Contributing Author: John Hollway, Senior Fellow (Positive Psychology Center) & Associate Dean and Executive Director (Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice)
There’s an old joke about a guy who is sitting at a bar having a cocktail. He hears a voice say, “Hey pal — that’s a great tie.” The guy looks around to see who likes his tie, but no one is there. Then he hears a different voice say, “Wow. Those glasses really make you look intelligent, and they frame your face.” Again, the guy looks around, and doesn’t see anyone. I wonder what’s in this drink, the guy thinks. Then he hears a voice that says, “I watched you shoot that game of pool over there. You were really good.” Concerned, the guy flags down the bartender and says, “Hey, I don’t want to sound crazy, but do you hear voices? I’ve been hearing voices say, uh, well . . . nice things to me.”
The bartender nods. “Yeah, that’s the bar nuts. They’re complimentary.”
There has been an explosion of “national days of observance” across the country. In January alone, we have such meaningful observances as National Personal Trainer Awareness Day (Jan 2), National Fruitcake Toss Day (Jan 3) and National Bubblewrap Appreciation Day (well, really every day). But there is a national day of observance in January that can meaningfully impact our mood, and the moods of others — whether it’s people we love or just people we interact with for only a second or two. It’s National Compliment Day.
Compliments — polite statements of praise or admiration — are an easy way to make people feel good. As the ever-quotable Mark Twain was fond of saying, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” When we receive a compliment, it’s physiologically like hitting the lottery — the same parts of our brain are activated as when we win a monetary reward. Compliments enhance our self-esteem and reinforce the behavior that got us the compliment in the first place. And their positive effects linger, allowing us to go back and retrieve the compliment with gratitude and positive energy long after the compliment itself has passed.
Of course, the key nuance in Twain’s quote is the word “good.” For a compliment to work, it has to be good — and that’s not as simple as it might seem. When we receive a compliment, we go through a rapid but complex assessment of the compliment that includes taking into account the person who is complimenting us, their intention, the context of the compliment, and our own appraisal of whether we are deserving of the compliment before deciding what we really think about it. (If you’re wondering what it looks like when a compliment is deemed insincere, consider the time you hesitated before telling a significant other that they looked good in an outfit that they didn’t feel comfortable in. That conversation goes south pretty quickly.)
But a sincere compliment can cement the bond on what the psychologist Jane Dutton calls high-quality connections — quick, two-way interactions between people that create surprisingly strong relationships because they reflect positive energy, a positive regard for the other person, and a sense of mutual respect between the two people. Noticing something positive about the other person elevates them in your eyes, and the act of communicating that elevation makes the other person feel it. This creates a mutually beneficial reaction — the person who receives the sincere compliment appreciates you, and therefore you are elevated in their perception.
Giving compliments to others can also help improve YOUR mood. Think about it this way — when we give a compliment, we’re noticing something good in the world. And many compliments can easily be phrased as expressions of thanks or gratitude. “I really appreciated the way you handled that disagreement between Sandy and Bill in yesterday’s meeting, Dave,” or “Susan, thank you for understanding how difficult it has been working from home with three toddlers,” are not just compliments for Dave and Susan — they are expressions of gratitude from you. Regular expressions of gratitude have been shown to improve mood optimism and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression over time.
Importantly, the subject of the compliment doesn’t really matter — what matters is the existence of the compliment. Would your reaction be negative if I — whom you have never met — approached you and sincerely said, “Wow, that’s a great lapel pin,” or “Hey, the color you picked for your wallpaper really brings the room to life,” or “I just wanted to tell you that you crushed it in that presentation?”
If the best thing about compliments is that they elevate the mood of both the complimented and the complimentor, and the second best thing is that they help each person form a high-quality connection with one another, the third best thing has to be how easy it is. All you have to do is notice something that you like about someone and tell them. Specifics help. At the Starbucks drive-through window you can say, “I just wanted you to know that I came back here today because the latte you made yesterday was so good I wanted to have it again.” (Make sure you tell them your Starbucks name, and watch in awe and happiness as your barista puts even more love and attention into your latte tomorrow). How easy is that?
So on January 24th, National Compliment Day, take a few seconds here and there to see the good things about people, and tell them you see them. You might be surprised how far a simple compliment can take you. And as long as we’re listening to Mark Twain and complimenting others, let’s not forget Twain’s other advice: “When you cannot get a compliment in any other way, pay yourself one.” You’re deserving of praise yourself — especially if you’re dedicating your energy to elevating others.
(One final note: don’t be afraid to use these learnings on January 26 — that, as you know, is National Spouses Day.)
John Hollway is Senior Fellow at the Positive Psychology Center and Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.