Smiley face

1. The root of all your problems is low self-esteem

Bestselling self-help author Louise Hay insists that “If we really love ourselves, everything in our lives works”, but is low self-esteem really the source of every social ill from obesity to aggression?

All the evidence suggests that your self-esteem rating does not predict the quality of your relationships or how long they will last. And high self-esteem won’t necessarily stop your children smoking, drinking, taking drugs or becoming sexually active at an early age. Even the contribution that low-self esteem makes to delinquency is negligible once you control for other factors. Contrary to popular misconception, Dan Olweus, as he writes in his book Bullying at School and What We Can Do, discovered that most school bullies are not secretly suffering from poor self-esteem, but quite the opposite in fact. In study after study, people with high self-esteem scores may consistently rate themselves as more attractive, popular, socially skilled and intelligent than average but independent evaluations and objective tests just don’t bear this out. The science suggests that, if our self-esteem is riding high, we may feel great, but we may also be slightly delusional.

We all stuff up, compromise ourselves and do innumerable dumb things that we end up regretting. That’s being human. And feeling bad about ourselves is often life’s way of letting us know what to do about it. As comedian Jay Leno told O Magazine in an interview: “A little low self-esteem is actually quite good. Maybe you’re not the best, so you should work a little harder.” Self-esteem isn’t a fuel tank that must be kept topped up if we are to get to our destination. It’s often more useful to us as a barometer of progress, providing ongoing feedback about the wisdom of our choices and the validity of our actions.

2. You can control your life

The human desire to be in control is strong, so strong in fact that our brains will even create the illusion of control by imposing order on random events. As psychologists Whitson and Galinsky show in a 2008 paper for Science, people deprived of control are far more likely to see images in patterns of random dots, and resort to superstitious beliefs and conspiracy theories.

In the 1970s psychologist Jonathan Rotter discovered that we tend to fall into two camps: those who believe that the things that happen to us are down to outside forces we can do little about (external locus of control) and those who see ourselves as masters of our own fate (internal locus of control). In our culture we are encouraged to believe that a strong internal locus is a good thing, but if you see life as determined solely by your choices, that amounts to a load of pressure to make the right ones. No surprise then that people with high internal locus scores are vulnerable to guilt, perfectionism, anxiety and self-recrimination.

Life can be frightening, unpredictable and unfathomable at times. We all need some measure of control to make it bearable. However, occasionally we also need to trust both life and ourselves and let things unfold, rather than try to grab the wheel the whole time. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell shrewdly observed in The Power of Myth, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.” But how many of us are brave enough to relinquish control to that degree?

3. You can never be too assertive

Assertive behaviour is the gold standard of communication, promising to teach us how to establish a platform of mutual respect from which we can stand up for ourselves and get our voices heard, without ever needing to resort to aggression. But do the theory and practice of assertiveness really match up?

For a start, it turns out you can indeed have too much of a supposedly good thing. Daniel Ames and Francis Flynn discovered a “Goldilocks algorithm” operating in the workplaces they studied. Employees regarded too much assertiveness as just as problematic as too little.

When you examine assertiveness techniques themselves, it soon becomes apparent that assertiveness is a game in which you subtly aim to disenfranchise your opponent. I might use “fogging”, whereby I strategically align myself with some part of what you are saying in order to lever my own agenda. Or “negative assertion”, whereby I appear to take on board your criticism but in the very same breath press forward with my own demands.

I would dare to suggest that this is Machiavellian to the core. It’s chess, not conversation, and we should be under no illusions that the goal is not to wrestle the other person into submission. How can we ever have a genuinely respectful interaction with someone we are attempting to manipulate? Most books on assertiveness are ultimately manuals on how to gain the upper hand. They have a place but let’s not fool ourselves: passive aggression is aggression nonetheless.

4. You should let your feelings out

Prior to the 1960s the infamous British “stiff upper lip” was universally regarded as a virtue, but nowadays the repression of emotion is seen as the root of a host of psychological and physical problems. But while Western research evidence offers convincing links between repressed feelings and health problems, how do we explain the fact that Japanese culture, in which the suppression of certain emotions is actively encouraged, also produces the world’s healthiest citizens?

Even in the West there is emerging evidence that letting it all out isn’t always necessarily the best strategy. After the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, University of Buffalo researchers found that witnesses who ignored a request to record their feelings actually fared better psychologically and physically than those who agreed to write their emotions down. And while we are routinely taught that “letting your anger out” is good for us, reviewing 40 years of evidence led Professor Jeffrey Lohr, a leading clinical psychologist from the University of Arkansas, to conclude that the expression of anger actually intensifies feelings of aggression.

Our feelings have a vital role to play in our lives, but let’s bear in mind that evolution has kindly given us a higher cortex so we don’t have to be at their mercy the whole time. There is a thin line between emotional expressivity and emotional incontinence. We would be wise not to confuse one with the other.

5. We must all strive to be happy

The self-help industry offers a thousand recipes for how happiness can be achieved but the latest research is showing that even positive emotions can have a downside, particularly on the way we process information. Not only are happy people more gullible and slapdash about detail, but upbeat, happy moods can make us more prejudiced in our judgments and reactions. Being too happy, it turns out, may well make you more racist and sexist! And you are less likely to progress as fast in your chosen career.

But even if you consider this a small price to pay, remember there may be a glass ceiling on the level of happiness we can achieve. The “hedonic treadmill” hypothesis states that while our brains are responsive to novel pleasures, familiar ones soon cease to stimulate us to the same degree. The new car we drooled over may yield an initial thrill but, as the smell of the new upholstery fades, so does the pleasure associated with the purr of the V6 engine and that useful little shelf for our coffee cup. Furthermore, research suggests that we also tend to have a personal happiness set point towards which we gravitate, regardless of our circumstances.

Cultures older and more astute than our own understood that it is a mistake to equate happiness simply with positive emotion. Aristotle argued that eudaemonia (often mistranslated as “happiness”) really means “human flourishing” and that this necessarily encompassed events and experiences that don’t necessarily “feel good” at all. Modern psychology agrees with the ancients that feelings of pleasure and contentment are the felicitous byproducts of a life well lived, rather than prizes to be grabbed directly. The 19th-century author Nathaniel Hawthorne gave us a poetic but fairly neat summary of the situation: “Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Stephen Briers' book Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation is published by Pearson