York study finds self-help no help for certain personality types

A York University study finds that trying to cheer yourself up can actually bring you down, depending on your personality.

The study, published this summer, examined the effects of exercises that build positivity on more than 250 participants. It found that people with needy personalities reported lower self-esteem after listening to three or four uplifting songs of their choosing every day over the course of a week.

Needy individuals suffer from deep insecurities and need interpersonal support to ward off acute feelings of despair and loneliness. They tend to be submissive in interpersonal relationships, feel helpless and fear abandonment.

 Myriam Mongrain“We were quite surprised at this result,” says study lead author Myriam Mongrain (right), professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health. “Until now, the vast majority of studies have suggested that positive psychology exercises result in either improvements for participants or no change over time. This result hints that self-help exercises may actually be detrimental for those with needy personalities,” she says.

Study participants were randomly assigned one of three daily exercises: recalling five things that they were grateful for over the course of the day; listening to three or four uplifting songs of their choosing; or writing about a specific memory from their early life (the latter was used as a control exercise). Participants then completed questionnaires to measure changes in their mood and outlook; these same measures were administered at intervals of one, three and six months post-study.

Those with needy personalities reported no significant benefits from the gratitude exercise, while the music exercise dragged them down further. Highly self-critical individuals experienced the greatest improvement to their subjective happiness when they practiced the gratitude exercise. They also demonstrated a larger increase in self-esteem and greater decrease in physical symptom severity in both the gratitude condition and the music condition.

“We hypothesized that listening to happy music was a kind of self-soothing that would benefit people with needy personalities. However, this independent activity, which involved no interaction with others, may have had a negative effect on participants,” says Mongrain.

“Needy people rely on secure intimate bonds with others in order to experience well-being, and they may have felt frustrated with the lack of improvement and expressed their disappointment on the outcome measures. Given these results, one-on-one counselling is likely more appropriate for this personality type.”

The study was published in August 2011 in the Journal of Positive Psychology. It is co-authored by Susan Sergeant, a PhD student in York’s Department of Psychology.