The life-extending power of being neurotic

Neuroticism has its upsides.
Neuroticism has its upsides.
Image: Getty Images/Florian Gaertner
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Neuroticism won’t make life more enjoyable, but it can help it last longer, according to a four-year study published this month in Psychological Science.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh, University of Southampton, and University College London found that higher neuroticism was associated with a “reduced risk of death from all causes”—but only for one type of neurotic.

All 321,456 participants in the study filled in a questionnaire emphasizing two types of neuroticism. The first kind, “anxious-tense” had a higher affirmative response to such questions as, “Would you call yourself a nervous person?” and “Would you call yourself tense or ‘highly strung’?” Meanwhile, “worried-vulnerable” neurotics were identified by their response to such questions as “Do you worry too long after an embarrassing experience?” and “Are your feelings easily hurt?”

The study, based on data collected by UK Biobank, a health research resource, also examined data on health behavior (e.g. levels of smoking, drinking, and exercise), self-rated health, diagnosed diseases, socioeconomic status, and physical attributes such as BMI. Over the course of four years, from 2006 to 2010, 4,497 of the subjects died.

After factoring in the various other variables, the researchers found that higher scores on the worried-vulnerable questions were “associated with a significantly reduced risk of death from all causes.”

But all is not lost for the anxious-tense neurotic types. The study found that all forms of neuroticism are linked with lower mortality, though only for those who rated their own health as poor or fair. This was true even once other health variables, such as diagnosed disease, health behavior, and physical attributes, were taken into account.

So it seems that if you’re a neurotic type who’s worried about your health, you’re more likely to stave off death. But if you’re an anxious-tense neurotic who thinks your health is just dandy (and perhaps doesn’t pay it much attention), then your negative emotions don’t bring any health benefits at all.

The broad link between neuroticism and reduced risk of death makes sense, according to the authors, as there’s evidence that neurotic people make greater use of health-care services. “This propensity to seek medical help in response to worries about health could plausibly result in earlier identification of cancer,” they write, “and greater likelihood of survival.”