I was once a social butterfly, a man with more friends than head hairs. Then quarantines and too much time on the internet made me into a loner. I guess you could say that they lowered the limit of my “social battery,” a term people seem to be throwing around a lot lately.
Neat as it would be if we all had some sort of power unit in us that produced energy for social situations, our social batteries, as we call them, are much less concrete. In fact, they’re often thought of as abstract pieces of our personalities that emerge as a result of childhood experiences. “We develop our capacity to socialize, how much we enjoy it, how much it taxes us and so on as kids,” says psychologist Stuart Ablon, author of Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School and at Work.
For example, children with overprotective parents who fail to encourage their autonomy are more likely to end up shy and anxious. Likewise, kids with shy parents may mimic that behavior well into adulthood. Schools, neighborhoods, communities and friendships (or a lack thereof) can also impact the development of a person’s social battery by either encouraging or discouraging socializing — e.g., a child gets bullied so they never want to talk with anyone ever again.
There’s also some evidence that the brains of introverts and extroverts work differently, although it’s not entirely clear whether these differences are direct causes of opposing personalities. Introverts, for example, experience more blood flow to their frontal lobe, which is considered to be our emotional control center. It’s a key player in our capacity to plan and control our responses in order to achieve goals. So, you could speculate that introverts have finite social batteries because they’re more caught up in thinking things through.
Likewise, introverts have more gray matter in their prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with abstract thinking and decision-making. From this, you could theorize that introverts devote more energy to wandering thoughts, like how many Pringles are in a can, whereas extroverts are more likely to live in the present.
Furthermore, the brains of introverted people respond differently to dopamine, a hormone associated with pleasurable sensations, than the brains of extroverted people. While extroverted brains are excited by dopamine, introverted ones are more likely to feel run-down by it. In theory, that means people who have a greater social endurance may simply be hardwired to enjoy mingling more.
But again, it’s not all black and white. Everyone has some introverted and extroverted characteristics, so there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. “Different people possess different degrees of ability to socialize effectively and enjoy it without finding it exhausting,” Ablon explains. “Nature or nurture? Both contribute to these skills.”
But if you’re like me and wish you were more social, there’s light up ahead: “Like any set of skills, we can build those later in life, too,” Ablon continues.
In fact, me feeling less social than ever after quarantines and a stretch of general weirdness is proof that our social batteries are ever-changing. “Many of us have gotten out of practice of social interactions and find ourselves more easily depleted,” Ablon says.
The best way to increase the capacity of your social battery is to simply get out there and mingle, even if it’s kinda awkward at first (or head to therapy if you suspect that an underlying mental snag is holding you back). That said, this could also backfire and make you even more reclusive. So, the other option, which may work even better, is simply settling into your new life as an introvert and living happily ever after.
I guess I don’t really mind spending all this time with myself, anyway.