- Everyday interactions can boost or lower your mood, but you may not realize what's behind those changes.
- New research on self-esteem and social inclusion shows some unexpected effects of even minor interactions.
- Finding the "sweet spot" as you encounter new interactions can help your self-esteem grow and flourish.
Daily life is full of experiences that either bring you up or bring you down. Perhaps a fellow shopper shares a smile with you as you both reach for the same bag of potato chips on the grocery store shelf. For some reason, this casual interaction gives you a tiny mood boost. Things can go the other way after an unpleasant run-in. What if, instead of smiling, this other shopper glares at you and proclaims “I was here first.” You grumble to yourself but, at the same time, wonder if there was something you did wrong to deserve this rude remark.
In the grand scheme of things, such small pleasantries or unpleasantries shouldn’t really matter. Your self-image should be robust enough to withstand rudeness even while it expands slightly after a shared moment of connection with someone else. And although interactions with strangers can be easily dismissed if they don’t go well, wouldn’t it make more sense that the people you care about would have the greatest impact on your happiness and self-worth?
Social Inclusion and Self-Esteem
According to the University of Hamburg’s Jenny Wagner and colleagues (2023), due to a phenomenon known as “self-esteem reactivity,” the effects of those momentary interactions can indeed snowball to take on larger significance than you may realize. There is, as they note, “a dynamic interrelatedness between state self-esteem and social inclusion” that can occur “on a daily basis.” In other words, a seemingly minor positive or negative social interaction can ping your overall levels of self-esteem, either enhancing or detracting from your general levels of self-worth.
Although you may not have given this process much thought, it should make sense when you consider, as the authors go on to note, “People choose boosts in their momentary self-esteem over eating a favorite food or engaging in their favorite sexual activity.” The specific form of these self-esteem boosts that can have the most impact turns out to be not completing a difficult task or figuring out a problem but feeling socially included. You are built to have a need to belong, and when that need is satisfied, a small switch inside you turns on, even if only ever so slightly.
Self-Esteem Reactivity and Social Inclusion in Daily Life
With this background, the U. Hamburg team sought to test down to the smallest unit ways in which social inclusion could stimulate self-esteem boosts. They did so by employing a method known as “experience sampling” in which a participant provides instantaneous ratings on whatever research measures are the focus of the study. The advantage of this method versus an ordinary correlational approach is that the researchers can grab their data in real-time. If self-esteem reactivity is so sensitive to momentary interactions, then this approach is ideal.
The Wagner et al. research team obtained their experience-based data by asking their participants to report every social interaction they had (up to five times a day) and then to rate those interactions as both “positive” and “interesting,” both on a 1-to-10 scale. Surprisingly enough, these two simple ratings are enough to tap into a sense of social inclusion, as based on previous research.
The corresponding measure of self-esteem was also very simple, consisting of a single 1–10 rating: “All things considered, how content are you with yourself right now?”
There were other components of the study involving what’s called “trait” self-esteem, which is the more stable set of qualities that reflects your deeper sense of self-worth; participants rated themselves on this scale as did other people nominated by participants to provide a contrast with people’s own views about themselves.
An added feature of the study involved the participants themselves, who were drawn from both younger (218 late adolescents) and older (86 people in their 60s) age groups. This study, known as the “SELFIE,” was conducted in Germany to gain a greater understanding of how personality and self-esteem change over important transition points in life.
The entire study covered a three-year span, but the experience sampling piece was obtained over one seven-day period. As part of the coding, the U. Hamburg team grouped the daily interactions into categories ranging from close partners to other family members, friends, acquaintances, and “other.”
The key findings to emerge from the experience data supported the study’s predictions, showing that positive social encounters were associated with upswings in momentary self-esteem. Both age groups showed this social inclusion effect. As you might expect, additionally, people had higher self-esteem boosts on weekends, but also men showed greater upward swings than did women. Age didn’t make a difference in the self-esteem boost effect, nor was the effect greater or worse based on trait self-esteem.
Using Social Inclusion to Boost Your Own Self-Esteem
You can conclude from this study’s impressive findings that everyone feels a little bit better when they feel included. The question now becomes, how can you put these findings to use?
Although you might decide that your best bet is to focus on the people closest to you, the Wagner et al. study didn’t show any effect of type of relationship on self-esteem reactivity. In the moment, anyone can make you feel better about yourself.
However, there is one note of caution that the authors acknowledge. What if you’re too sensitive to a lack of social inclusion? What happens when rude remarks thrust your way become devastating? Can you imagine yourself running home after that nasty encounter and falling to pieces? In the words of the authors, “There might be a ‘sweet spot’ at which self-esteem reactivity is adaptive.” You don’t want to be too rigid, but also not too malleable.
By doing your own self-experiments using this study’s rating scales, you may be able to titrate your daily experiences so that they reach that sweet spot. If you find your most recent interaction to be closer to 1 or 2 on the social inclusion scale rather than reaching a high of 8 or 9, stop and examine what your self-esteem is doing right now. If you find yourself internalizing even the slightest negative encounter, try to distance yourself from its impact.
It's also possible to gain insight in the other direction. If you’ve become so engrained in your “trait” self-esteem that no interaction, no matter how unpleasant, causes you to question your self-esteem, you may want to figure out if there’s something you consistently do that turns people off.
To sum up, long-term change can be built from short-term interactions. Using your encounters to benefit your sense of self-worth can provide not just that momentary boost but real growth in your fulfillment.
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Wagner, J., Wieczorek, L. L., & Brandt, N. D. (2023). Boosting yourself? Associations between momentary self-esteem, daily social interactions, and self-esteem development in late adolescence and late adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000481