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Five tips for giving good praise.

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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