Self-esteem Is Good for You!
In 2003, a highly influential research review concluded that high self-esteem has few concrete benefits and that programs intended to raise people's self-esteem should be abandoned. Questions were even raised about the potential "dark side" of boosting self-esteem, suggesting that widespread implementation of self-esteem programs might create an entire generation of narcissists instead of fostering a genuine sense of self-worth. The popular media picked up on these ideas and published numerous articles in high-profile media outlets, with titles such as "Self-Esteem: Why We Need Less of It" (Time), "Deflating Self-Esteem's Role in Societal Ills" (New York Times), and "Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth" (Scientific American).
Are The Benefits Of Self-Esteem Truly A Myth?
Are all the people who believe that high self-esteem can have a positive influence in their life simply wrong?
To answer these questions, we set out to review the voluminous body of research examining the consequences of self-esteem. The research literature has come a long way since the 2003 review. Back then, the bulk of the studies examined associations between self-esteem and life outcomes assessed at a single point in time. Now, 20 years later, there are enough longitudinal studies, where people are assessed repeatedly over time, to conduct separate comprehensive reviews for each life outcome. The availability of longitudinal research is critical because it allows us to examine the longterm consequences of self-esteem for a variety of life outcomes, while taking into account prior levels of those outcomes. For example, we can determine whether young adults with high self-esteem are in better health at midlife, and show that this is not simply due to them being in better health during young adulthood.
Our updated review of these new longitudinal studies (numbering in the hundreds) led to quite different conclusions than the earlier review. We found that people with high self-esteem experienced more success at school and work, better social relationships, improved mental and physical health, and less antisocial behavior. These benefits persisted from adolescence to old age, and held for men and women and across different racial/ethnic groups. Importantly, the findings were not limited to self-reported outcomes but also held for some objectively assessed outcomes, including standardized test scores, school dropout, educational attainment, employment status, behavioral observation of relationship functioning, antidepressant medications, cardiorespiratory health, and criminal convictions.
When considering the consequences of self-esteem, it is important not to confuse high self-esteem with narcissism. Whereas self-esteem includes feelings of self-acceptance and self-respect, narcissism is characterized by feelings of superiority, grandiosity, entitlement, and self-centeredness. Although both involve positive self-evaluations, their implications for life outcomes differ substantially and sometimes even point in opposite directions. For example, our review indicated that high self-esteem has a positive influence on social relationships, but research suggests that narcissism has a negative influence on relationships once others get to know narcissistic individuals better.
Our review also allowed us to evaluate the typical size of the self-esteem effects—that is, how strongly is self-esteem associated with important life outcomes and are these effects large enough to have a meaningful impact on a person's life? The effects of high self-esteem are similar in size to the effects of other influential psychological factors such as approaching relationships with trust (called attachment security) and believing that intellectual abilities can grow and are not set for life (called growth mindset). The self-esteem effects are even larger than some medical treatments that are generally accepted as effective.
Moreover, even a small effect can be highly consequential if it influences the lives of a vast swath of the population, and millions of people struggle with low self-esteem throughout their lives. We are not suggesting that self-esteem is the most important, or even one of the most important, determinants of life success. But it is part of the puzzle that might explain why some people experience better life outcomes than others. The presence or absence of this one factor—even if it only matters a little at particular moments in a person's life—can have a much larger impact over an entire lifetime.
In sum, our review suggests that high self-esteem contributes to success and well-being, and is not simply a by-product of favorable life circumstances. In short, our research shows what most people already believe: Self-esteem is good for you.
For Further Reading
Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2022). Is high self-esteem beneficial? Revisiting a classic question. American Psychologist, 77(1), 5-17. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000922
Ulrich Orth is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Bern. His main research interests are self-esteem and personality development.
Richard W. Robins is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on personality, self-esteem, and ethnic minority youth development.