Gleaning Hints for Human Happiness Away from Self-Esteem


Yu Niiya, Professor

Department of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies

Posted Mar. 8, 2019

Faculty Profile

Drawing on her experiences in the United States, Professor Niiya brings a global approach to the study of psychology. She makes use of the distinctive environment of the Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies and, together with students from diverse cultural backgrounds, searches for the root of human happiness.

Exploring the psychological mechanisms that cause people to fear failure and experience threats to their self-esteem

Grounded in social psychology and cultural psychology, my research examines the influence of self-esteem and amae (a Japanese concept often said to be culturally unique, which is used to describe both an interpersonal relationship and emotions, including dependence, trust, and feeling of closeness) on interpersonal relations.

My research interest was driven by a concern with my own extreme fear of failure. I had become aware that this excessive sensitivity to failure was making my self-esteem vulnerable. I wanted to find out more about why this was happening, what the consequences were, and the psychological mechanisms underlying this vulnerability. My research shows that concerns about others’ evaluation and the desire to appear competent or likable in their eyes are the source of many of these problems.

In our society, people inherently interact with others and mutually influence one another. Our surrounding culture and context and those in which we were born and raised also shape who we are and what we do. I became more directly aware of this while studying in the United States, a world-leading country in psychology research. In Japan, perhaps because of the stereotypical image of hospitality (omotenashi), people are thought to be compassionate toward others. This is praised as a virtue around the world, but questions remain as to whether the Japanese really are caring to others and behave thoughtfully to support others, or whether they act kindly just for the sake of appearing kind. These two may look similar but can shape very different outcomes.

For example, it is usually easy for a passenger on a train to give up their seat for a person who is clearly in need of it—imagine an elderly person with a cane—because offering a seat serves both the goal of supporting others and the goal of appearing kind. Now imagine that in front of you is a woman who “appears” pregnant, but the situation is so ambiguous, you worry that you will make a fool of yourself by offering her seat if she isn’t actually pregnant. In this kind of situation, you may pretend not to notice the woman if your goal is only to appear kind; however, if your goal is to actually support others you may still take the chance to offer her your seat.   

If you become obsessed with wanting to create a good impression of yourself, you may feel at the mercy of others and become incapable of behaving in ways that genuinely support others. How can we overcome this problem? I believe that shifting our focus from obtaining something for the self (e.g., good evaluation) to offering something for others (e.g., support, help) is key to attaining happiness. This belief is what drives my research forward.

A unique learning opportunity grounded in the rich diversity of students in GIS

GIS (the Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies) brings together students from a wide variety of backgrounds: some students have experience living in various other countries, others hold more than one nationality. One strength of having a multicultural experience in studying cultural psychology is that students can intuitively perceive similarities and differences between Japan and other countries, which allows them to test academic theories and knowledge against their own lived experience, rather than simply studying them in the abstract. Moreover, when these students come together to discuss a topic, each person can bring forth a different perspective, allowing for a multi-faceted, in-depth discussion. Even as an educator, I often find myself getting new insights from my students.

I also feel that despite their diverse cultures, all humans, in essence, share a common desire to feel good about themselves. Self-esteem is one topic I have been investigating in my research.

Looking at my students, I see that they are very sensitive to how they are being evaluated by others, just as I myself used to be. If they are always concerned about what other people think, they may feel that they need to be perfect to be accepted and thus may be overly afraid of failures and mistakes. When they fail, they lay the blame on others, or on the circumstances to protect their self-esteem. However, turning their gaze away from the real reasons for the failure ultimately prevents them from learning from it. People fear failure because it is seen as a threat to their self-esteem rather than as a learning opportunity.

Failure need not be a threat. It can be a chance for discovery and growth if people could only let go of their desire to appear good and competent in others’ eyes. This would require people to have an alternative goal, and I suspect the goal to support others and contribute to society is key. I am exploring this theme in my research together with my students.

Sharing hints for human happiness with the wider world

The discipline of psychology involves researching the functioning of the mind. Through my research, I feel I have gained a deeper understanding of the human psyche and of my own weaknesses. The quest for knowledge is, in itself, very fulfilling; however, I keep reminding myself that as a researcher, I have the responsibility to contribute to the greater good of society. Shedding light on the mechanisms of the mind can reveal hints on how to solve interpersonal problems, reduce vulnerabilities, and achieve happiness. Psychology research requires meticulous analyses of data collected through experiments and surveys. Translating findings from these data into concrete advice people can follow in their everyday life is what I believe to be my version of “practical wisdom.”

One approach I’ve taken is to compile my research findings in a more comprehensible form, namely a book for general audiences. This was published in 2017 (“Letting go of self-esteem: Creating happiness through psychology”, published by Seishin Shobo, in Japanese). I plan to continue exploring the truths of the mind and sharing what I find with my students, and with wider society.

Making diversity a reality by accepting and respecting cultural difference

I am also researching the Japanese concept of amae, or dependence/presumption on others’ kindness. Although I did not anticipate any connection with my research on self-esteem, now that I look back, I realize that both are similar in that they entail acknowledging and accepting one’s own inability to be perfect.

For adults, amae involves a sense of immaturity and tends to be viewed negatively, but an appropriate level of amae cam actually improve interpersonal relations by allowing the other party to feel that they are needed and trusted.

Although the term amae is commonly used in Japanese, I couldn’t find any English expression that appropriately expressed this concept of amae. Terms such as “spoiling” and “dependency” have a slightly different nuance, and seems too narrow and negative. However, the lack of a word in English doesn’t mean that people from English-speaking countries don’t experience amae. In my research, I collected data not just from Japanese people but from Americans as well, to show that amae is not a phenomenon unique to Japan. My data suggest that amae exists and can facilitate relationships in the United States as well: it’s just that people are less conscious of it because there’s no vocabulary for it. The majority of research in cultural psychology focuses on understanding cultural differences, but I feel that although culture has a strong influence on everything we do, it’s equally important to point out what we have in common as human beings despite the many differences.

GIS prides itself on offering all courses in English and on attracting students with a variety of cultural backgrounds. I believe that GIS offers an ideal environment for teaching diversity. Because English doesn’t have such a clearly-defined honorific language as Japanese, students can engage in “flat” communication across different year levels. Moreover, in discussions, the emphasis is not on language proficiency, but on the will to convey one’s message. People naturally tune in and listen intently when somebody is trying passionately to communicate, even if there are some mistakes in their English expression. Looking beyond superficial speech styles and accents, communicating one’s own opinion, and listening closely to what others have to say: I feel that this kind of attitude is at the core of respect for diversity.

The strength of studying psychology is that it helps people understand those around them better. When somebody says something offensive to them, not only can they protect themselves from being hurt by it, but they can also think about why the person would say such a thing, and get closer to their point of view. It opens up the possibility of understanding one another on a deeper level. I hope that students apply this kind of practical wisdom to their own personal growth.

Yu Niiya, Professor

Department of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies (GIS)

Born in Tokyo in 1976

Graduated from the Department of Education, Faculty of Liberal Arts at International Christian University, obtained her MA in Social Psychology at the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, and then a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the Department of Psychology, University of Michigan. After working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, joined Hosei University Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies in 2008 as an Assistant Professor, and became an Associate Professor in 2011. Professor since 2016. Recent publications include Letting go of self-esteem: Creating happiness through psychology (published by Seishin Shobo, in Japanese).