Positive Activities Improve Self-Esteem More Than Affirmations in Some People

Resiliency is a key factor in coping with stress. Individuals with strong resiliency tendencies seem to be able to manage and overcome life stressors better than those with weaker resiliency. Positive feelings are critical to resiliency, and much of the existing self-help tools advocate positive affirmations as a means of creating resiliency and increasing self-esteem. However, people with low self-esteem do not always see a mood improvement from these techniques. Although it is well known that resiliency is rooted in positive feelings, how to achieve those positive feelings in order to strengthen resiliency is less understood. To better identify what types of positive feelings increase resiliency in people, Jennifer L. Hames of the Department of Psychology at Florida State University recently conducted a study on individuals with high and low self-esteem.

Hames evaluated the level of self-esteem in 210 college students and assigned them to one of three experimental conditions. People with both high and low self-esteem were randomly chosen to write about an activity that they enjoyed or to write either a positive or neutral self-affirmation.  Hames assessed the self-esteem of all the participants after the experiment and found that those with low self-esteem saw decreases in mood when they wrote positive self-affirmations. However, their self-esteem increased significantly when they wrote about an activity that they enjoyed doing. This trend was reversed in the participants with high self-esteem. Those individuals saw a decrease in mood when they wrote about the activity, but a mood increase when they wrote positive self-affirmations.

These findings are not consistent with other research that suggests that positive affirmations increase self-esteem and strengthen resiliency in most individuals. In fact, these results clearly demonstrate that people with differing levels of self-esteem respond best to very different types of resiliency strategies. “Therefore, caution should be used when advocating the use of a resiliency technique across individuals, as the efficacy of the technique may differ as a function of attributes such as self-esteem,” said Hames. These results can help clinicians working with individuals who have low self-esteem by giving them the skills they need to implement effective stress coping strategies rather than using techniques that could further diminish their self-esteem and propel them into a more negative mood state or even depression.

Hames, J. L., Joiner, T. E. (2012). Resiliency factors may differ as a function of self-esteem level: testing the efficacy of two types of positive self-statements following a laboratory stressor. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31.6, 641-662.

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  • Lauren Jaynes

    Lauren Jaynes

    June 12th, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    It’s hard to benefit from anything good when you are battling against horrible self esteem issues.

    The fact that your self esteem is low clouds how you feel about yourself, so no wonder those positive affirmations do not seem to help those people.

  • Donna Freeman, Ph.D.

    Donna Freeman, Ph.D.

    June 12th, 2012 at 9:24 PM

    Great article. I am a huge proponent of therapy being proactive and action-based. Thinking rationally (healthfully) and taking positive, rational action, is the way to change negative, maladaptive feelings into positive, adaptive ones.

  • Deanna


    June 13th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    For me this also goes against what I have thought too about people with low self esteem. I have always been that person who thought that if you tell yourself good things, then those things will come true. Sort of a self made self fulfilling prophecy if you will. But this shows that this is not always the case. When someone is suffering from such self loathing and poor self esteem, the solution is not always so simple. This is something thatit will take more to break through than simply positive self affirmation. My one little thing that I would like to see done differently though to see if this is the case across the board would be to try this experiment with differing age groups and demographics, as college students may not always be the demographic that best represents everyone.

  • bobby


    June 14th, 2012 at 5:35 AM

    What do you think that this is all about? Do you think that thinking about positive things makes those with low self esteem feel even worse about themselves? Odd.

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