As it turns out the happiest people out there also think most highly of themselves. According to Stanford University scientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the world’s leading researcher on the effects of stress on the human mind and body, “Happiness and self-esteem are important factors in reducing stress.”
Why would that be? How is it that stress levels are impacted directly by self-esteem? What does this have to do with being happy?
As a helping professional studying how to be happy, answering these questions has been at the center of my studies for the majority of my life. Furthermore, as a person who lived with a deep sadness, what I came to know later as depression, for the first half of my life, learning the secrets to happiness became not only a nice idea, but a desperate need. As a person prone to turning to substances, relationships, and buying stuff, or anything else I could do to feel better, learning the secrets of happiness, without all of those things, simply became a matter of life and death!
Although the relationship between happiness and self-esteem may seem surprising to some, it aligns perfectly with my experience. Working as a therapist, counselor, and clinical coach on and off for the past 20 years, I saw that there is only one thing that each and every one of my clients has had in common. Now, before I tell you what that one thing is, I should also mention that I have worked with all kinds of people with a wide array of mental health problems. I’ve worked with clients from 14 years old up to 86. I have treated clients with addictions, mood disorders, depression, anxiety, trauma, psychotic disorders, autism spectrum, OCD and other compulsive disorders, personality disorders, ADHD/ADD, dissociative disorders, and dual diagnosis. I have worked with clients of all genders and sexual preferences, and those who were rich, poor, and working class. I have worked with clients of many races, and ethnicities. And, in all of my experience, each and every client shared in one common factor: really low self-esteem!
Our sense of self-worth does not only manifest in the occasional self-defeating thought, but is a symptom of a much more dangerous set of beliefs. Self-esteem amounts to the beliefs we hold about our value as human beings – beliefs about what we are worth, beliefs about what we deserve. In all cases, beliefs such as these can be traced back to one belief that sits at the core of the very way we perceive our world in every moment, the belief that I am not good enough.
The problem with beliefs, what makes them so dangerous, is that they shape your perception of the world around you. Beliefs serve as an invisible filter, the transparent glasses that cover your eyes in every moment. The way that you expect the world around you to be is mirrored back to you with the utmost precision, shaping what you see around you. Your senses are the great deceivers! Yet, you rely so heavily on your senses to give you information from the outside world that it never dawns on you that what you see may be biased. You are so utterly dependent on your senses to tell you “the truth” that it becomes impossible to imagine that what you are looking at is specific to the way you see it.
In actuality, senses pull in from the world what to hear, see, taste, smell, and touch based on the information previously recorded in your brain. It’s why you can search for your car keys for 45 minutes only to realize they have been sitting on the coffee table that you must have walked by 50 times! Once you decide (believe) something is lost, your eyes will not see it! This is partly to blame for why eyewitness testimony, by itself, is not enough to convict someone of a crime. With thousands of bits of information, light and sound waves, being translated by your sensory system in every second, we are on a “need to know basis” with the world around us. The efficiency machine that it is the brain isn’t going to waste valuable processing on anything that it doesn’t think is important. In fact, you could say that it is the job of your senses to keep the world around you consistent with whatever you believe to be true about it. That said, if you have a belief that you are not good enough it will permeate every moment, every aspect, every experience!
Not being good enough may seem insignificant, but I assure you it drives it all! It determines the nature of your thoughts, behaviors, feelings, etc. How often do you hear yourself saying things like, “I’m fat,” “I am ugly,” “I’m too skinny,” “Not tall enough,” Too old,” “Too young,” “Too stupid,” “too boring,” “Too serious?” How often do you complain about how unfair and unjust the world is? How often do you criticize those around you for not living up to your standards? What are your relationships like? Do you feel others don’t understand you? Do you get involved routinely with those who bring you down, don’t seem to care about you enough, don’t treat you the way you know you should be treated? How often do you doubt yourself? Worry about what others will think of you? How often do you compare yourself to others on social media? Does the money you have in the bank feel like enough? Do you feel limited in how much you can earn?
Because we live in the richest country in the world, with all the comforts one could want, at a time of great technological and scientific advancement, you might think this would be a time of great peace, happiness and far less stress! Yet, that frankly is just not the case. We are the only species on earth that can and does invent things to worry about. We can invent a reason to be afraid from thought alone! We overthink, over plan, worry about trivial things, all leading to the same physiological outcomes, activating the same stress response as if we are being chased by a grizzly bear. Dr. Sapolsky writes, “We can be pained by some movie character that something terrible happens to who doesn’t even exist. We could be made to feel inadequate by seeing Bill Gates on the news at night. So, the realm of space and time (past and future thinking) that we can extend our emotions means that there are a whole lot more abstract things that can make us feel stressed.” In fact, some researchers argue that with way too much time on our hands to construct our experience, and far less eminent threats to contend with day to day, the real threat to your wellbeing is you!
More Dr Robert Sapolsky: