Many of us feel great about ourselves when we focus on how much success we’ve had in comparison to others. But what happens when we don’t succeed? Self-esteem sinks.

Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. © Dan Archer

New research shows that developing mindfulness skills may help us build secure self-esteem—that is, self-esteem that endures regardless of our success in comparison to those around us.

Christopher Pepping and his colleagues at Griffith University in Australia conducted two studies to demonstrate that mindfulness skills help enhance self-esteem.

In the first study, the researchers administered questionnaires to undergraduate students in an introductory psychology course to measure their mindfulness skills and their self-esteem. The researchers anticipated that four aspects of mindfulness would predict higher self-esteem:

  • Labeling internal experiences with words, which might prevent people from getting consumed by self-critical thoughts and emotions;
  • Bringing a non-judgmental attitude toward thoughts and emotions, which could help individuals have a neutral, accepting attitude toward the self;
  • Sustaining attention on the present moment, which could help people avoid becoming caught up in self-critical thoughts that relate to events from the past or future;
  • Letting thoughts and emotions enter and leave awareness without reacting to them.
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The results, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, support the researchers’ predictions: students with these mindfulness skills indeed had higher self-esteem. However, this study did not clarify whether mindfulness causes self-esteem, or whether those with mindfulness also had higher self-esteem because of some other factor.

In order to find out if mindfulness directly causes higher self-esteem, the researchers conducted a second study. They instructed half of the participants to complete a 15-minute mindfulness meditation that focused on the sensation of their breath. The other half of participants read a 15-minute story about Venus fly-trap plants. All of the participants completed questionnaires that assessed their level of self-esteem and mindfulness both before and after they completed the 15-minute task.

Consistent with the researchers’ predictions, those that participated in the mindfulness meditation had higher scores in mindfulness and in self-esteem after meditating, while there was no change in these dimensions for those that read the Venus fly-trap plant story.

Because the only difference between the two groups was whether or not they participated in a mindfulness exercise, these results suggest that mindfulness directly causes enhanced self-esteem.

The authors write that because the effects of the mindfulness exercise on self-esteem in this study were temporary, future research should examine if mindfulness interventions can lead to long-term changes in self-esteem.

However, these findings are promising. The authors write, “Mindfulness may be a useful way to address the underlying processes associated with low self-esteem, without temporarily bolstering positive views of oneself by focusing on achievement or other transient factors. In brief, mindfulness may assist individuals to experience a more secure form of high self-esteem.”

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