FEATURE — Spring 2007
   

 
Professor Randy Larsen
Being Extroverted: Key to Happiness

In the last two decades, Professor Randy J. Larsen has sought to understand the underlying causes of “subjective well-being”; his work is an important part of the “positive psychology” movement.

By Kenneth J. Cooper

“Don’t worry, be happy.”

Turns out the pop tune had it at least half right, based on pioneering research done by Randy J. Larsen, the William R. Stuckenberg Professor of Human Values and Moral Development and chairman of the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences.

Larsen’s research on the effects that someone’s personality has on emotions, which was conducted in laboratory settings, shows that people who tend to worry dwell on negative experiences longer and sink lower because of them. Still, there’s more to being happy than just not worrying. Larsen has found that the individuals who move on from a bad experience the fastest and get the biggest boost from a good one are outgoing sorts.

Traditionally, psychologists have probed what goes wrong with people, the different forms of mental illness and what to do about them. For two decades, Larsen has focused his research and teaching in the opposite direction, seeking to understand the underlying causes of “subjective well-being,” the psychological term for happiness. His work is part of a broader movement called “positive psychology,” a departure from researchers’ classic interest in abnormal psychology.

“I was really interested in the beginning in happiness, and why some people are happier than others or why some people aren’t as happy as they might be,” Larsen recalls. Social and economic factors, he determined, do not account for those differences. “They didn’t predict happiness at all. Income isn’t related to happiness. Religion isn’t related at all. Education isn’t related.”

Then what is? “Maybe it had to do with personality,” he remembers musing.

In subsequent research, Larsen identified two personal behaviors as the keys to someone’s relative happiness over the long haul. “Being extroverted—that’s a strong predictor of happiness,” he says. Conversely, he says neuroticism, “a tendency to worry, complain, and be pessimistic, is a strong predictor of unhappiness.”

“We know extroverts are happier,” he says flatly. “Maybe it is extroverts have a lot of friends, and having a lot of friends is the active ingredient.”

Studies have found, for instance, that extroverted college students report that 80 percent to 95 percent of their days were good days in the past year, compared to an average of 60 percent to 70 percent reported by all collegians. Reviews of personal diaries corroborated those findings.

Professor Randy Larsen works with doctoral student Laura Nesse examining the output from a polygraph, which they use to study physiological reactions to pleasant and unpleasant mood inductions in the laboratory.

How else does a social scientist measure how happy someone is?

In one method, Larsen and fellow researchers bring people, one by one, into a laboratory and try to put them in the same mood. To make subjects feel good, researchers show a funny movie or cartoons, or they pay subjects compliments. Afterward, each subject is asked to describe his or her mood. Extroverts report they feel the best. “They get more bang out of the buck,” Larsen says.

On the flip side of the experiment, researchers show subjects a sad movie or give them negative feedback. This time the worriers said they had the stronger reaction.

“If you want to put someone in a bad mood, you will have an easier time if he or she is high in neuroticism. If you want to put somebody in a good mood, you will have greater success if you’re dealing with extroverts,” he concludes. “Extroverts look at the world, and they’re looking for pleasure, rewards, stimulation. People with high neuroticism see the world as a threatening place. They’re vigilant for danger, threat, and harm.”

Next, Larsen studied why outgoing and worrying types differ so much in the way they react to life’s ups and downs. This research puts each person in a room with a computer, which flashes a series of words embedded in fields of different colors. Each is instructed to ignore the words and name the colors.

It turns out that everyone reads the words—negative ones like cockroach, vomit, and hatred, and positive ones like love, joy, and, of course, happiness. But the extroverts take longer to name the colors surrounding upbeat words, as they savor good feelings. Worriers linger on the distressing words, taking more time to identify the colors.

David A. Balota, a professor of cognitive psychology, has collaborated with Larsen on two recent studies of the “Stroop tests” involving words and colors. Larsen’s work, he says, is pioneering because it synthesizes two strands of psychology.

“There is considerable work going on relating cognition with emotion. Typically, in psychology, those have been separate areas,” Balota says. “Randy’s work is bridging the gap between how emotion works and how cognition works.”

Larsen was born in Lake City, Iowa, a small town near the University of Iowa, where his father was a student at the time. He grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, northwest of Chicago, with an older brother and a younger sister. That makes Larsen a middle child who, according to some psychological theories, should be rebellious, nonconformist, and antisocial, or, according to others, he should be ambitious and diplomatic from competing and negotiating with older and younger siblings. He dismisses all of those notions.

“I looked into that stuff on personality and birth order. There are so many different theories about birth order, and it’s really bunk,” he says. “If you do large samples, the theories are not borne out.”

"Extroverts look at the world, and they’re looking for pleasure, rewards, stimulation. People with high neuroticism see the world as a threatening place. They’re vigilant for danger, threat, and harm.”

For a year, Larsen practiced as a therapist, right after receiving a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Duquesne University. He worked along with police officers in the blue-collar boroughs around Pittsburgh, close to the time The Deer Hunter was being filmed about the same area, where steel mills were closing and leaving behind social strains. His job was to intervene when officers responded to what were really personal problems—runaway children, marital disputes, attempted suicides, or loiterers who were mentally ill.

“I enjoyed the crisis intervention part a lot, being on the scene,” he says. “I think a lot of problems would be solved with crisis intervention. If something bad happens and you get some help right away, it goes away.”

Larsen recalls it being “exciting, fast-paced work,” but “after a year I was ready to go back to school.” In 1984, he received his doctorate from the University of Illinois in personality psychology, which has been his specialty ever since.

In 1998, he left the University of Michigan to come to Washington University to assume the Stuckenberg chair, a University professorship that is not attached to a particular department. He has taught, as he has for his entire career, a psychology course on personality. The large lecture class, usually with 80 to 100 students, explores why people behave the way they do—why they are talkative or shy, active or passive, for example.

His other class is a popular one about positive psychology, or what happens when everything goes right in someone’s life. Enrollment is limited to 15 students, with a waiting list that typically swells to about 50 even though the course comes with a heavy workload of reading and writing. Subjects include happiness, character, love, friendship, sense of community, and creativity at work.

“It’s a fun class to teach, because college students have all those questions,” he says. Students use his 2006 textbook, Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature, which is well-regarded in the field.

In 2004, Larsen was elevated to chairman of the Department of Psychology. He inherited a thriving department, which the University had targeted for growth and excellence in the early 1990s. New hires built up the faculty, and in 1996, the department moved into a new building.

“He’s done a great job as leader of the psychology department. It’s growing. It has the largest number of [undergraduate] majors. It’s very important to the University,” says Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences, and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor of Arts & Sciences.

In 1995, biology was the most popular department, with 320 undergraduate majors compared to psychology’s 306. The number in psychology grew a third over the next decade, to 406 in 2005.

“I think part of it is students are interested in knowing about themselves,” Macias says. “Why they are more interested now than before, I don’t know.”

Larsen himself is popular with students, advising a full load of 25 majors, and also with the department’s faculty. Balota suggests one reason is that Larsen’s approach to research, which often involves integrating disparate strands of psychology, is reflected in how he relates to others.

“It’s great to have as a chair someone who appreciates and understands different perspectives on different areas,” Balota says. “It’s also nice to have a chair who studies happiness, because making people happy—that’s a large part of what a chair does.”

Kenneth J. Cooper, A.B. ’77, is a Pulitzer-Prize–winning writer based in Boston.