The strain of being vain

Vanity and narcissism tend to go hand in hand and they are generally not regarded all that well by others. However, while we might deride someone with an inflated sense of themselves, narcissists can make good leaders. The real problem with extreme vanity and self absorption is that new research has shown it is quite an unhealthy thing for the person who feels it.

At the core of extreme narcissism is egotistical preoccupation with self, personal preferences, aspirations, needs, and success. Some amount of basic vanity is healthy, of course, but this type of narcissism is better termed as responsibly taking care of oneself. When your vanity extends to the point however, where you are totally obsessed with yourself to the extent of seeing others as things to be used for your own gains, then you have entered an unhealthy psychological place (and incidentally are probably ready for a career in politics).

While extreme narcissism is recognised as a an unhealthy place to be psychologically, researchers wanted to establish the physical effects of such a vain and self-centred disposition.

To do this researchers had subjects, men and women, fill out a Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire. They then took saliva samples to measure levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone used as a measure of psychological stress. High levels of cortisol when there is no stress present suggests that stress hormone cycle between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands is active all of the time. If this is the case there are significant risks for long term health including an increased risk of heart disease.

They found high cortisol levels in men who scored high on the most unhealthy aspects of narcissism (exploitativeness and entitlement). This link did not exist in females, could this indicate that a sense of entitlement is natural for the female of the species? Surely not!

For men however, vanity seems to be its own punishment and Carly Simon’s brilliantly worded dig at her ex-beau Warren Beatty, “you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you” might have had even more sting with a slight rewording to the effect, “you’re so vain, you’re cortisol must be high.” What do you think? Surely there’s a Grammy waiting with that lyric on it!

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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