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I received a call from concerned parents the other day. Their child is not doing well in school and his rebbe and teacher told them that the boy suffers from low self-esteem. As would any caring and involved parents, this couple wants to help and protect their child. I asked a few questions to try and determine what the teachers may have meant by self-esteem but I had the distinct feeling that it was too vague for an objective interpretation. This is not a random issue, because in order to help a struggling person, whether a child or adult, it helps if you can clearly articulate their symptoms or issues. It is also helpful in these situations to speak the same language. After speaking with the parents, teachers and the child it became clear that he is having some academic problems — but low self-esteem is not one of them.
Over the years psychologists have defined self-esteem in a variety of ways: as a ratio of success to failure, an unwavering sense of self-worth and as a feeling of happiness. In the 1970’s and 1980’s self-esteem was thought to be a strong predictor of school and social success along with overall happiness in life. This has turned out, however, not to be the case. In fact, so many different terms have been tossed around over the last three decades that their psychological meaningfulness had become suspect. Only in recent years has there developed the beginning of a consensus about what some of these terms actually refer to.
Take, for instance, the psychological expression of happiness. In research performed in the 1970’s it was thought that happiness had the same meaning as being satisfied with one’s life. In a series of studies that my colleague, Vincent Conte, and I performed, we have found that happiness is more of a fleeting, momentary response, while life satisfaction is significantly more enduring.
Happiness is more likely to be reported for a specific event while life satisfaction is based on an enduring but subjective sense of comfort with one’s daily activities, health, mood, finances, and social contacts, among other things. In fact, the more that happiness is studied the more we find that the most successful people are not necessarily among the happiest. Those who challenge themselves to achieve are often thwarted in their attempts, which may cause them to be unhappy, but they are more likely to be satisfied with their lives and their on-going struggles — particularly if they find the challenges to be meaningful. And, their sense of satisfaction is based on their own level of contentment, not an arbitrarily set measure of success. Some people may have a strong sense of satisfaction with very little money or with a large group of friends while others may feel satisfaction with the opposite.
Prior research linked happiness to self-esteem. It was thought that happier people had higher levels of self-esteem and conversely, those with low self-esteem have little to be happy about. We know that this is simply untrue. In adults in particular there is virtually no correlation between happiness and self-esteem. Socialization and mood are clearly related to life satisfaction and have an impact on self-esteem and happiness, but there is little correlation between self-esteem and any measure of success.
When it comes to students the recent findings are equally clear. Self-esteem may be correlated with academic achievement in high school, up to about 10th grade, but it is not a measure of overall academic success or success in later life. It could very well be that children who do exceptionally well in school have high self-esteem but there is no evidence that doing poorly is directly related to low self-esteem. Many students with low self-esteem and a constant fear of failure do well academically.
Furthermore, in studies of bullies and people who are violent it has been found that some of these aggressive individuals have very high self-esteem. They often become violent not because of a low sense of self-worth but just the opposite, they hold themselves in such high esteem that they feel superior to the point of not caring about others. It is possible that these individuals have such a high sense of self-esteem because they are narcissists. Nevertheless, this finding forces us to reconsider the meaning and use of the term self-esteem, especially when it comes to describing children who are having a difficult time in school or elsewhere.
Too often we confuse a desire to help our children and ourselves feel a sense of happiness in life with a more global feeling of comfort. This has led us to create optimism or happiness as a goal in and of itself, a goal that is virtually meaningless. When we think or, worse, act this way, we mistake the objectives for the goals. Our long-term goals should be to find a sense of comfort or satisfaction within ourselves based on who we are and what we truly need. Along the way we may find some happiness but we may also experience painful failures. It is important to understand and learn from these experiences but not get stuck in them. For this particular child whose parents called, the underlying cause for the mood and academic changes that his teachers observed was frustration with a social issue. Giving him tools to help him cope with his issue allowed him to feel that he had more resources to confront problems.
Rashi tells us that when Avraham arrived in Shechem he prayed for his grandchildren’s success even before he had any children of his own (Bereishes 12:6). He knew that a battle was coming and prayed for their success. He did not pray that there should be no battle or that they should just find happiness. The message is clear. There will be battles and challenges in life but we must rise to overcome them — not misunderstand or misinterpret them. We help our children and ourselves not by putting on a false sense of esteem or happiness, for that is fleeting, but by preparing for life’s challenges and dealing with the trials that will inevitably occur.