Shhhh! The Quiet Joys of the Introvert

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Photo-Illustration by Zachary Scott for TIME
Photo-Illustration by Zachary Scott for TIME

Spare a thought for the poor introverts among us. In a world of party animals and glad-handers, they’re the ones who stand by the punch bowl. In a world of mixers and pub crawls, they prefer to stay home with a book. Everywhere around them, cell phones ring and e-mails chime and they just want a little quiet.

But you know what? New research — which we report in this week’s cover story “The Upside of Being an Introvert,” available to subscribers here — suggests that introverts may be a whole lot happier than than they seem to be. And even if they’re not, they still may wind up a whole lot more successful than everyone else.

LIST: Great Introverts and Extroverts in History

There’s no such thing as a census of introverts, but the best estimates suggests that about 30% of all people fall on the introverted side of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. That’s not a bad place to be — provided you define your terms properly. For one thing, being introverted is not the same as being shy. Shyness is a form of anxiety, one that sufferers respond to by actively avoiding social situations, even if they’d prefer to be out enjoying them. At the root of the shy temperament is a deep fear of social judgment, one so severe it can sometimes be crippling. Introverted people don’t worry unduly about whether they’ll be found wanting, they just find too much socializing exhausting and would prefer either to be alone or in the company of a select few people.

The roots of introversion can be numerous, but research does show that about 20% of four-month-old babies are what scientists call highly reactive — responding to unpleasant stimuli like popping balloons or strong smells with greater distress than other babies. And that same 20% tend to grow up to become introverted children and adults, eventually learning to protect themselves from overstimulation by avoiding the situations that will overload their neural circuits.

But as other research has found — and as the new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking reports — that same taste for solitude can bring with it an ability to focus for long periods of time that is necessary to becoming a great musician or scientist or businessperson. Introverts listen better, they assess risks more carefully, they can be wiser managers. It’s not for nothing that the Silicon Valley billionaires are so often the retiring types. It’s not for nothing that the current resident of the Oval Office is, by most definitions, a happy introvert.

MORE: Take the Quiz! Are You an Extrovert or an Introvert?

In this week’s cover story, we report on the newest research and what it means for you — whether you’re an introvert yourself or are married to or raising one. In addition, Dr. Oz, a dad of four, offers his own tips for parents on how best to bring up an introverted child. Subscribers can get them here.

And finally, check out the essay “Don’t Call Introverted Children ‘Shy’” by Susan Cain, author of the aforementioned Quiet, on TIME Ideas.

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