In which I learn the meaning of the terms “extraversion” and “neuroticism.” They’re handy concepts.

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Two psychological terms that get thrown around a lot are “extroversion” and “neuroticism.” For a while, I’d suspected that I didn’t quite understand exactly what they meant.

Daniel Nettle’s short, fascinating book, Personality, made it clear – and both terms are both extremely useful concepts in thinking about happiness.

As I’ve posted about before, Nettle’s book sets forth the “Big Five” model of personality. This five-dimension framework has emerged in recent years as the most comprehensive and dependable of the various personality models out there.

The five factors are:
1. Extraversion – i.e., response to reward
2. Neuroticism – response to threat
3. Conscientiousness – response to inhibition (self-control, planning)
4. Agreeableness – regard for others
5. Openness to Experience – breadth of mental associations

In this framework, the opposite of “extraversion” isn’t “introversion,” it’s “neuroticism.” So what does it mean, exactly, to be extroverted or neurotic?

I’d always thought “extraversion” was basically “friendliness,” but according to this scheme, high Extraversion scores means that people have very strong positive reactions, so that they consistently report more joy, desire, excitement, and enthusiasm. “Friendliness” is actually closer to “agreeableness.”

And although I’d often thrown around the word “neurotic,” in the Woody Allen sense, I hadn’t quite known what it meant. Turns out that people with high Neuroticism scores have very strong negative reactions—fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, disgust, sadness, very often directed at themselves.

These two concepts gave me a lot more clarity in thinking about human behavior.

They account for the fact that some people just take things harder – things are more infuriating, or scarier, or more anxiety-provoking. Other people find things funnier, more fun, more interesting.

The Extrovert laughs at hearing a woman talking loudly into her cell phone on the bus, while the Neurotic complains about it for days.

Learning these two terms was fascinating, and explained a lot about human nature, and it also had a very beneficial affect on me: I’ve become more patient with people who, I suspect, score high on “Neuroticism.”

Instead of feeling impatient with — what sometimes seems to me to be — unduly high levels of anxiety, irritation, or general negativity, I remember that this is an aspect of their personality. I don’t think that salmonella or black mold poses much of a threat in my life, but now I understand why my friend is more anxious about it.

Also, this framework reminds me that although it often seems to me that a certain situation automoatically evokes a certain response, that’s not true.

As a “low-medium” scorer on both extraversion and neuroticism, I can often choose whether to tap into my extraverted or neurotic side.

When my two-year-old daughter proudly shows me how she pulled an entire roll of toilet paper off the roll, I can choose to laugh at the ridiculous sight, or I can react with exasperation. I constantly try to remind myself that although it’s harder, it’s nicer for everyone, if I can choose to laugh.

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.

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