Want to feel as if you're capable of taking on the world, asking for what you deserve, speaking up at work, and generally kicking butt in the new year? Of course you do. But for many of us, there's a difference between understanding the important role confidence plays in achieving our goals, and actually feeling it in our own lives.
But if you're lacking in the self-belief department, don't fret — new research suggests that there may be a simple formula for upping our confidence.
Confidence — belief in your own abilities and skills — is often thought to be the key to success in all endeavors; in fact, the psychologist Hendrie Weisinger Ph.D. theorized to Psychology Today that the importance of confidence may have an evolutionary basis, because confident humans are more likely to take risks, go on adventures, explore, and follow through with their decisions. While some of us seem to have vast stores of innate confidence, others struggle with the concept. Fortunately, however, new research has given us an interesting short-cut to believing in yourself: rewarding confidence when it shows up.
In 2016, two researchers declared that confidence is "the new imperative of our time," a kind of "cult" that we believe may solve everything, particularly for women. We're instructed to be more confident in our bodies, our skills, our innate abilities and our worth, in the face of centuries of destructive diminishment. (But, the researchers point out, this does tend to place the blame on women themselves for not being "confident enough" to achieve things — rather than wider societal structures for beating them down.) If you do want to achieve a higher rate of confidence to help you battle the world (and let's face it, in Trump's America, it can be easy to feel downtrodden and hopeless), 2017 brings a new idea that might be able to help you out.
Why You Should Reward Yourself When You're Feeling Confident
The basis of the new idea is pretty simple: when you're confident, reward yourself in some small way, with a treat or something else. This concept comes from a pioneering study released in December 2016 by a UCLA brain research laboratory; it showed that when people were given rewards after they showed up as highly confident on a brain scan, they became more consistently confident overall.
The study itself is very interesting, because it's one of the first looks we've had at what confidence "looks like" in your brain. When you're all fired up and believe you can conquer the world (or, at the very least, conquer a small problem — like your taxes, or that troublesome coworker who always talks over you at meetings), there are certain patterns of activity in your brain. The researchers say that confidence — what they call "the degree of certainty about our own perceptual decisions" — has its own neural pattern in the brain, and they could track how people were feeling about their decisions by looking at it.
When researchers detected this pattern, they gave the participants a small bit of money as a reward, and found that it actually influenced the levels of confidence the people experienced overall. "Each time participants were told they had won money," the UCLA researchers explained, "their brains demonstrated more of the same pattern that had just won them the cash reward." The really interesting bit about this? The subjects had no idea what they were being rewarded for, or what the experiment was about. Their confidence boosts in the brain were completely unconscious and motivated by rewards they didn't even understand. Confidence in the brain, it turns out, is so deeply embedded that we improve it even if we don't know what we're doing.
This is serious stuff; you may think confidence is just a nice personality aspect that helps you get through job interviews, approach interesting people in bars, or get good deals in stores, but it's more potent than that. Confidence levels have been shown, in separate studies, to affect both academic performance and workplace advancement, so this may well be the key to making things better for the New Year.
How To Make Your Brain More Confident
The roots of confidence aren't all in the brain; a now-famous 2009 study found that your body impacts it, too — for instance, better posture makes people feel more confidence in their decisions and qualifications. It's gradually becoming more obvious that confidence isn't actually concrete, and can be built up (or knocked down). We aren't just born with a certain amount, no matter how it felt in high school. And it's not just a trait in humans, either — rats have been shown to display confidence (or lack thereof) using a particular part of their brains that humans share.
So how can you pull this new information into your everyday life? Margie Warrell at Forbes notes that the modern wisdom about confidence is "use it or lose it," and that "consistent effort" is thought to be the key to building up sufficient stores of it to get through tough moments. Noticing your more confident moments and consciously rewarding yourself for them in some noticeable way, giving the brain's reward pathway a kick, can help you build those stores; whenever you flex your confidence muscle, reward yourself. That reinforcement, this new research indicates, will gradually make it into an easier habit.