The science of self-love: the evidence-based benefits of loving yourself

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Self-love is seen by many as a futile, even narcissistic pursuit. With influencers urging you to love yourself without much substance to their advice, the concept of self-love may seem like an empty one. However, there is lots of scientific evidence suggesting that self-love can have a positive impact on your mental health, self-esteem, and overall life satisfaction.

Modern society creates so much pressure on people — whether it’s pressure to achieve status, wealth, or beauty — that it can sometimes feel easier to focus on our failures and ignore the areas where we have grown. This strive for perfection can make us forget to take care of our basic needs, such as psychological safety, companionship, and personal creativity.

Self-love is not selfish. Self-love is about acknowledging the need to take care of our needs, not our wants, and to work towards self-betterment instead of sacrificing our needs to prioritize the happiness of others.

The self-positivity bias

Nowadays, the definition of self-love has moved away from its traditional negative connotations such as narcissism and selfishness. It is seen as a positive psychology practice which can help people better manage their emotions and their mental health.

As Jeffrey Borenstein, President of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, puts it: “Self-love is a state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions that support our physical, psychological and spiritual growth. Self-love means having a high regard for your own well-being and happiness. Self-love means taking care of your own needs and not sacrificing your well-being to please others.”

The scientific term for self-love is self-positivity bias, which is defined as the way people rate themselves as possessing more positive personality traits and displaying more positive behaviors than the average population.

Cultivating this self-positivity bias has many evidence-based benefits. Eric Fields and Gina R. Kuperberg, both researchers from the Department of Psychology at Tufts University, explain that: “Positively biased self-views are argued to be a key component of healthy psychological functioning, influencing self-esteem, motivation, and determination. Indeed, a lack of a self-positivity bias (or even a self-negativity bias) may contribute to mood and anxiety disorder.”

Here are some of the evidence-based benefits of self-love, or self-positivity bias:

  • Better mental health
  • More self-acceptance
  • Higher self-esteem
  • More motivation
  • Stronger determination
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Less anxiety
  • Better sleep

The great news is that, even though it may be more difficult for some people compared to others, anyone can learn how to practice self-love.

Five ways to practice self-love

Fundamentally, self-love is mostly about managing our inner critic so we can develop a more nuanced view of our failures, and appreciate all our effort and personal growth in a kind, loving, and respectful way towards ourselves.

  1. Avoid negative self-talk. In her book, Dr. Kristin Neff asks: “What type of language do you use with yourself when you notice a flaw or make a mistake? Do you insult yourself or do you take a more kind and understanding tone? If you are highly self-critical, how does that make you feel inside?” Paying attention to how you internally talk to yourself is the most important step in learning how to cultivate self-love.
  2. Create personal rituals. The main difference between habits and rituals is how aware and intentional you are. Rituals are meaningful practices with a deep sense of purpose. Take time out of your busy day for self-care rituals, whether it’s giving love to your body by exercising, or giving love to your mind by meditating.
  3. Set healthy boundaries. It can be hard to love yourself when people around you are not respecting your time or acknowledging your value, whether at work or in your daily life. Getting out of the yes autopilot and learning to say no to protect your time and energy is a powerful way to practice self-love.
  4. Be compassionate towards yourself. Self-compassion is very similar to being compassionate towards other people. It consists in noticing that you are suffering and offering yourself understanding and kindness. As Dr. Kristin Neff puts it: “​​You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are.”
  5. Make space for self-reflection. Sometimes, things don’t go to plan. Instead of blaming yourself, fail like a scientist so you can learn from these failures and use them as an opportunity for personal growth. Self-reflection can take the form of a journaling practice, a weekly review, or a regular meeting with a trusted friend to reflect on your recent experiences and challenges.

As you can see, just a few changes can nurture more self-love. These changes can be as simple as appreciating our hard work and efforts without being overly or harshly critical, adopting healthy rituals, and setting healthy boundaries.

Self-love can lead to better mental health, higher self-esteem, more motivation, and many other evidence-based benefits. It doesn’t need to be cheesy. Give it a try, and don’t forget about the power of self-reflection. Failure is not the end of the world, it’s an opportunity for learning and personal growth.

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