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How Being Neurotic Can Boost Your Life Expectancy

Good news for the Ross Gellars of the world.

Neuroticism is entertaining—on television, that is. Think Ross from Friends, Jerry from Seinfeld, Shoshanna from Girls, or Miranda from Sex and the City. In real life, however, neuroticism is associated with anxiety and depression.

Neuroticism, along with openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness, is one of the “Big Five” personality traits. People who show high levels of neuroticism tend to agree with statements such as “I often get irritated,” “I worry a lot,” or “I have frequent mood swings.”

While chronic stress is known to have a negative impact on health, a recent study suggests that being neurotic might not be so bad after all. The study, which was carried out by a group of British researchers, followed 500,000 participants between the ages of 37 and 73 for a six-year period.

Published in Psychological Science, the findings indicate that individuals with higher levels of neuroticism who also reported their health as “poor” or “fair” were likely to live longer.

From the outset, the finding is difficult to explain. While studies have shown that being neurotic can boost creativity, cognitive processing, and even motivation, neuroticism is closely linked to negative thinking—in fact, negativity is one of the hallmarks of the trait.

Not surprisingly, numerous studies have pointed to negative thinking as a risk factor for poor health. Positive thinking, on the other hand, is typically associated with beneficial health effects. Happier people are also believed to live longer.

It should follow that people who are neurotic, and therefore more likely to experience psychological distress, are also more likely to experience the negative effects associated with psychological distress—including depression and heart disease. Logically speaking, people with high neuroticism should live shorter lives than people with low neuroticism.

Not necessarily, says Catherine Gale, the lead researcher on the study. She claims that previous studies have been “inconsistent,” with some indicating an association between neuroticism and premature death. Others found that neuroticism had a marginally protective effect.

Gale points out that the study highlighted something unusual: People who described their own health as “poor” were more likely to show higher levels of neuroticism, in addition to a lower likelihood of premature death.

She believes the most plausible explanation is that neurotic people are more likely to visit their healthcare providers when they experienced worrisome symptoms. That would make it easier for doctors to catch life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, early.

While the findings of the study can neither support nor disprove Gale’s theory, other research suggests a connection between neuroticism and increased vigilance. This study, from 2000, found that people who exhibited higher neuroticism sought out medical care more frequently.

For the neurotic among us, that might mean one less thing to worry about. Then again, maybe you should worry.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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