As an introvert, I thought I was immune to loneliness. I’ve been working remotely as long as I’ve been working. I enjoy the comfort of writing at home, the efficiency of not commuting and the freedom from interruptions by extroverted colleagues.
But in my first year of graduate school, I was struggling to get my papers accepted by journals — and to feel accepted by my new classmates. In the middle of the cold, gray Michigan winter, my roommates went home for the holidays, and I felt completely isolated.
I was confused. Solitude is supposed to be introvert heaven. I’ve always preferred a book to a concert. I’d rather have a deep conversation than a dance party … or even a birthday party. I rarely pick up the phone when it rings if the call wasn’t scheduled. I scored 13 out of 16 on Introvert Bingo. So I did what any self-respecting introvert who happens to be an organizational psychologist would do: I started digging into the research.
It’s often said that extroverts get their energy from people, while introverts are energized by solitude. The data show that’s a myth. In a pair of studies, people rated their energy hourly or weekly. Extroverts felt more energized when they were being talkative and outgoing — but introverts did, too. Then, in an experiment, people were randomly assigned to act like extroverts or introverts in a group discussion. Acting extroverted energized even the introverts.
Being introverted has nothing to do with liking alone time. It turns out that the desire for solitude comes from a different trait altogether: independence.
“Everybody draws energy from other people,” Susan Cain, the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” said on my TED podcast, WorkLife. “Introverts aren’t antisocial — just differently social!”
What makes introverts different is our sensitivity to stimulation: We’re more easily overloaded than extroverts. When introverts spend a whole week acting like extroverts, there is evidence that the emotional benefits fade and costs begin to emerge — introverts start to feel more negative emotions, more exhaustion and less authenticity. I enjoy being with other people. Some of my best friends are extroverts! Just don’t make me sit next to them on a long flight.
Now that we’re all in some form of isolation, this knowledge has implications for how we fight loneliness. If you’re an extrovert, you might find yourself opting for virtual co-working with strangersand dreading a Sad Desk Lunch. Introverts crave social connection, too, we just need to be careful not to overdo it. For me, eating alone is a Happy Desk Lunch, because it allows me to stay focused and avoid getting drained. New evidence shows that working through lunch alone doesn’t bother people as long as it’s their choice. It hurts only when people want connection but can’t find it.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a village to fight loneliness. My colleague Sigal Barsade has found that it takes just one friend to feel less isolated at work. It doesn’t require a long interaction, either. My mentor Jane Dutton has spent years studying high-quality connections, and she finds that even brief encounters can leave us feeling seen. As Dr. Dutton put it recently on WorkLife, “Forty seconds of interaction — a positive, caring interaction — has measurable impacts on both people.”
Last week, I got an email from an introverted entrepreneur who had just made it through 18 hours of Zoom calls with his team.
“It literally zaps my energy and boggles my mind so I can’t think clearly,” he wrote. It’s a new form of burnout that we might call screenout: the exhaustion of being on videoconference. I’ve started declining video calls, dialing in by audio when face-to-face doesn’t seem crucial, or — better yet — shifting to email.
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That’s what I did back in Michigan when I was feeling lonely. I made a list of the 100 people who mattered most in my life and spent a week writing them each an email about what I appreciated about them. As their replies rolled in, I no longer felt alone. Voicing sentiments that had gone unspoken seemed to make our bonds stronger.
Looking back, 100 emails in a week was a little extreme. Even one a day would have elevated my mood and my sense that I mattered. It doesn’t take a herculean effort to go from feeling lonely to feeling connected. Even if we’re far apart physically, we can come closer together emotionally.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, is the author of “Originals.”For more on fighting loneliness, listen to WorkLife with Adam Grant, a TED original podcast on the science of making work not suck. You can find WorkLife on Apple Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.