Our Contemporary Notion of Self-Esteem Was Born — Surprise! — in 1980s California

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The connection between how we feel about ourselves and how well we do (at work, in school, in our personal lives) feels unshakeable. Doesn’t it seem intuitive — if not axiomatic — that confidence in our abilities begets success? Not so fast. In an excerpt from his recent book, shared at the Guardian, Will Storr uncovers the recent history of self-esteem — including its origins in shaky science that was expertly packaged and marketed by John “Vasco” Vasconcellos, a California legislator on a mission:

In the mid-80s, the notion that feeling good about yourself was the answer to all your problems sounded to many like a silly Californian fad. But it was also a period when Thatcher and Reagan were busily redesigning western society around their project of neoliberalism. By breaking the unions, slashing protections for workers and deregulating banking and business, they wanted to turn as much of human life as possible into a competition of self versus self. To get along and get ahead in this new competitive age, you had to be ambitious, ruthless, relentless. You had to believe in yourself. What Vasco was offering was a simple hack that would make you a more winning contestant.

Vasco’s first attempt at having his task force mandated into law came to a halt in 1984, when he suffered a heart attack. His belief in positive thinking was such that, in an attempt to cure himself, he wrote to his constituents asking them to picture themselves with tiny brushes swimming through his arteries, scrubbing at the cholesterol, while singing, to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat: “Now let’s swim ourselves/ up and down my streams/Touch and rub and warm and melt/the plaque that blocks my streams.” It didn’t work. As the senate voted on his proposal, Vasco was recovering from seven-way coronary bypass surgery.

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