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Happier Than Thou


Happier than Thou:

Self-Esteem in Society


            Our society has promulgated the faulty notion that the better people feel about themselves, the better students, workers, and citizens they will be.  Self-esteem has become an unofficial pastime for researchers, politicians, and even the average American.  Sadly, the hypothesis is very appealing to a broad spectrum of powerful people, and so this idea continues to be perpetuated.  An entire generation has been raised on feel-goods to boost their self-esteem while being protected from disappointment. 

Why has this idea gained such hold on our society?  First, studies have linked the major problems in society to low-self esteem.  These range from crime, drug abuse, unwanted teen pregnancy, to academic underachievement, and even pollution.  A task force in California even hypothesized that if self-esteem were raised, the state budget would balance itself.  All of the negative effects in society can be grouped into this category.

Secondly, it seems simple – Make people happy, and the faults of society, or even human nature, disappear.  Solve self-esteem issues, and the problems will solve themselves.  Happy people do not commit burglaries.  Happy people don’t do illegal drugs.  Happy people do not pollute.  Or so it would seem.

This platform has driven state government legislative sessions trying to solve the ills that plague their constituency.  California’s governor in the 1980’s established a task force to research the effects of self-esteem, and weigh the available literature on the topic.  When they published their findings, their work contained too little fact to back up the assertion that low self-esteem lies at the roots of society’s ills.

Unfortunately, the government of California took up the battle against low self-esteem without adequate evidence to justify their charge.  They legislated social policies on shaky or faulty information.  They based their decisions on minimal data that skewed toward the simple answers.  Everything hinged on the premise that happy people (or people with high self-esteem) do not engage themselves in the negative activities of society.  If everyone was a happy person, then the negativity (and thus, the crime) would disappear.

Fortunately for us today, there are two decades of additional research to examine.  From this added information, we can see that much of the aforementioned hypothesis is incorrect.  We need to ask the question of researchers, “How do you gauge the measure of an individual’s self-esteem?”  What is the measuring stick to accurately determine the person’s answer?  This is the weak point in the entire study, because the primary research gathering tool is asking questions of the individuals.

Every person desires to look good, or at least favorable, in the given circumstances.  When asking questions on self-esteem, people will invariable skew their answers to gain the approval of the researcher.  This adds a large measure of doubt to the findings.  As of yet there is no unbiased measurement applicable to self-esteem. 

Physical attractiveness is one of the primary components of the self-esteem myth.  Those who are considered attractive are assumed to have a larger measure of positive self-image.  In most cases this is true, but not all.  Many times those who are physically attractive extend their self-image to be “wonderful people all around.”  In a judgment of physical attractiveness by a panel of unbiased judges, the correlation between high self-esteem and beauty was zero.  However, an opposite finding corroborated the self-esteem myth – self-reported physical attractiveness had a strong correlation with self-esteem.  In other words, people are beautiful in their own eyes, but that opinion may not be shared by others.

If happy people rate themselves as attractive, then the opposite also tends to be true.  Unhappy people (those with low levels of self-esteem, or poor self-image) generalize everything as negative, including themselves.  This finding has skewed the overall results of research.  Unhappy people used to be considered as more prejudiced than happy ones, because they don’t conform to the Happiness Myth, and, indeed, judge it harshly.  When scholar Jennifer Crocker weighed the research of unhappy people against its own group, rather than compare to the happy group, she discovered that it was actually the happy people that were more prejudiced toward their own kind.  It is to be considered, then, that negative remarks by individuals in a study can cast gloom over all aspects of their lives, giving the appearance that their miserable lives are influenced entirely by poor self-esteem.

It has long been hoped that self-esteem would be the magic wand to help teenage students in their academic pursuits.  If Johnny and Susie Schoolchild had high self-esteem, then they would be motivated to do well in school, and that would be enough to overcome any feelings of incompetence or self-doubt.  Recent studies have nixed this idea.

These studies in high school students have been mirrored in the workplace.  The results are the same: inconclusive.  Workplace performance and academic performance are treated as equals in this study.  There are correlations between good self-image and job performance, but they are minimal at best.  Strong self-image does not necessarily mean a good worker, nor does a good work ethic cause positive self-esteem.  In fact, there are even instances when artificially inflated self-esteem harms the individual’s performance.

A study in the late 1980’s, conducted by Duane P. Buhrmester, showed that people with high levels of self-esteem were better at initiating relationships.  They gave away personal information more freely, stood up for their beliefs more frequently, and managed interpersonal conflicts better.  In short, they are more confident than their less forthright peers.  Additional information declared many of the results inconclusive.  The only statistically significant finding was the confidence level.  An explanation could be that those with poor self-esteem shy away from confrontation or new relationships, fearing rejection.

From this, it could be deduced that unhappy relationships are not as secure as those with high self-esteem.  No evidence has emerged to support this hypothesis.  In fact, once again, the opposite is more likely.  Those with inflated egos or think more highly of themselves are more likely to dissolve relationships, and seek other partners.

Earlier it was mentioned that high self-esteem was thought to decrease the use of illicit drugs and inhibit sexual relation in teenagers.  Results of studies show that those with high levels of esteem are less inhibited and more likely to experiment, disregarding risks.  The only recent study that involves lower levels of self-esteem is that those with poor self-image tend to be at a higher risk for illicit drug use.  Alcohol use was not definitively measured by self-esteem.

Two groups tend to be clumped together in these findings.  Those who are looking for a thrill, experimenting, or curious approach drugs in the same way that those who are looking for escape, or diversion from chronic unhappiness.  The result is simply that no conclusions can be reached in this area of study.

Overall, self-esteem has only one primary finding.  Those with higher self-esteem tend to be happier than others.  Happiness, and its opposite, depression, can be influenced by the individual self-reporting in the studies.  Those with an overall optimistic worldview may skew their observations toward the positive, while those who lean toward negativity may skew their opinions the other way.  In the sense of overshadowing temperament, happiness can be said to cause higher self-esteem.

How then, should we answer society’s call to boost self-esteem?  Should we inflate egos at every occasion to improve performance and self-worth? 

The answer lies not in societal change, but in individual self-recognition.  When a person realizes who they are, what they can accomplish, and what they are truly worth, then the efforts of society (for positive or negative) matter nothing.  The person becomes happy in spite of all consequences.  In the words of a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, President Boyd K. Packer, "True doctrine understood changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior" (Boyd K. Packer, "Little Children," Ensign, November 1986, pg. 17).


  • Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth, By: Baumeister, Roy F., Campbell, Jennifer D., Krueger, Joachim I., Vohs, Kethleen D., Scientific American Mind, 15552284, 2005, Vol. 16, Issue 4.
  • Boyd K. Packer, "Little Children," Ensign, November 1986, pg. 17