Self-esteem, better reframed as self-mastery
Illustration: ILoveDust
The amount of misery we suffer just from the heft of our thighs, not to mention the misbehavior of our skin, just might—if you could quantify it—inspire a global initiative. The topic has certainly intrigued Nancy Etcoff, PhD, author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, and a Harvard Medical School psychologist whose research concentrates on appearance and happiness. Three years ago she founded the Program in Aesthetics and Well-Being at Massachusetts General Hospital to explore how concepts of beauty relate to satisfaction. Recently she sat down with O to tell us what she's learned:

O: Hasn't the whole beauty industry gotten out of control? And aren't women the worse for all this hype on looking young?

Etcoff: If we say, "Just get rid of the advertisements and tell the companies to stop making products, and no one will care about beauty—this is all just a creation that we can wipe away," we are denying who we are. People do care about how they look. They have adorned themselves since Paleolithic times. This is not a vanity issue or a women's issue or a United States issue. It is human nature.

O: How much of a woman's happiness is based on her appearance?

Etcoff: That's a hard question to answer, but we know that people who focus a lot on their looks as a major source of their self-esteem tend to be a lot less happy than people who focus on, say, their social life. Why? In general we're social animals, so people without good relationships tend to be less happy; the same is true if you're not doing work or other activities that bring out your strengths. Those are the sources of real happiness, not external things like money or beauty.

O: Can a positive sense of self make you more physically attractive?

Etcoff: Watch a woman enter a room with that sense of confidence, that sense of "I matter, I'm worthwhile." The way she walks, her facial expression, everything about her says, "Look at me." Really, why do we care about being beautiful? We care because we don't want to be excluded. We want attention. Right from the start, babies look straight at your face and into your eyes. When you look away, they get upset. There is that little baby in all of us: "The world is so big—how do I get your attention?"

O: Is there any way—barring cosmetic surgery—to change your attitude about how you look?

Etcoff: Scientists researching body image have done eye-tracking studies, in which people are asked to stare in the mirror. Subjects don't look at anything they think is good; they just stare at their so-called faults. Stop that. Retrain yourself: "Why don't I look at what I like? I like my lips—what lip shade should I wear today?"

O: Any other suggestions?

Etcoff: We tend to think about social support bringing happiness, but it's also very important to give support to other people. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that those who volunteer are happier. Feeling part of something larger than you is very important. When you do something good for someone else, the reward system of your brain lights up. We tend to seek things that actually contribute very minimally to our happiness—like a nicer car and, again, looking perfect. So know where your own joy resides: What are you good at? What do you enjoy? What is meaningful? What is going to keep making you happy for a long time?

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