WASHINGTON, D.C.—Self-esteem is something we all want, and, experts say, need for our mental health. But the more we chase this notion, trying to build ourselves up in our own eyes, the more it eludes our grasp: a body of research shows that doggedly pursuing self-worth backfires, because that pursuit implies a level of ego-involvement that is unhealthy. And now, a new study reported here May 27 at the 2011 convention of the Association for Psychological Science shows that the best way to boost self-esteem is to forget about yourself altogether—and think about others.

Because relationships play a big role in how we feel about ourselves, psychologist Jennifer Crocker, who headed up the study while at the University of Michigan, and her colleague Amy Canevello wanted to test how people's goals affect their self-worth in the context of human bonds. Crocker's team picked a population whose relationships started at exactly the same time—when they started college.

They asked each of 119 freshmen same-sex roommate pairs to log onto a Web site weekly for 10 weeks and rate how much they pursued each of two types of goals. For one type, a self-image goal, the students rated how much they tried to mold their roommate's perception of them as, say, smart, witty, or a good person. On the other measure, compassion, the same freshmen reported how much they wanted to support and help their roommate. In addition, the students ranked how responsive (understanding, caring and validating) they felt their roommate was to them, and also assessed their own emotional health, including self-esteem.

The researchers found that the type of goal had a big impact on self-esteem. As the weeks passed, compassionate students became more responsive to their roommates as they built a mutually caring relationship, and their self-esteem rose. By contrast, those who were mainly concerned with their self-image got no such boost. A growing body of literature points to the benefits of giving, explains Crocker, now at The Ohio State University. One of these appears to be self-esteem. When people give, they feel like they are making a difference to others. "Caring for another person boosts self esteem," Crocker says. "You get back when you give."

Compassion also greatly benefited the relationship. The caring freshmen whose thoughtfulness grew also perceived their roommates as becoming more responsive to them over the semester. That is, their kindness was contagious. "People say in relationships: 'I'll change when they change—and that's fine. But you may wait a long time," Crocker says. "You have a lot more ability to create a responsive relationship if you say, 'It's gonna start with me.'"

This social spinoff may be what spurs a true climb in self-esteem. Events that prove a person's worth or enhance her status—such as acceptance into an elite college—create only a brief spike in self-esteem, Crocker says. When you give to another person, however, your self-esteem remains elevated for months, and maybe longer. The likely reason: you set in motion relationship dynamics that bring lasting benefits. There is a catch, though. "If you start giving to people to get a self-esteem boost, it won't work," says Crocker. Ask yourself, "Would I give even I get nothing out of it?" Only then will you get something out of it.

Image: Flickr, toastforbrekkie