The higher your self-esteem, the greater the chance of a successful relationship and improved work and health, according to scientists at Basel University.
Does self-esteem increase success, are people with more of it more successful – or do the two reinforce each other?
Ulrich Orth, professor of psychology at Basel University, and scientists at the University of California analysed the data of 1,824 people aged 16-97 who had spent more than 12 years in the United States (see link).
“We established that self-esteem is more likely to influence success than vice versa,” Orth told swissinfo.ch, adding that self-esteem was a relatively stable part of one’s personality.
“A person’s self-esteem – which can be high or low – will most probably be just as high or low next year and indeed in five or ten years,” he said.
“It’s commonly believed that self-esteem changes when one is made unemployed or achieves significant success at work – or when a relationship breaks up. But our data show this is actually rarely the case.”
Nature vs nurture
Where does self-esteem come from? Until now there’s been no coherent scientific answer.
“Part of it is nature, but then nurture plays a meaningful role,” Orth said.
However, the appreciation and respect of family, friends or those at work definitely strengthen self-esteem
Orth adds that exact predictions are not possible. “There are people with low self-esteem who are greatly appreciated by people around them. Others live in socially unfavourable conditions, receive little to no appreciation yet are self-confident.”
He admits that the causality between self-esteem and success in life is hard to measure scientifically.
“You can’t carry out any experiments in this area. Imagine artificially raising or lowering the self-esteem of randomly chosen people – that’s not possible for ethical as well as practical reasons, and also it doesn’t make any sense.”
The study indicates that self-esteem rises until the age of 50-65 and then goes down.
“As a rule, people gain self-esteem from puberty until middle age. It not only increases but also becomes more stable. People link their level of self-esteem less to everyday events,” Orth said.
After peaking in middle-age, a person’s self-esteem drops rapidly in old age. Why? Orth points to evidence that “a loss of a feeling of independence and control could have an influence”.
“To be increasingly dependent on other people and unable to steer one’s own life in every area are factors that could undermine self-esteem,” he said.
Work on it
Orth says that because self-esteem has a “small to middling” effect on a person’s well-being and success, it’s worth working to improve it.
“If someone says they have low self-esteem, they should make an effort to change this. A psychologist or corresponding therapy could help.”
However, arrogance or self-importance won’t improve one’s self-esteem.
“It’s all about developing a positive approach to yourself. Do as you would want good friends to do.”
Acquiring self-understanding, forgiving mistakes, aspiring to a basic self-acceptance – that’s going in the right direction, according to Orth.
The psychologist says nurturing the self-esteem of children is extremely important.
“Parents, teachers too, should contribute so that children’s self-esteem is not damaged,” he said.
Low self-esteem can present a danger for one’s mental and emotional health. Orth says psychologists have noticed that people with low self-esteem tend to withdraw, avoid social interaction and are not so open with other people.
In addition, such people often brood in a negative way about themselves.
“We know this can lead to depression,” he said.
Self-esteem is a psychological term for a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth.
Self-esteem encompasses beliefs (for example, "I am competent", "I am worthy") and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame.
Self-esteem can apply specifically ("I believe I am a good writer and I feel happy about that") or wider ("I believe I am a bad person and feel bad about myself in general").
(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)