Micro Praise Can Beget Macro Gladness: How small kindnesses can brighten others' lives--and our own

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“What the world needs now is love, sweet love. . . . No, not just for some, but for everyone.” Such was true in 1965, when that Burt Bacharach and Hal David song filled the airwaves. It is truer in today’s often angry world. And it was urgently true at Virginia Tech  on April 16, 2007, when the world was shocked by America’s worst school mass shooting, after a student shot and killed 32 classmates and faculty.

In response to the resulting grief and anxiety, Virginia Tech Distinguished Professor E. Scott Geller and his students founded an “Actively Caring For People” (AC4P) Movement. Their aim: to spread “prosocial behavior and interpersonal gratitude across campus and beyond.”

AC4P unites two disparate schools of psychology—humanism and applied behavioral science— into a “humanistic behaviorism,” at the heart of which lies the power of positive consequences. To strengthen a behavior, catch someone doing something good and reinforce it. Prioritize giving supportive feedback—praise, gratitude, admiration—for desirable behavior over giving corrective or punitive feedback for undesirable behavior.

You nod your head knowingly. This is Psychology 101. Yet few of us routinely experience and practice the power of positive consequences. “Only one in three workers in the U.S. and Germany strongly agree that they received recognition or praise in the past seven days for doing good work,” reports Gallup. “And those who disagree are twice as likely to say they'll quit in the next year. Praise is that powerful.”

Expressed praise and gratitude are powerful not only for the recipient, but also for the giver. Geller reports an experiment in which students were prompted to thank their  class instructors “with a sincere statement of gratitude for their positive learning experience.” Not only did every instructor appreciate the affirmation, but so did the initially nervous students: “It made my day so much better.” “Made me feel good and lifted my spirits.” “Feels good to make someone smile.”

University of Pennsylvania researchers Erica Boothby and Vanessa Bohns confirmed the two-way power of positive consequences. In one experiment, they instructed compliment-givers to observe a stranger and find “something about them that you like” (often their hair or clothing), and compliment them on it. Were the compliment-receivers put off, as the compliment-givers expected? To the contrary, the micro praise was warmly received. And it also left the compliment-giver feeling uplifted.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has the idea. As part of his  concerted effort to combat epidemic loneliness, he paused during a recent talk and challenged audiences to take 45 seconds to send a text message of gratitude to someone—and to repeat the exercise on five ensuing days. 

Moreover, sometimes exceptional gestures of actively caring for people can produce an unexpected outcome. The late billionaire Amway co-founder Rich DeVos made a regular practice of handwriting unsolicited appreciative notes to people, many of whom he didn’t know. In 2002, I received one such note, and then another, expressing appreciation for my locally publicized efforts to support people with hearing loss (by advocating the installation of hearing aid compatible assistive listening in auditoriums and worship places).

In response to his second gratitude note, I invited him out for coffee, where we discussed my vision of a more hearing-accessible America. In response, he directed his philanthropy office to support installations at the Grand Rapids’ DeVos Convention Center and the DeVos Performance Hall, and then to co-fund, with my family foundation, a two-year national “Get in the Hearing Loop” initiative . . . which, along with the engagement of many other hearing advocates, has now led to more than 5,000 installations nationwide, including in several airports.

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The moral: Our small expressions of kindness and gratitude brighten others’ days. They brighten our own day. And sometimes they lead to good things happening. I therefore challenge myself to thank the barista for being there for us, to applaud my department chair’s supportive leadership, to salute my editors for  enabling and mentoring my writing, to let a colleague know how important her  research is, to look the flight attendant in the eye when saying thank you on departing the plane, to tell the window installer how much I appreciate him doing what I could not do myself.

Imagine taking an opposite interpretation of the saying, “If you see something, say something.” Instead of looking for negative behavior to report to the proper authorities, look for positive behavior to recognize and appreciate. Says Geller, “Reciprocal expressions of positive gratitude between supervisors and employees, teachers and students, parents and their adult offspring, police officers and citizens” would be a game-changing step toward creating “an actively caring for people culture.”

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves?: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).