July 29, 2004

Happiness and Self-Esteem: Can One Exist without the Other?

Study finds that only optimism relates to both happiness and self-esteem

HONOLULU - Does one have to be happy to have high self-esteem and does one have to have high self-esteem to be happy? According to previous research, those who are happy also tend to feel good about themselves and those who lack self-worth are generally unhappy. But a new study suggests that what makes people in mid and later life happy or gives them feelings of worth are not necessarily tied to each other, except for feelings of optimism. Findings from this research will be presented at the 112th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Honolulu.

Characteristics of happy individuals with high and low self-esteem and characteristics of unhappy individuals with high and low self-esteem were examined to determine if these traits are synonymous or distinct from each other. To determine their similarities and differences, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., Chris Tkach, M.A., and M. Robin DiMatteo, Ph.D., of the University of California at Riverside asked a sample of 621 51 to 95 year old retired employees of a large utility company to fill out questionnaires about what made them happy and what gave them self-worth.

Some advantages for using older adults in studying these traits, say the authors, were (1) the findings could be generalized to other samples more easily than with a younger sample; (2) this sample more accurately reflects the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of the general population; (3) the sample has stronger self-definitions and more certain attitudes about the world.

Feeling optimistic and wanting to be around other people were the leading predictors for experiencing the most happiness in this older population, say the authors. Being in a good mood and feeling satisfied with life were also predictors of happiness. Feeling optimistic and not hopeless, having one's needs fulfilled, being satisfied with one's level of education and one's self worth were the strongest predictors for experiencing the highest self-esteem. Being satisfied with one's friends and not suffering from pain were also strong predictors of high self-esteem among this population.

How is it possible to have high self-esteem and be unhappy? The authors speculate that it may be that unhappy people who have high self-esteem feel that they have not reached their goals - they know they are smart, skilled, attractive and "have what it takes" but just have not accomplished what they wanted to in life. The authors also address how happy individuals can have low self-esteem.

"Happy individuals with low self-esteem experienced more positive than negative moods, felt relatively satisfied with their lives, tended to be extraverted and satisfied with their leisure time, felt a purpose in life and experienced good health," said Dr. Lyubomirsky. "It may be that the key to these individuals' happiness in spite of their low self-worth is their extraverted nature. They are simply more social and outgoing, which bolster their happiness but not their self-esteem."
Despite past research that shows high correlations of happiness and self-esteem, "our study gives further weight that happiness is not a trait that can completely define a person's self-worth and that the two traits - happiness and self-esteem - can exist independently," said Lyubomirsky.

Presentation: "What are the Differences Between Happiness and Self-Esteem," Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., and Chris Tkach, M.A., University of California - Riverside; Session 2150, 11:00 - 11:50 AM, Thursday, July 29, Hawaii Convention Center, Level 1 - Exhibit Hall, Kamehameha Exhibit Hall.

Full text of this article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office.

Reporters: Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, can be reached at (310) 453-3603 or by Email, and Chris Tkach, MA, can be reached at (951) 645-3641 - cell during conference or by Email before and after the conference.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.