In recent years, self-esteem has fallen out of favor in scientific literature and in popular media as an important factor in life outcomes. But a large new study by psychologists at the University of California, Davis and the University of Bern suggests that high self-esteem can have a positive influence in many areas of people’s lives.
Psychology professor Richard W. Robins and former postdoctoral researcher Ulrich Orth, now a professor at the University of Bern, recently reported their findings in the journal American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.
“This research shows what most people already believe — that self-esteem matters,” Robins said.
To understand the influence that self-esteem might have on people’s work, schooling, relationships, and health outcomes, researchers examined the results of hundreds of longitudinal studies that answered questions about long-term consequences, such as: Teens with high self-esteem tend to be more successful in their careers? Their results show that people with high self-esteem generally have more success in school and work, better social relationships, better mental and physical health, and less antisocial behavior. And, these benefits persist from adolescence through adulthood and into old age.
The impact of self-esteem over time
Long-term outcomes are determined by many psychological and social factors, so self-esteem is only part of the puzzle that could explain why people do better or worse in certain areas of life. Yet the presence or absence of this factor can have a significant impact over the course of a lifetime.
“Even small effects can accumulate over long periods of time,” Robins said. “Just looking at a year of a person’s life, there might be a small benefit to feeling good about yourself. But if you look over the next 30 years and consider how this benefit accumulates as people move through life stages, these cumulative benefits can be quite significant.
High self-esteem is distinct from narcissism
Robins, who has studied self-esteem for decades, sees this review as contradicting the oft-repeated assertion that high self-esteem is dangerous. Self-esteem is distinct from narcissism, as shown in the research literature that Robins and Orth reviewed. While self-esteem refers to feelings of self-acceptance and self-respect, narcissism is characterized by feelings of superiority, grandeur, entitlement, and self-centeredness. This research review shows that high self-esteem and narcissism can have opposing implications on life outcomes. High self-esteem predicts better social relationships, while narcissism predicts relationship difficulties. Still, many psychologists and laypeople have called the benefits of self-esteem a myth and suggested it may even have a “dark side,” Robins said.
Despite doubts about the importance of self-esteem, Robins said his review of the vast body of research on self-esteem demonstrates that it matters and therefore interventions to build self-esteem self could benefit individuals and society as a whole.
“There are few psychological characteristics that have been studied more than self-esteem,” he said.