It’s not easy out there for someone who scores highly on neuroticism, the personality trait that speaks to how sensitive to threats people are, how disposed they are to negative moods, and how regularly they ruminate about what’s going wrong in their lives. While recent research indicates that the trait can change over the course of months with the right therapist, a new study in the Journal of Personality indicates that the neurotic among us have a ready lifehack for improving their mood: being kind, or, as psychologists call it, being prosocial.
The research team, lead by Evelien Snippe, a postdoc studying emotion at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, did a community sample of 553 participants who were asked to fill out an electronic diary three times a day over 30 days. They self-reported if they had been doing any prosocial behavior in the last six hours and the degree of positive affect, or sunny moods, they had been experiencing. A subset of 322 within that sample took a test measuring neuroticism as well as extraversion, or their motivation for rewards and socializing. The researchers found that when an individual was feeling good in one six-hour period, their were more likely to do something prosocial in the next six hours, and vice versa.
Snippe tells Science of Us that her group expected people high on neuroticism to benefit less from prosocial behavior, since that would be congruent with their anxious, threat-sensitive personalities. But in this sample, the opposite was the case: Though people scoring high in neuroticism engaged in fewer prosocial behaviors, their moods benefited more from doing them.
While their data can’t speak to why this is, Snippe speculates that the extra sensitivity to positive vibes may be because folks who score high on neuroticism have more “room for improvement” in their moods. “Individuals who score higher on neuroticism have lower average levels of positive affect and therefore they might benefit more if they do something that can positively affect their mood,” she explained in an email. “For individuals low on neuroticism, they may already have quite high levels of positive affect, so maybe engaging in prosocial behavior adds only a little to their mood that is already quite okay.”
Overall, the findings that positive affect and prosocial actions reinforce each other fits with mood maintenance theory, which states that when people are feeling good, they want to continue feeling good, so they do nice things. It also aligns with earlier findings that people who score highly on neuroticism are sensitive to life events, Snippe says. The message is clear to her, too: If you’re given to negative feelings — and maybe if you’re not — sending friendly texts, helping with homework, calling your mom, or the other, countless prosocial opportunities life presents don’t just help others, they help you.