Self-Esteem Is Overrated

Managing editor Sandra Upson introduces the September/October 2013 issue of Scientific American MIND
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During most of my teenage years, I was plagued by acne—serious acne. Those scarlet interlopers, and my acute awareness of them, crippled my self-esteem. Only later did I wonder why in the midst of all this anxiety, the main thing I still thought about was me. The problem, as it turns out, was an inability to turn my focus outward.

In fact, you should just get over yourself, psychologists Jennifer Crocker and Jessica J. Carnevale advise in this issue's cover story, “Self-Esteem Can Be an Ego Trap”. Focusing on the well-being of others may ultimately offer the greater reward, both inside and outside your head. In Head Lines, our writers elaborate on this concept, too—see "Generosity Is Its Own Reward" for the surprising benefits of generosity.

Other ideas about ourselves have also slid past their prime, notably in education. We explore several fresh approaches in our special report entitled “How We Learn”. For example, I was startled to discover that underlining and rereading passages are poor methods of internalizing a text. Instead techniques such as self-quizzing have emerged as winners “Psychologists Identify the Best Ways to Study” by psychologist John Dunlosky and his colleagues. Similarly, in mathematics, new teaching strategies can help students discover an affinity for numbers. Mathematician John Mighton shares his experiences.

As we venture through life, the best opportunities for learning often come as a surprise—and not always a welcome one. Consider Eleanor Longden, a doctoral student in psychiatry who weathered a seismic shock to her sense of self: the sudden manifestation of auditory hallucinations. She chronicles her own unraveling and ultimate triumph in “How to Live with Voice Hearing”. While learning to make peace with the voices in her head, she embarked on a mission to infuse more compassion into mental health care—another place where an external focus can do the most good.

Knowing that helping others flourish is also the optimal strategy for us individually is a welcome message. As the saying (almost) goes, no mind is an island.

This article was originally published with the title "Beyond Self-Esteem."

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