The Science of Self-Reflection: How Looking Inward Can Affect Every Area of Your Life

UPDATED: September 13, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 4, 2022
The Science of Self-Reflection

When you’re doing yoga, taking a walk in nature, meditating or doing controlled breathing, what are you really doing? Perhaps you’re getting some exercise or just answering the call of the daily routine. But what’s happening inside your mind when you’re doing these activities? 

As it turns out, you may be engaging in self-reflection. And if you’re able to self-reflect, you’re already on the right path to potential improvements in well-being, health and even career success. 

A couple decades ago, a statement like that might have read as the gimmicky promotion of unproven theories or pseudoscience. But since that time, research has put self-reflection on the menu for those who are hungry for science-backed ways to improve their lives. 

Read on to learn the science behind self-reflection and how you can harness it to improve your life in 2022 and beyond.

What is self-reflection?

Self-reflection is deceptively simple. It’s the act of looking inward with the goal of understanding who you are, how you feel and where you want to be. It’s a tool that helps you gain perspective on your strengths, behaviors, thoughts and desires. 

It can take many forms—yoga, meditation, nature walks and controlled breathing are all associated practices. But the core action that defines self-reflection is looking inward for understanding.

Simply understanding, however, isn’t the end goal of self-reflection. It’s the starting point for positive change, says Brie Scolaro, LMSW, co-director of Aspire Psychotherapy in New York City.

“Whether you are interested in furthering your career, strengthening your relationship or repairing old friendships, self-reflection will allow you to understand if your participation in this area of life is actually leading to the result you are looking for,” Scolaro says.

A pathway to well-being and health

Mental health practitioners have long regarded practices associated with self-reflection as beneficial to mental well-being and health in general. Slowly but surely, peer-reviewed research has caught up with these theories about self-reflection.

For example, a 2011 study published in The Journal of Psychology found that college students who were more self-reflective were more likely to report higher levels of satisfaction with life and related measures of mental well-being.

Meanwhile, a 2014 review of 47 past studies found that meditation’s stress-reducing effects aren’t just our collective imagination. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that people enrolled in meditation programs saw moderate beneficial effects on anxiety and depression.

A separate 2014 study published in Sleep looked at 54 adults who had chronic insomnia and found that meditation and mindfulness appeared to be “… a viable treatment option for adults with chronic insomnia and could provide an alternative to traditional treatments for insomnia.”

These studies are just the tip of the iceberg of research showing positive links between reflection, health and well-being. This is an association that makes sense to Kelly Miller, CAPP, ACC, CRT. 

Miller, founder of resilience and positive psychology firm A Brighter Purpose in Fairfax County, Virginia, says it’s all about prioritizing positive emotions.

“Prioritizing the positive in an action-oriented way by placing yourself in positive opportunities outweighs the negativity bias,” she says. “If I’m having a rough day—if I’m depressed, sad, lonely—I am able to self-reflect, do a scan of what’s going on, see what I need and take myself in a positive direction.”

Self-reflection for career success

Although the potential for increased well-being is likely attractive to many who feel that stress and distress have negative impacts on their health, there’s another big draw of self-reflection for the career-minded among us.

“In a business setting, self-reflection is really more of an emotional intelligence tool to understand how you’re showing up for other people and how you can communicate with others to have them show up for you,” Miller says.

Why does that matter? Because research has found that emotional intelligence is a strong predictor of career success—in some cases, stronger than raw intelligence or hard skills. If the ability to self-reflect contributes to higher emotional intelligence, it stands to reason that it might boost your career performance in turn.

“Without self-reflection, we are just guessing and taking shots in the dark, hoping that things will miraculously work out,” says Maili Tirel, MA, an internet counselor and school psychologist based in Tartu, Estonia. “Being serious about building a career and meeting your goals involves at least some self-reflection.”

Scolaro added that taking moments to self-reflect can help you understand where you are in reference to where you want to be in your career, as well as how to get there.

“When you notice a discrepancy between where you want to be in life and how you are showing up, you can adjust your behavior and cultivate change,” Scolaro says. “Those that engage in active self-reflection will be able to take a more engaged, meaningful and effective approach to their definition of life.”

Reflection, not rumination

To reap the rewards self-reflection can offer, you have to take it seriously. You have to actually self-reflect, Miller says.

“Integrity has to be a part of self-reflection,” she says. “We have to be honest when we reflect about ourselves. Our brains want to make us feel safe and feel good. But we have to answer tough questions when we self-reflect.”

However, looking inward with a critical eye can produce anxious thoughts and feelings, Scolaro says. But it’s important to come face to face with our true strengths and failures to land on actionable insights that can propel our lives forward.

Even when you’re on a roll with your self-reflection, you need to take a moment to make sure you’re not fixating on failures, Tirel says. Self-reflecting in the wrong way can lead to rumination, or a persistent focus on the negative.

“Self-reflection is generally related to better mental health outcomes, although it should be noted that there can be too much of a good thing—in some individuals, self-reflection can trigger rumination, which has a detrimental effect on mental health,” Tirel says.

How to put self-reflection to work in your own life

As an abstract concept, self-reflection is relatively easy to understand as a vessel for self-improvement. But how does it look in practice? How can you incorporate self-reflection into your everyday life? 

Make it a daily act, Miller suggested—one that prioritizes positive thinking.

“You can start every single day by setting a timer for two minutes and tuning into the thoughts that are going through your mind like a news ticker,” she says. “Remember that you get the choice of what thoughts you’d like to entertain that day.”

Tirel, on the other hand, recommends journaling as a way to add self-reflection to your day. It’s a practice she engages in herself.

“I use the journal to analyze and make sense of different experiences in my personal and professional life, and I find it especially helpful for noticing certain patterns in my thoughts or behavior,” she says.

Working with a therapist or performance coach can help you make space for self-reflection in your routine, Scolaro says. But therapy and coaching aren’t the only ways.

“If therapy is not accessible to you, I challenge you to pick a time of day or moment in your daily routine, such as 9 a.m. or immediately following your workout, to take a few deep breaths and reflect,” Scolaro says. “Look inward and ask yourself ‘What kind of person do I want to be today? What do I want to stand for? How am I showing up in my life according to what matters?’”

Photo by @ashiqkhan/Twenty20

Alex Lindley

Alex Lindley is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, son, dog and cat. He loves working with words, whether that happens in print journalism, SEO, poetry manuscripts or pretty much anywhere else. Find him onTwitterandLinkedIn.