The reason that you need to feel good about yourself in order to be happy might not be what you think it is

Do you feel the need to feel good about yourself in order to be happy? Research suggests that if you have a lot of opportunities to make new friends, it is more likely that you will answer this question with a ‘yes’ than when you have more of a set group of people you spend time with. In this blog, I will describe the recent research on the influence of relational mobility and how it relates to the way in which we develop our self-esteem and happiness.

From the early days of psychology, studies have shown that people want to feel good about themselves (James, 1890/1983). The concept of self-esteem has thus been extensively studied in psychology. Although, the question of whether or not it truly has as many positive consequences as it is perceived to have (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2003), it can generally be concluded that people who are happy, feel good about themselves as well (Brown, 2010). Is this however equally important for everyone?

A growing body of research suggests that there are in fact variations in the degree to which having a positive sense of self is a prerequisite for feeling happy. People in Japan, Chile, Fiji as well as Mexican-Americans and Native Americans have for example been found to feel less of a need to feel good about themselves (Falk, Heine, Yuki & Takemura, 2009). The common explanation for these differences has been the difference in the extent to which people see themselves as unique and independent individuals (who have an independent self-construal) or define themselves in relation to others they are close to (having a more interdependent self-construal). Although straightforward, this theory doesn’t offer an explanation as to why these differences exist. It is after all quite logical for happiness to be tied to your own positive evaluation of your qualities if your culture says that it is important to define yourself as a unique and special individual. On the other hand, happiness is of course more likely to be tied to the quality of your relationships if your culture says that relationships with others are to be valued.

If we truly want to understand the reason that the relationship between self-esteem and happiness is stronger in Western than non-Western settings, we need to look at the (social) ecology of the environment in which our sense of self develops. Just like how the ecology of a flower partly explains why a certain flower grows taller than the others (e.g., exposure to sunlight, lack of parasites etc.), social ecological factors, such as economic, political and educational systems, as well as the ways in which informal groups and interpersonal relationship are structured have been found to shape the behavioral patterns and psychological tendencies that people develop (e.g., Oishi & Graham, 2010).

The social ecological factor that shapes the degree to which self-esteem is linked to happiness is the factor of relational mobility. In order to best illustrate this effect, think of relationships as forming in an “interpersonal marketplace”. If this market is open, individuals have a wide range of relationship options to choose from. We therefore strive to find the best and most highly valued relationships and group memberships. The availability and accessibility of these most prized relationships are however limited. Therefore, in order to be considered and even selected by the party that one desires to be associated with, one must be considered as offering more to this relationship than one’s competitors (e.g., a more attractive romantic partner). In such an open and competitive interpersonal marketplace, having the perception that you have qualities that are desirable should thus be strongly associated with one’s happiness level. In contrast, if the marketplace is more closed and relational mobility is low, people will have more committed long-term and exclusive relationships. What matters for happiness in such an environment is the quality of one’s existing relationships. It then becomes irrelevant to think too highly of yourself.

In a set of survey and experimental studies, Yuki, Sato, Takemura and Oishi (2013) found that relational mobility explains differences in the extent to which self-esteem predicts happiness both within and across cultures. The differences emerged both in comparisons between cultures (North Americans versus Japanese), as between regions within the same country (regions in Japan where people stay with the same employer for longer or shorter) and when they experimentally manipulated the degree of relational mobility that people have on their minds. This experimental manipulation consisted of asking people to recall and write down their experiences of a situation in which they last talked for more than 30 minutes with someone they had not previously met. Or, asking them to recall and write down the situation in which they last talked for more than 30 minutes to their family. Across studies, self-esteem was a stronger predictor for happiness if relational mobility has high.

What does this mean for our happiness? If we have a stable group of friends and close family relationships, our happiness will be tightly interconnected with the quality of those relationships. In the same vein as the market place metaphor, investing in those relationships will thus pay off in more happiness in this case. If we however have a rather diverse and loosely defined group of friends, who come and go during our lifetime, our happiness tends to depend on the quality of our relationship with ourselves. As long as we don’t inflate our own sense of worth, our happiness will increase if we invest in this relationship instead.


Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1-44.

Brown, J. D. (2010). Across the (not so) great divide: Cultural similarities in self-evaluative processes. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 318–330.

Falk, C. F., Heine, S. J., Yuki, M., & Takemura, K. (2009). Why do Westerners self-enhance more than East Asians?. European Journal of Personality, 23(3), 183-203. doi: 10.1002/per.715

James, W. (1983). The principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1890).

Oishi, S., & Graham, J. (2010). Social ecology: Lost and found in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 356–377.

Yuki, M., Sato, K., Takemura, K., & Oishi, S. (2013). Social ecology moderates the association between self-esteem and happiness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 741-746.