Jess Whittlestone is a PhD student in Behavioral Science at the University of Warwick.
Think of a time when something happened that made you feel really good about yourself. Maybe you’d just been promoted or earned a great grade on an exam. Maybe you gave a speech and received loads of positive feedback, or perhaps someone you like asked you out. Picture where you were at the time and what you were doing, and try to remember exactly how you felt.
Now turn to how you’re feeling right now – or rather, how you were feeling before you read that last paragraph. If you’d just won the lottery or something equally amazing and you were actually feeling fantastic, then I’m happy for you (and thrilled that your first act after winning the lottery was to read my piece!). But I imagine most of you weren’t. Maybe you were feeling pretty good but not amazing; maybe you were feeling a bit tired or unmotivated; maybe you really weren’t feeling that great at all.
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day
Most of us don’t spend much time in the first-paragraph state, when something really great has happened and we feel so good about ourselves that we could do anything. We rely on chance occurrences to feel like this: that rare promotion, that unexpected piece of really positive feedback. But what if we could feel like this more often?
Geoffrey Cohen, a psychology professor from Stanford University, suggests that the benefits of feeling like your sense of self is “affirmed” are greater than we might think. According to “self-affirmation theory,” we all have a basic need to believe that we are good people, and even very slight threats to that belief can trigger self-defense.
This is a problem, because it prevents us from being able to respond positively to challenges and new situations. When a student learns she got a poor score on a test, her immediate reaction might be to avoid taking difficult tests in the future. When someone comes across evidence that contradicts his political views, he often finds a way to refute or ignore it. We tend not to seek out feedback even in cases where it might be useful. Because we don’t feel good about ourselves a lot of the time, we’re easily threatened; this prevents us from being able to learn and grow.
And I’m Feeling Good
When we feel good about ourselves, on the other hand, we’re much less likely to feel threatened by the same things. This opens us up to a huge range of benefits. Cohen and colleagues found in a number of studies that getting people to do a short “self-affirmation” exercise produced the following benefits:
* Improved high school students’ grades in a lasting way
* Made patients more open to receiving threatening but helpful health information
* Reduced stress responses in difficult situations
* Helped people to lose weight
* Made people feel more loving and connected in their relationships
Amazingly, one-off affirmations seem able to produce long-lasting results. How is this possible? One plausible explanation is that feeling good about yourself is self-perpetuating: students who feel good about themselves, for example, may perform better, which makes them feel even better about themselves, and so on.
The Secret of Happiness
So how can you use this yourself? The method studies have found to be most successful is to have people write about personal values, as follows:
1. Sit down and write down a list of values that are important to you. What are the standards you want to live your life by? What kind of person do you want to be? Examples might include having good relationships with friends and family, being curious, being kind, being objective and reasonable, being ambitious and working hard.
2. Then pick one or two of the values that are most important to you, and spend a few minutes writing about (a) why this value is important to you and (b) a time when you felt like you particularly lived up to this value.
You might also try to build habits that help you boost your self-esteem more regularly, like deliberately scheduling activities that you know make you feel good about yourself or spending time with friends who make you feel valued. Or you might pair up with a friend, partner or family member and take turns telling each other things you value and respect about each other – affirming yourself and someone else at the same time! The evidence for these activities helping is more anecdotal, but they seem to be aiming at something similar to what studies have shown.
Don’t let your self esteem become dependent on uncontrollable, specific events like promotions or positive feedback from others. Take some time to think about what you really care about and the kind of person you want to be, and reward yourself by your own standards. Do it now, and see if you can recreate that feeling from the first paragraph.
Photo: Flickr/Jessica Lucia
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