If you want to know how dressing affects your attitude and confidence, all you need to do is stream that movie with Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell.
No, not the one that won the Oscar.
I mean the first one – Crazy, Stupid, Love.
In it, Steve Carell plays a guy who finds out that his wife has been cheating on him, which leads to an existential crisis as he spirals into self-doubt and despair.
Ryan Gosling, meanwhile, basically plays Ryan Gosling.
Alright fine – that’s not exactly true. But you could be forgiven for thinking so.
Gosling plays a swaggering lothario with seemingly unshakeable self-confidence – and, interestingly, a heart of gold – who decides to take Carell’s character under his wing and help him bounce back from his depression.
And where’s the very first place Gosling’s charismatic character takes Carell to regain his mojo?
The (mothafuckin’) mall.
In the grand tradition of movie characters like Danny Ocean, James Bond and Thomas Crown before him, Gosling’s character understood that one of the best, most immediate and effective ways to feel better on the inside is to look better on the outside.
How Dressing Affects Your Attitude and Confidence
Look Good, Feel Good
(It’s as true as it is clichéd.)
If you’ve ever pulled on a suit jacket that fit you like a glove and looked in the mirror as you buttoned it up, you’ll know that the clothes you wear (and the rest of your overall look) have an undeniable effect on the way you feel.
Tucking in a crisp white dress shirt makes you feel professional and deft.
Knotting your tie feels courtly and dignified.
And buttoning up a well-fitting jacket makes you stand up taller and carry yourself with pride.
Fortunately for those of us who don’t work in the financial industry or star in the hit show Suits, you can get the same kind of instant, confidence-boosting feeling without suiting up.
The same self-esteem-bolstering effects extend to any piece of clothing that makes you feel poised, polished and put together.
The Halo Effect
Since the days of Helen of Troy, whose beauty launched a thousand ships, it’s been understood that attractive people have a certain advantage when it comes to, well, just about everything.
“In society, attractive people tend to be more intelligent, better adjusted, and more popular,” writes Stanford University’s Charles Feng in the Journal of Young Investigators.
“Research shows attractive people also have more occupational success and more dating experience than their unattractive counterparts.”
Scientists call this “the halo effect,” because good looking people just seem so damn perfect that our gut reaction is to compare them to angels.
Now, on the off chance that you weren’t born with the genetic makeup of a young Brad Pitt, I can understand how this would sound discouraging.
Just as the rich tend to get richer, the hot tend to get hotter – oh, plus they get all the wealth, friends and dating partners.
As Feng explains, there actually is a way for those of us who look less like Brad Pitt and more like Brad Garrett to get in on the halo effect:
“Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist at Stanford University, believes self-fulfilling prophecies – in which a person’s confident self-perception, further perpetuated by healthy feedback from others – may play a role in success as well,” Feng writes.
“Aronson suggests, based on the self-fulfilling prophecy, that people who feel they are attractive… are just as successful as their counterparts who are judged to be good-looking.” (Emphasis mine.)
Essentially, as long as you truly and authentically feel like you look good, you’ll project that feeling outward to other people.
In turn, people will then treat you the same way they would treat any other good-looking person. And the best part is that this creates a positive feedback loop, because you then interpret the positive treatment you’re receiving as confirmation that you do indeed look good – which in turn makes you feel even better.
This is all getting a little wordy, so let’s take a minute to break it down in a more straightforward way:
The (Science-backed!) Benefits of Look Good, Feel Good
- When you dress better, you feel better about yourself.
- As a natural consequence of feeling better, you project this positive feeling outward to other people. Essentially, you behave the way good-looking people behave: confidently.
- This leads people you encounter to think “Well, he certainly acts like a good-looking guy, so he must be.” They then treat you like a good-looking person.
- Being treated this way by others affirms your own positive feelings. Subconsciously you think, “I really must be a good-looking guy, because other people are treating me like one.”
So, by dressing well you not only look better, you create a feedback loop in which other people continually affirm that you look good. This makes you feel even better, which makes you act with even more confidence, which makes other people respond even more positively, and so on and so forth.
You get the idea. Essentially, even if you didn’t win the genetic lottery, you can get all the same benefits that good looking people enjoy by dressing and presenting yourself well.
As reasons to tuck in your shirt go, that’s a pretty damn good one.
Look Good, Feel Good… Do Good
(And then feel even better)
But, wait a second, let’s pause here and acknowledge that this is all a little vain, isn’t it?
I mean, sure, it’s nice to look good, but it’s not exactly essential. Surely there are other more important (to say nothing of more benevolent) pursuits when it comes to building our self-confidence.
But not as many as you might think.
A Positive Paradox
As I’ve written elsewhere, I truly believe that one of the best things you can do to increase your own self-confidence is to not focus on yourself at all, but on other people.
Doing something kind for another person is, somewhat paradoxically, one of the best ways to feel better about yourself.
But the paradox goes even deeper than that. Stick with me here, because this is about to get confusing.
As it turns out, one of the best ways to increase the likelihood that you’ll do something kind for another person – and thus, feel better about yourself – is to focus on making yourself feel better first.
At this point you’d be completely forgiven for thinking that what started out as a simple blog post about a sweet-ass Ryan Gosling movie has declined into psychological mumbo jumbo.
But I swear, it’s not quackery – it’s science.
This idea actually comes from one of the world’s all-time leading experts on self-esteem, Nathaniel Branden, psychologist and author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
“There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity,” Branden writes.
So looking good leads to feeling good, and feeling good leads to helping people, and helping people leads to… well, feeling good.
Let’s break it down with one more good ol’ fashioned numbered list.
How Looking Good Leads to Doing Good
- Doing nice things for other people makes you feel good.
- According to Branden, you’ll be more likely to perform these kind acts if you already feel good about yourself.
- Since looking good is a great and relatively easy way to make yourself feel good, doing things that make you look better can also make you more likely to help others, whether by giving to charity or just performing everyday acts of kindness like holding open doors or smiling at strangers.
- Once you start helping people, you’ll feel even better about yourself, which will in turn make you even more likely to continue doing it.
When you look at it like that, dressing and presenting yourself well turns out to be not so much a paradox, but a path – to kindness, generosity, respect and, of course, self-confidence.
In this light, it’s no wonder that Ryan Gosling’s confident and charismatic go-getter took down-in-the-dumps Steve Carell under his wing — helping Carell become more confident also helped Gosling feel more confident in the process. (And here you thought it was because he used to love him on The Daily Show.)
There’s good reason to believe that looking good is one path to self-confidence, but it’s also important to note that it’s not the only one.
When I’m trying to develop a new healthy habit, I devote more time to cultivating the right mindset; if I’m trying to reach a new goal at the gym, I’ll focus more on my body.
But one of the best parts about starting to build self-confidence is that you quickly realize that improving in one area pays dividends in many others.
Which means that as you take steps to improve your style and your overall look, you’ll likely find it easier to improve your mind, body, people skills and other facets of your life, too.
Like I said: not a bad reason to tuck in your shirt, right?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the mall to get some Sbarro’s.
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