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The Science of Self-Esteem and Why It Matters

Consider this often overlooked key to healing.

Key points

  • Research confirms the detrimental health effects that low self-esteem can have.
  • Cultivating high self-esteem may require a consistent effort.
  • Healthy self-esteem contributes positively to mind, body, and spirit.

Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow identified the various needs humans have and how those needs impact our ability to achieve our full potential. Healthy self-esteem, as represented in the fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy, is a critical contributor to physical, mental, and spiritual health. Despite its importance, the health of our self-esteem often takes a back seat to other more popular traits such as ambition, intelligence, loyalty, resourcefulness, sensitivity, and social acumen. And yet, without high self-esteem, many positive traits are unattainable.[1] In fact, low self-esteem is directly linked to low social support, poor-quality relationships, and increased anxiety and depression.[2]

A 2019 study involving secondary school children found that low self-esteem was associated with an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.[3] In addition, a 2021 clinical trial found that low self-compassion and low self-esteem strongly correlated with social anxiety.[4] A 2022 research review found that people with low self-esteem were more likely to have low school/work performance, poor mental and/or physical health, more anti-social behavior, and unhealthy social relationships compared to people with high self-esteem.[5]

The flip side is also true. High self-esteem is associated with more life satisfaction, resilience, happiness, meaning, and subjective vitality.[6,7]And the benefits of high self-esteem are cumulative and can have positive effects throughout a person’s lifespan.[5]

Enhancing self-esteem

While the science is clear that self-esteem matters, how to enhance self-esteem is not as clear or as simple as it may seem. If you or someone you love struggles with low self-esteem, here are some concepts to consider:[8]

  • Let go of perfectionism.
  • Encourage realistic self-perceptions.
  • Have hope that a positive self-image is achievable.
  • Understand the causes and consequences of low self-worth.
  • Identify the origins of negative self-perceptions, thoughts, and self-judgements.
  • Encourage social support to reduce isolation.

Cultivating healthy self-esteem may also require a consistent effort that utilizes tools to enhance self-compassion. For example, keeping a daily journal of the things that make you feel proud, peaceful, grateful, and successful help encourage higher self-esteem. Consider creating a list of positive characteristics and/or positive affirmations that you periodically review.

Even if you are not struggling with low self-esteem at this moment, it’s a good idea to check in from time to time to gauge how confident and self-assured you are feeling. Having self-esteem on your radar will help protect your mental, physical, and spiritual health.

The bottom line

Self-esteem is just one piece of the puzzle but it’s a much bigger piece than you may think. Yes, it will ebb and flow throughout a person’s lifetime, which is not the issue. Having it flow is one thing, having it forgotten is another. Let’s not forget the significance of self-esteem. Nurture it as if your quality of life depends on it…because it does.


1. Robins RW, Tracy JL, Trzesniewski K, et al. Personality correlates of self-esteem. Journal of Research in Personality. 2001.

2. Choi, Y, Choi S, Yun J, et al. The relationship between levels of self-esteem and the development of depression in young adults with mild depressive symptoms. Medicine. 2019;98:42.

3. Nguyen D, Wright E, Dedding C, et al. Low self-esteem and its association with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in Vietnamese secondary students: a cross-sectional study. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2019;10.

4. Holas P, Kowalczyk M, Krejtz I, et al. The relationship between self-esteem and self-compassion in socially anxious. Current Psychology. 2021.

5. Orth U, Robins RW. Orth U, Robins RW. Is high self-esteem beneficial? Revisiting a classic question. American Psychologist. 2022;77(1).

6. Supervia UP, Bordas SC, Robres AQ. The mediating role of self-esteem in the relationship between resilience and satisfaction with life in adolescent students. Psychology Research and Behavior Management. 2022;15:1121-1129.

7. Du H, King RB, Chi P. Self-esteem and subjective well-being revisited: the roles of personal, relational, and collective self-esteem. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(8).

8. Mann M, Hosman C, Schaalma HP, de Vries NK. Self-esteem in a broad-spectrum approach for mental health promotion. Health Education Research. 2004;19(4):357-372.

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