Having fewer friends is better for you – and that’s great news for introverts like me

Our society is built by extroverts, but this new research shows there's much to be admired about the quieter way of life

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The Independent Online

Science has finally proved that spending your Friday night in the company of your cat is good for you. Happiness is determined by the quality - not the quantity - of friendships you have in your thirties, according to a new study published in the American journal Psychology and Aging. This is good to hear for introverts who, like me, typically have fewer friends that they’re very close to.

Long characterised as aloof or rude, introverts have been getting some good publicity lately. Last week a string of celebrities even admitted to liking time to themselves on the prime time television show Very British Problems, as if it was an embarrassing quality to reveal.

But introversion isn’t mentioned regularly enough to properly challenge how deeply ingrained the virtues of extroversion are in our social behaviours and ways of thinking.

This new study gives further reason for a shift in perspective. Having so many friends that you confuse their names doesn’t equate to social success, but this is the ideal fed to us by popular culture and society’s natural extroverts. Throughout our school years, we’re encouraged to speak up in class. We're expected to contribute to group discussions, and required to work just as well in pairs as we do alone. If we’re quiet, we’re asked what’s wrong.

We grow up and leave school, but for us introverts nothing changes. We work in open-plan offices, where we’re expected to go for work drinks and lunches every week. Our performance is measured by how loudly we speak in meetings and how well we network with strangers.

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At home, we watch our flatmates flit from one social event to the next while we’re looked at in horror if we opt for solitude of an evening. Extroverts who’ve made it to the top of their game are hailed for their success. Introverts who do so are celebrated for their achievements despite being introverts. The character trait has even been unfairly associated with murderers, and used interchangeably with “anti-social’.

 

All of this has damaging consequences. Introverts run on a treadmill next to extroverts, worrying if we are, in fact, just anti-social. But trying to keep up with the frenetic existence of constant socialising can run introverts into the ground. The fact that this even has a name – introvert burnout – is indicative of how widespread and insidious it is.

Yet our approach of hoarding large numbers of friends and confusing quantity with quality clearly isn’t working, and loneliness is rising. This study’s findings reflect part of a wider problem – not only will having more friends make us less happy later on in life, but putting pressure on ourselves to be something that doesn’t come naturally makes us unhappy in the here and now.

I used to feel a bit nervous about my twenties coming to an end, but now I can’t wait: the race to have the most friends will finally become futile. My thirtieth birthday is going to be one hell of a celebration. And no, you’re not invited.

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