Are the narcissists you know happy and emotionally healthy and stable?

Narcissists generally are thought of as arrogant, irritable, and full of themselves. If something doesn't go exactly how they want, they get upset easily and lash out at the people around them. They are not exactly emotionally healthy. But then again, narcissists' grandiose self-views mean they tend to be excited about who they are and what they aim to accomplish in the future. Such feelings of enthusiasm, drive, and optimism can't be too bad for their well-being, wouldn't you agree?

Is Being a Grandiose Narcissist Good or Bad for Well-being?

Personality researchers studying narcissism have been puzzled by this question. Empirical studies are inconclusive. Some research has linked narcissism with markers of higher well-being, such as elevated moods and optimism. Other studies have pointed to signs of lower well-being, such as emotional irritability and more fluctuating moods.

Looking at prior research on this question, my colleagues and I noted one recurring theme that might have caused the inconsistent findings. Most studies adopted a one-size-fits-all perspective on narcissism, basically treating all narcissists as the same without considering its different aspects. We figured that one important distinction might help to resolve the contradicting findings of prior research: the distinction between the admiration aspect and the rivalry aspect of narcissism.

Narcissism: Admiration or Rivalry?

We think of these two aspects as two different "playing styles" of narcissists. All narcissists are playing the game of achieving social status, maintaining a grandiose self-view, and realizing their special entitlement. But they play this game in different ways. Some might pursue the "admiration" strategy: They try to show their grandiosity to others, win them over with a beaming smile, and enchant them with their charisma. If this is not working, however, and people are not accepting their claim for attention and admiration, they might switch to the "rivalry" strategy: They take out their elbows, start to put others down, and defend their status against any rival daring to challenge them.

Prior research has repeatedly shown that the admiration and rivalry aspects of narcissism are related to surprisingly different outcomes in everyday life—be it popularity over time, relationship satisfaction, or self-esteem. Could they also be the key for understanding the contradicting findings on narcissists' well-being?

Admiration and Rivalry Aspects of Narcissism Produce Different Outcomes

We wanted to find an answer to this question. We conducted five studies involving more than 2,000 participants, who we followed in their daily lives for weeks at a time. Participants reported on their emotional states once or even multiple times a day. This way, we collected over 100,000 momentary and daily well-being reports. We applied this intense study design because we wanted to get a grasp of the actual emotional experiences of these participants. In addition, we wanted to understand not only how well they felt on average, but also how much their well-being fluctuated.

Looking at how participants felt on average, we found a distinct pattern: Narcissistic people using the admiration strategy had higher average well-being than less narcissistic people—but narcissists leaning toward the rivalry strategy had a lower average well-being. Whether narcissists have higher or lower emotional well-being depends on the playing style they adopt. Narcissists with an admiration style are happier than less narcissistic people. But those with the rivalry style are less happy!

How about the common notion that narcissistic people are moody and fluctuate in their well-being? Our data did not support this idea, as admiration and rivalry were mostly unrelated to variability in well-being. However, narcissists using the rivalry strategy may seem more irritable to other people, simply because they express negative emotional states like anger and irritation more often than the average person. But our data indicate that they do not fluctuate more strongly or more frequently in their emotional states per se.


In summary, distinguishing between the admiration and rivalry aspects of narcissism allowed us to understand why prior studies found seemingly contradictory results regarding narcissists' well-being. So, think about the narcissistic people you know: Do you think they are more playing the admiration or the rivalry strategy? If they are more in the admiration than in the rivalry game, this might mean that they are actually happier as a consequence!

For Further Reading

Scharbert, J., Dein, L. M., Kroencke, L., Nestler, S., Back, M. D., & Utesch, K. (2024). Narcissists' affective well-being: Associations of grandiose narcissism with state affect level and variability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Julian Scharbert is a PhD student at the University of Münster (Germany). He uses momentary well-being assessments (e.g., experience-sampling and mobile-sensing data) to study situational, person-level, and societal influences on well-being.