Five tips for giving good praise.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for giving good praise.

I’m a praise junkie. I really, really need those gold stars. I know I’ve got to get over it. One of my most important happiness-project resolutions is “Don’t expect praise or appreciation.” I think about that resolution every day. But boy, it’s hard to keep.

For example, we just went through a major household project – and I mean MAJOR – that took a lot of time and effort on my part. Which, I admit, I accomplished with a minimum of grace. I tried, oh how I tried, but I just couldn’t muster it.

As I’ve done before, I begged the Big Man to manipulate me with praise! I urged him to sucker me into doing this project cheerfully by heaping gold stars on me! But he wouldn’t.

I know the way to happiness is to be FREE of the craving for praise, not to need someone to pat me on the back. I know that. I should be the source of my own sense of satisfaction, of happiness; I should know that I’ve done a job well and not depend on someone else’s opinion.

I’m sure that one reason that I went to law school was because it was clear to me what I would need to do to win praise. I wrote my papers, I got my note published, I became editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. These were big gold stars, and they were precious to me.

So I give myself an enormous gold star for putting those law-related gold stars aside to start over again as a writer. I love my work, and that’s hugely satisfying. But I still crave praise – and because the closest and easiest source would be the Big Man, I get frustrated when he won’t give it to me. Which he doesn’t. Yes, I know that’s not his job, and that I shouldn’t depend on him for it. Like I said, I’m working on not needing it.

Recently, as I fumed about all the ways in which the Big Man wasn’t feeding my praise addiction, these tips occurred to me. They apply to all kinds of relationships — friendship, work, romance, family. It’s nice to be able to give praise effectively; it means a lot to people to receive sincere praise — even people more mature than I.

1. Be specific. You read this in a lot of parenting advice: praise means more when it’s specific than when it’s general. “What a beautiful painting!” is less gratifying than “Look at all the colors you’ve used! And I see you used all your fingers with the finger paints. You’ve really made your picture look like a spring garden!” This is true, for adults, too. “Great job,” is less satisfying than an enumeration of what, exactly, was done well.

2. Acknowledge the actor. The Big Man has a habit of saying something complimentary without acknowledging that I had anything to do with whatever result he’s talking about. For example, with this household project, he looked around once and remarked, “This really turned out well.” As if some deus ex machina had wrought these changes overnight. Aaargh.

3. The effusiveness and time spent in giving praise should be commensurate with the difficulty and time-intensiveness of the task. If a task was quick and easy, a hasty “Looks great!” will do; if a task was protracted and difficult, the praise should be more lengthy and descriptive. Also, you might bring up the praise more than once.

4. Remember the negativity bias. The “negativity bias” is a well-recognized psychological phenomenon: people react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. For example, within marriage, it takes at least five good acts to repair the damage of one critical or destructive act. So if you want to praise someone, remember that one critical comment will wipe out several positive comments, and will be far more memorable. To stay silent, and then remark something like, “It’s too bad that that door couldn’t be fixed,” will be perceived as highly critical.

5. Praise the everyday as well as the exceptional. When people do something unusual, it’s easy to remember to give praise. But what about the things they do well every day without any recognition? It never hurts to point out how much you appreciate the small services and tasks that someone unfailingly performs. Something like, “You know what? In three years, I don’t think you’ve ever been even an hour late with the weekly report.” After all, we never forget to make a comment when someone screws up.

If anyone has any tips for how to free yourself from the craving for praise, send them my way! I really need them. The need for praise is such an ingrained part of my personality that I doubt I’d be able to change completely, but I can do better.

Several thoughtful readers sent me the link to this terrific happiness article, World Gets Happier — about how the world seems to becoming happier, and why.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I am so going to have MY Big Man read this! I relate to this so well. I also appreciate the tips on how I can give better praise to all the great people in my life.
    By the way, thank you for taking the time to keep this blog up and running. Our family has started our own happiness project to bring us closer to each other. My children are even getting into it. right now we are using a lot of your suggested resolutions, but have conversations ongoing to add our own to the list. However, we find that most of your suggestions are perfect for us too! I’ve added you to my blog list, and several of my friends are starting to “peek” in on your blog.
    So, thank you for all your hard work to encourage us to keep working on being happy. It is spreading!

  • I think a psychologist would tell those of us who need lots of praise to learn to give ourselves the praise we need, rather than “trying to not need it”…

  • milly

    Hey, I will give you praise: I think your blog is brilliant and personally I find it very helpful. I crave praise at work and never get it. Living without it is difficult. It is hard to feel unappreciated, to feel like no one cares whether I do a good job or not. I don’t think I can get over wanting praise entirely, but your blog has helped me get through rough spots and find happiness where I can! Thank you for doing a good job here (and hey, congrats on getting through your big project at home too).

  • Sharyn

    I enjoy giving a lot of praise to others. I do some volunteer work with teenagers and I’ve been told often that I give excellent compliments. If that’s true, it’s because they are sincere, and specific, based on observations. Teenagers usually know when they are being “B.S.’d”, so to speak.
    I’ve also come to view being taken for granted as a form of (maybe ironic?) praise. People often take someone for granted when they know they can be counted on, that they will be there for you, or that they will do what they say they will, and always give it their best. I often take the best people in my life for granted, but I do try to let them know how I feel about them when there is a good opportunity to do so. Unexpected praise or thanks can be the sweetest.
    To me, it’s an interesting choice of words when you refer to wanting the big man to “manipulate” you with praise, when I have a negative connotation of manipulate. It makes me think about developing self-manipulation!
    Another thought I’ve had lately is about how much a deeper happiness can be tied to simplicity, and how humility and simplicity are so closely intertwined. When you don’t need to prove anything to, or win anything from, someone else, there’s an enormous freedom in that.
    And here’s a “gold star”, Gretchen – your honesty and acknowledgment of yourself are lovely. It makes you very real.

  • oh my. praise. what a quagmire that can be!
    I appreciated hearing about your background – which is so similar to mine – and the struggle to deal with the need for praise and/or appreciation. . . . There are no easy answers to be found here.
    The funny thing is that ‘expected’ praise becomes worthless, not to mention that the expectations can arouse resentment in the one expected to give the praise. Ultimately, I think praise is only valued when it is freely given out of a full heart.
    What has worked for me is to do my work for the eyes of a ‘transcendent’ – for God or for excellence or for harmony, let’s say – which helps me deal with a lack of praise from the people around me. It does not devalue my desire for appreciation, though, but allows me to be free of expecting a particular response from other – free – individuals. Individuals who may just be having a bad day, or are struggling with not being praised or appreciated, themselves.
    In the ‘for-what-it’s-worth’ category, I would say that I have appreciated many of the ideas you post. I have implemented at least one that I can think of (not always successfully trying a one-sentence journal. . . .) and I know there’s another that I HAVE implemented, but forgotten, now, that it came from anywhere else than my own mind. Sorry ’bout that. It’s in my mind that I owe you for something.
    So thanks! And I can’t be any more specific than that. When it comes to mind, I’ll try and let you know what it was. How’s that for cryptic praise?!
    I return you now to your own ponderings. . . .

  • Kelsey

    I’m a “praise junkie” too! I used to say that I “needed affirmation” but I like focusing on the word praise instead.
    My husband also knows that I need praise and doesn’t always give it. One thing I do is point out things that I’ve done. For example, the other day I organized our daughter’s closet. When we were next in her room, I said, “Look at Sienna’s closet!” He opened the door and exclaimed, “Oh it looks great! Good job Babe!” Sometimes he just needs things pointed out to him, then he’ll happily praise my efforts. I think some men can just be oblivious. For that matter, everyone gets focused on their own goals and interests.
    I know it’s kind of like fishing for a compliment, but I find that pointing out my accomplishments helps a lot. That way I don’t sit around waiting for him to notice what I did. Also, it helps that he’s very sincere and does a great job giving praise once he’s aware that there’s reason to give it!

  • Thanks very much for the GOLD STARS! Oh, how I appreciate them.
    Very interesting to read people’s points about the nature of praise — and wanting it. It’s a more complicated subject than it seems.
    St. Therese is really an excellent model here. She was always striving to do “little” things perfectly, that no one noticed, or appreciated. But it’s clear from her memoir STORY OF A SOUL that even for her, saintly as she was, this was tough.

  • Heather

    Thanks for the great tips! I like #1 and #3 especially. I was reading some research recently (in Scientific American Mind, a few months ago) showing that whether people believe ability is innate or based on effort has a lot to do with how they were praised as children. (People who believe ability is based on effort succeed more in life, apparently.) Praise focusing on effort seems to be better than praise focused on result. And obviously the more attention the praiser puts into it, the more gratifying it is for the recipient. When I make something, I’d rather hear a specific, less ecstatic comment than a general “That’s great!” (Not that I am downplaying ecstatic praise, by any means!)

  • Everyone likes to feel that they have done well. Whether the need to be praised is more then that or not I couldn’t say. Thanks for the tips, it’s important to know how to make others feel apreciated.

  • I’m so glad I found this blog.
    I think you’ve opened my eyes today. I’ve always felt I was wanting people’s approval, but I think I’m more of a praise junkie. Reading your post I realised I don’t care if people don’t approve of me, it’s when they don’t recognise what I want recognised is when I get upset. Another thing I’ve learnt about myself is I often start conversations or push conversations to a particular subject so I can hear what I want to. Then I get upset if they don’t say what I want them to say.
    Gee i sound like a terrible person from this, lol.

  • Angela

    Gretchen, thank you for being you. I read your blog several times during the week, and I find so much resonance in the topics you choose to write about, and your reflections about these topics. The law clearly lost a brilliant jurist when you switched careers, but this reader is very glad that you are writing.

  • I’d go a little easier on yourself with this one. There’s lots of psychological evidence that acknowledgement and public recognition of a job well done is an intrinsic part of ambition–that ambition *needs* praise, basically. Also, that men receive more public acknowledgement for work done, and aren’t criticized for expecting it, which is one reason why men tend to be more ambitious.
    “Necessary Dreams” is a good book on this subject.

  • Carol

    Gretchen, I really have learned alot from your blog as I am working on being a happier person. You are one of several of my resources. I appreciate all of the other resources that you reference in your writings.
    As far as praise goes, I, too have always needed alot of praise. I think it’s because I did not get alot from my parents when I was growing up. But I have now learned that self-praise actually is better than praise from anyone else, even my husband. I used to get upset when he didn’t praise me. Then when he gave me praise just to make me happy it didn’t feel genuine.
    Now I know that I am the only one who can make myself happy!

  • Meg Renicker

    Hye, yes its me again, and I want to say how sorry I am for sounding so critical in the last entry I sent. I went and reread it after this article. I didn’t mean it the way it came out in writing, but you probly felt all those negative things you were talking about in today’s tips. This has taught me a lot. Your writing has taught me a lot about the search for happiness and I appreciate your time and effort, and for sharing it all with me. Thank you and please accept my apologies.

  • Kate

    first of all, thank you for your project and for being a source of happiness for me! i look forward to reading your tips, interviews and activities.
    here’s my practical plan of action for when i find myself unhappy about something, like not getting attention! when i find myself saying, ‘i wish someone would (fill in the blank) … praise me or hug me or email me or whatever! i tell myself to stop (as soon as i recognize what i am doing!) and then i turn that complaint into an action … i look for something to praise in someone else or i go and hug my son or daughter or i email a friend i haven’t heard from in awhile. i find it helps to take the focus off ME! but the end result is that I am happier!

  • Gretchen,
    Have been following your blog for a long time now and generally reading what I can find (of quality) about happiness. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert is a bit of a Bible to me.
    My Big Man is quite like yours. Wonderful, wouldn’t trade him for the world, but why can’t he give me praise when I so crave it?
    Well, what I’ve learnt on my quest for happiness is to give more praise instead of focusing on receiving it. That has netted me a better relationship with my children and with the world in general. Not bad at all! (But I still crave praise).
    Btw – I’ve found that one of the most happiness-boosting things to do, is to NOT complain. All we affluent Westerners seem to spend every dinner party complaining about taxes, gasoline prices, today’s youth, you name it. I got really tired of it and decided to not take part in it. And more than anything else, that has made me a happier person.
    Thank you, Gretchen, for being the first to send me on the track towards (more) happiness.

  • Louisa

    Gretchen, I don’t really understand why the Big Man won’t give you praise. Is he trying to train you to need it less? (IMHO, that’s not his job, it’s yours). He sounds like he has a Principle he’s trying to uphold, and frankly it sounds like a drag. But since you can’t change him…
    I found your “deux ex machina” sentence very funny. Yeah, the cat did the cleaning. Or God.
    A couple of things that have helped me are a) asking for praise LIGHTLY, so for example when I have people over for dinner, I’ll says, “Compliments for the chef, please!” (note: I don’t ask neutrally for comments, I ask unabashedly for compliments!).
    After a haircut, when I always feel vulnerable, I’ll tell my husband, “Please tell me everything you like about my hair.”
    Another thing is reminding myself I do things for ME, as well as the other person. For example, as a notorious cheapo, I’ve never been a good tipper. I’m really working on tipping more. I realized recently that tipping made ME feel better, because I leave a restaurant without skulking out, avoiding the waiter’s eyes, free of arguments in my head afterwards about how I should have left more. Remembering I do it for me, always helps.

  • KCCC

    My husband and I have a sort of pact, where we consider it part of our “job” to praise each others’ accomplishments. And we ask openly for appreciation.
    It started as a joke, almost lost in time, when one of us said to the other (when showing off some hard work) “here’s where you say “ooh, ahh, ooh, how impressive! This is your CUE!” and the other laughed and complied. Now we ask for praise directly, as in “please admire the bathroom I just scrubbed” and the other plays along. Sometimes over the top “omigosh, what is that glow? I’m blinded…! Ah, the shine of the sink…”
    It’s playful, but it’s also sincere. And it had bled over into more natural appreciative comments on a daily basis.

  • Joanne

    Hi Gretchen, Allow me to send a little praise your way! You are maintaining a great blog, and I think each Post brings a little happiness into many lives. That’s not always easy to do, so your praise is well deserved.

  • Hi! I like this post. I really enjoyed #5 on your list as I believe it’s important to acknowledge those small things because the really, really, really spectacular doesn’t happen everyday.

  • Jaimie

    How timely! I just sent a praising email to my husband. He is less likely than me to ask for praise but I can tell that he really appreciates it/enjoys it. Lately he has been working very hard on renovations and cleaning at our house as we get ready to welcome our first baby. He has been sending me updates via email all day about all the little (and big!) jobs he is checking off the list. So I replied with some detailed praise about how I recognize and appreciate all his hard work and how much I love the finished product.
    I love giving compliments to people too. One year for Christmas I gave my father-in-law a thank-you letter to praise him for his garden. It’s a huge, beautiful space that he has spent years of time, effort and attention on, but he is so modest about it. In a year with a lot of grief in my life I found a lot of solace in that garden, and it occurred to me to tell him so. The letter moved him to tears.
    And I still remember certain praise that I received years ago that really meant something to me.

  • Great post Gretchen. I’m a praise junky, too–aren’t we all? I’m sure you’ve read this–it was one of the longest running “most-emailed” article on the NYT: “What Shamu taught me about life, love & marriage”
    It’s now out in a book. We are all like Shamu, in need of praise to change our behavior-or to stay motivated. When I remember, I “use it” liberally on my husband and it’s amazing how it works. It’s not manipulative–I’ve told him that I’m Shamuing him.
    Besides–I really am so appreciative that he’s the one mowing the lawn, doing the repairs, and cleaning the garage. He deserves the praise.
    Oh, & about being specific in our praise–how right you are!

  • Bill

    Being motivated by praise and rewards is a good thing! Praise doesn’t move me that much so my motivation to advance is weaker for it.
    What really touches me is when someone thanks me for something I’ve done to help them.

  • I called it “the demon of external gratification,” from an episode of Northern Exposure on the topic. I forget how it worked out in the show.
    I think I’ve mentioned this in prior comments, but I went through a period of purposely doing things I knew I sucked at, after a very achievement-driven youth. Knowing I’d perform poorly at the outset was liberating, and cured me of a lot of my competitive attitude, plus I learned that other people really like having somebody around they can be better than.
    People treated me with such friendliness and I learned that they were judging me not by my output (as I assumed people did) but by my personality, or my conversation, or my kindness, or whatever.
    Seems like a need for external gratification comes from a need to ‘prove’ yourself over and over again. Is it because you judge yourself by your output versus your character…or because you think others do? Discovering that they don’t has been a great help to me in ridding myself of this particular demon.

  • Jaydee

    I was adopted at three and my memory goes back to the first day. I think my self confidence was shaped from that moment on. When I would count, I left out a number and got in trouble. If I drew a picture, I would be questioned as to why I used circles, why I used a certain color; Pretty, but…..If I wrote a poem, it would sound better if I said….
    My Mom made all my clothes and she was an excellent seamstress. I would go stand in front of my Dad (the one with the paper in front of his face) and say, “Look Daddy, see my new dress?” Then wait 5 minutes till he chose to look over the paper for a second and give an “uh-huh” and back to the paper. I never felt pretty, nor smart, nor talented. I spent my life trying to be artistic, trying to unlock the writer, artist, whoever was locked up inside and have moved from one craft/project to another, so one quilt, one afghan, etc. So much so, when I had a booth in a craft mall, my tagname was #1 OAK (One Of A KIND)…
    Like several others that posted, I don’t have that need for praise while I am doing something for someone in need and I feel best if it is anonymous.
    I read a quote the other day and it might have been on here, by Mother Theresa…”More people are starving for acceptance and love than those starving for food.”
    I bought crayons, colored pencils and colored chalk the other day and I am coloring for me. I am only 63, will grow up later!
    Gretchen, I love your blog, it is the only one I follow regularly and it is because you have a way of stating things that make me think. I started reading it after reading about you and seeing that you worked for Sandra Day O’Connor. As a child (from 3 to 6)I won all kinds of Shirley Temple look-alike contests and the one compliment my Dad paid me was “You should have been an attorney, you are good at it.” This was when he was in his 80’s and I had to get money back for him when someone would take advantage of him being a confused senior. (More than once)…I appreciate that you share your true feelings, even if they do express neediness. I have checked out several blogs and so many seem to fizzle due to lack of interest. Not so with yours, it justs keeps getting better. KUDOS!

  • Denise Burks

    My favorite character in literature is a wooden puppet named Lucia in the book You Are Special by Max Lucado. She has true, beautiful, peace because she has learned that the gold stars won’t stick to her (nor will the gray dots)! The judgment of others has no true power and in turn she has no desire to pass judgment upon others.
    I love her “look”, too. She looks fun and playful and at ease. I’ve been tempted to take in the book to the hairdresser and say, “I want to look like her.”
    Perhaps then I’ll be like her, free of the curse of the Gold Stars!
    Searching for Happiness in the Suburbs,
    Denise Burks (coming soon!)

  • I agree with this post 100%. After teaching at the high school level, I agree that being specific in giving praise goes a long way. Saying “good job” rather than saying, “I really liked how you did X with Y” isn’t nearly as effective.
    Now that I’m in my fourth draft of a novel and I’m seeking feedback from other people to help me improve my writing, the specifics are what count!
    Yes, it’s much easier to hear 1 criticism and ignore many praises. Teaching myself to be open-minded as the receiver of constructive criticism is difficult, but goes a long way. Being constructive, yet positive really is the key!