Photo credit: Queen’s.

Research from Queen’s University Belfast suggests a healthy level of narcissism can lower stress and depression, but the calm state of mind may come at the expense of others. So, no: narcissists aren’t zen because they’ve figured out how to perfectly balance emotions. It’s actually the opposite, according to the study’s authors. Narcissists are calm because they aren’t wasting brainpower on what other people think.

And while an inflated sense of self and a lack of empathy may be good for the individual, experts warn it’s not necessarily beneficial for society.

“Narcissism is part of the ‘Dark Tetrad’ of personality that also includes Machiavellianism, Psychopathy and Sadism,” Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou, lead author and director of the InteRRaCt Lab in the School of Psychology at Queen’s, said in a statement.

“There are two main dimensions to narcissism – grandiose and vulnerable. Vulnerable narcissists are likely to be more defensive and view the behaviour of others as hostile whereas grandiose narcissists usually have an over-inflated sense of importance and a preoccupation with status and power.”

Dr. Papageorgiou’s paper analyzed three independent studies involving 700 adults.

The papers highlight some positive side effects of narcissism, including resilience against psychopathology symptoms.

“A key finding of the research was that grandiose narcissism can increase mental toughness and this can help to offset symptoms of depression,” reads a statement by the authors.

“It also found that people who score high on grandiose narcissism have lower levels of perceived stress and are therefore less likely to view their life as stressful.”

The authors argue some degree of narcissism could have positive societal impacts — but critics are quick to point out confidence may be a better approach, because confidence involves measured thought and empathy.

When is it too much?

Most people possess some degree of narcissism, but when taken to an extreme it can morph into narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

In people with NPD, “interpersonal relations are typically impaired due to problems derived from entitlement, the need for admiration, and the relative disregard for the sensitivities of others,” according to a 2007 paper.

“Empirical studies of narcissism in the social-personality literature find that it predicts a self-centered, selfish and exploitative approach to interpersonal relationships, including game-playing, infidelity, a lack of empathy, and even violence … The negative consequences of narcissism are felt especially strongly by those who are involved with the narcissist.”

Selective narcissim

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Papageorgiou suggests exhibiting narcissistic traits in moderation. 

“In a nutshell, individuals can run across the bridge of narcissism to use ‘dark’ traits when facing a challenge,” he said, adding people should return to more socially-acceptable behaviour after the challenge ends.

But is it narcissism?

Licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, who treats people with narcissistic personality disorder, cautions against amplifying “narcissistic” traits.

“The point he’s trying to make is, ‘Hey, this trait can be protective,'” Durvasula told CNN, pointing out the research focused on people between the ages of 18 and 32, groups which tend to possess higher levels “grandiose” narcissism.

Durvasula argues Dr. Papageorgiou may have mischaracterized the participants, who could be exhibiting the “arrogant invincibility” of youth rather than textbook narcissism.

“If a person has the capacity for assertiveness, self-advocacy, and healthy self-esteem, those qualities can be used at times of stress to battle depression or other negative effects of stress,” she said.

“I guess what I struggle with is that being termed narcissism. Individuals with healthy self-esteem are not entitled, do not need validation, are not arrogant and are self-reflective.”

Read more about Dr. Papageorgiou’s study here