weddings mystify me. Why anyone would want all those people at such a private ceremony escapes me, then there are showers and all the uncomfortable games that are played so you ‘get to know each other’. Honestly I just want to crawl out of my skin when I’m forced to attend. I am slowly beginning to see that it is not because I am socially inept, in fact I am often amazed at the rude and supposedly funny things that drop out of the mouths of extroverts it is just I prefer to be in a quieter space. Thankfully my husband and child are both the same!

  7. Noel on 08.02.2011 at 12:21 (Reply)

    Thanks so much for this blog! It helps to know that there are others out there like me.

  8. Karen H. Phillips on 08.02.2011 at 12:30 (Reply)

    Thanks to Gretchen Ruben, I found this post, expressing something I’ve always understood as an essential difference between my husband and me. We have managed quite well to work out the balance of each of our needs for stimulation and quiet over the years. However, no one’s ever expressed this “out loud,” so I was never sure whether anyone else felt as we did about how introverts married to extroverts meet each other’s needs for the opposite activities. Appreciate your forthrightness and the intriguing research, Susan.

  9. Tweets that mention When Does Socializing Make You Happier? -- Topsy.com on 08.02.2011 at 16:25

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  10. Tricia Rose on 09.02.2011 at 11:06 (Reply)

    I work from home now (bliss!), and get all the socializing I need from walking my neighbour’s dog. I usually meet about half a dozen people, one at a time. Perfect - and when I DO go to an event, I can enjoy it because I haven’t exhausted my reserves.
    while I work I am often in the ‘flow’, and end my day refreshed rather than otherwise. It has taken many years, but at last I have balance, because I changed my work (and I’m nicer to know).

  11. Introvert, Extrovert and Ambivert, Oh My | Creating Moments in Time on 13.02.2011 at 21:16

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  14. Gavin on 04.03.2011 at 10:42 (Reply)

    I am a Professional Wedding Photographer and an introvert. What Luna said was so true. Introverts have serious need for quality sincere small talk. I inevitably get stuck next to a talkative extrovert at the wedding at spend the next 4 hours dodging personal questions. Its a very stressful time at EVERY wedding. I love people but wish in a way that I could just observe and not get involved as much.

    I have shot over 300 weddings in 15 years so you can imagine the amount of stress that has built up. I completely burnt out in 2007 and have slowly regained my momentum but I still find that even interviewing couples is very stressful.

    Only recently with some research have I discovered my introverted ways and its such a relief to know that I’m not alone.

    I’m the kind of person who does not hide their emotions well and have had a few weddings where the couple can see I have had enough. My work ethic and drive is what keep me going…and strong coffee seems to work too LOL.

    I tell my wife that my dream photography job would be to be locked in a studio for 2 weeks alone just shooting. It sounds excessive but after the buz of a wedding I get very aggressive and frustrated, its all these extroverts sapping my energy !

    Extroverts don’t realize how much energy it takes just to make small talk.

    thanks for the great blog post

  15. Crafty Green Poet (Juliet Wilson) on 19.04.2011 at 15:08 (Reply)

    this is so true for me, I can talk for hours if I’m with someone I feel close to and if we’re talking about something meaningful (and that doesn’t need to be a deeply serious issue, but something that both of us care about) but put me in a crowd situation, specially if I don’t know anyone well and I really clam up and tend to hide in a corner

  16. Air Jordan XX3 on 05.05.2011 at 11:18 (Reply)

    Someone I piece with visits your blog quite again and recommended it to me to comprehend too. The letters elegance is brobdingnagian and the content is interesting. Thanks suitable the percipience you provide the readers!

    1. Susan Cain on 05.05.2011 at 11:50 (Reply)

      You’re very welcome!

  17. Danielle Gauthier on 07.05.2011 at 17:08 (Reply)

    Nothing loosens up my lips faster than crossing the path of a dog owner taking his pooch for a walk.

  18. Jen Justice on 09.07.2011 at 10:17 (Reply)

    Thank you for this reminder about the benefits of “flow.” I think this is why I keep thinking about writing. The reason I don’t write is because it does take effort and energy, and I forget that the benefits outweigh the costs. I was reading about how flow is a matching of high skill level with high challenge level… So it seems to be finding something you’re good at, that you feel skilled at and enjoy doing and challenging yourself at it appropriately. That’s how your whole self gets engaged and pulled into the stream of whatever it is you’re doing. Writing has done this for me in the past… Right now I’m just having trouble of figuring out what sort of writing to do.

  19. happyinnie on 09.08.2011 at 20:51 (Reply)

    I love being an innie. I am perfectly comfortable being alone or having no social plans whatever. It took me a long time to come to terms with it, as extroversion is so frequently touted as a virtue. I am a more social introvert than most and love a good party, as long as it doesn’t revolve around small talk. A fun night of playing board games or dancing is a good time to me. Rarely do I want to leave early and often forget what time it is.

  20. Danielle on 09.08.2011 at 21:16 (Reply)

    Now board games I can get into. Most are played with 4 or 5 at a time, so that’s just a good number of people to make it fun while not overwhelming. It’s been ages since I’ve played one. Miss that!

  21. Seema on 11.07.2012 at 01:16 (Reply)

    I just joined a really exclusive country club because i really think it is about time i get some friends and all my mommy friends are in it and i actually like a few of them. So we joined and today we chatted and i swear i feel like i am going to be awake all night having conversation flashbacks. It was a brief, joyful conversation which i cut off first (power move, i know, sorry, old habit) and we left.
    Are you sayng i should give up all my attempts at faking extroversion… I think i am actually really good at it now. It will definitively cause heart disease? Arent i supoosed to teach my kids how to be extoverted by example? They have two social parents with introverted tendencies who would be happy to work 24/7 but thats no way to raise a social kid and social is good for everything, right? Do we need friends or am i just pouring cash down the drain by joinng this country club? Thnx. Xx

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  23. Twosacrowd on 06.03.2013 at 18:02 (Reply)

    I’m not buying it. Maybe statistically there’s some validity to the study, but people are NOT statistics. I’m obviously at one end of the scale where if I never have to talk (or listen to) another human being for the rest of my life, it’ll be just fine with me. Reading fiction? Parties? Innane checkout line conversations? No way, I get NOTHING from them. Sure, I’m “polite” spoken to, but that’s being disingenuous, which really bothers me because I like to think of myself as honest/sincere, but social norms dictate that I be “nice” rather than bluntly telling everyone who comes up to socialize with me to get lost. Now THAT would make me happy, as it would be so liberating. I keep hoping NASA will seek volunteers for a one-way trip to Mars so I can get the heck off this crowded rock.

  24. Audrey on 25.03.2013 at 06:08 (Reply)

    Thanks for this, I was at a loss in a Gerontology assessment & you’ve gotten me out of a pickle.

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