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Shawn Vestal: If you’re not happy and you know it, act like you are

Sat., April 26, 2014

Want to feel a little happier?

Maybe you should simply act happier – or at least more outgoing.

Recent studies suggest that acting extroverted – saying hello, expressing an opinion, singing a song – tends to make people feel more positive. This is true even if people are forcing themselves to act extroverted; introverts who simply act extroverted often report more positive feelings.

New research from a Washington State University professor extends this inquiry to other cultures, with similar results: Acting happy corresponds with actual happiness, whether it’s in Venezuela or China or Pullman.

Timothy Church, professor of counseling psychology and associate dean of research in WSU’s College of Education, co-authored the study with several colleagues. They studied the connection between behavior and moods in five countries – the U.S., Venezuela, China, Japan and the Philippines. Participants in the studies tracked their moods and behavior three times a day for 20 days; in all countries, the participants reported more positive emotions when they were acting extroverted.

“We are not the first to show that being more extroverted in daily behavior can lead to more positive moods,” Church said in a university news release. “However, we are probably the first to extend this finding to a variety of cultures.”

Church’s study, funded by the National Science Foundation, used a “Big Five” personality trait survey for the participants, which tracks the major characteristics of personality: openness to new experience, agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism.

The connection between extroversion and happiness has been established over several studies of Americans, but some have wondered whether it would hold in different cultures where individualism and independence are less valued. Church’s project was among the first to show that these connections transcend cultural differences.

“The similarities were much greater than the differences,” he said in an interview.

Church’s study also reinforced the important relationship between freedom and happiness. Across the board, the participants reported feeling more extroverted, agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable and open to new experiences when they were free to choose their own behavior.

Like all research into the murky, sometimes mysterious realm of personality and human behavior, Church’s work illustrates averages and broader patterns, rather than concrete absolutes about cause and effect.

“These are not definitive, it-happens-all-the-time kinds of things,” he said. “We’re talking about trends.”

Church’s study showed a correlation between extroverted behavior and positive moods. Other recent work goes further in terms of causation, suggesting that acting extroverted – faking it, essentially – can produce some emotional upswing.

Wake Forest professor William Fleeson explored this connection in research published in 2012, which posed a question: Is acting extroverted as “good” as actually being extroverted?

Fleeson’s answer was a fairly unequivocal yes.

Participants in his study tracked their moods for two weeks; they were sometimes told to act extroverted, and sometimes told to act introverted. They reported feeling more positive when acting outgoing. Fleeson also tracked the longer-term effects of acting extroverted; after 10 weeks, he found more positive moods among those who acted extroverted.

“As a society, we tend to think of happiness as something that comes from outside us,” he said at the time. “The research demonstrates that extroversion can actually cause happiness.” 

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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