We all love it when someone gives us a compliment. But we can’t expect to receive them if we never offer them up ourselves. Commentator Isabella Kulkarni tells us why we should do it more.
KULKARNI: This past year I went on family “vacation” to Miami with my unconventional family — my four siblings aged 5-15, my dad and his girlfriend Celia.
As we sat around the dinner table on New Year’s eve, we all seemed to be sipping on the hater-ade. It was humid and we were sticking to our seat cushions. Felix and Sebastian were upset that we weren’t in the inside in the air-conditioning, Oscar was mad he lost to Felix at bowling and Katherine well Katherine was being a pre-teen. Everyone was avoiding eye contact, looking sullenly at the tablecloth, watching their forks make grooves in the fabric. Generally speaking, I feel equal parts adoration and vexation for my family. But that night all we could seem to do was be decidedly mean to each other. We’ve all witnessed our family’s ability to hit us where it hurts, to dig into each others’ insecurities.
I’d had it. I realized that if I didn’t have something nice to say about my family, the people i’m supposed to know best, how could they expect the rest of the world to think highly of them? I turned to my left and told my brother Sebastian, I admired how calm and polite he was, what a good role model for his younger siblings he’d grown into. And then I circled the table, telling each person a reason I loved them. The compliments caught, like a lit fuse and soon everyone was offering up qualities they admired about each other.
I began to wonder if compliments can make our spirits lift, why are we stingy with something that gives so much pleasure?
Compliments feel good because they cause your brain to release feel-good chemicals — dopamine, a neurotransmitter you’ve probably heard about in reference to love. The more dopamine that’s running through our brains, the better we feel.
But as a society while we value success, we undervalue praise. Instead the popular view seems to be that constructive criticism is more character-building than well-wishing. But our brain science suggests praise is an incentive, like money, so shouldn’t we start treating it that way? Like a cranial investment for the collective good.
Silicon Valley is onto compliments. There’s been a proliferation of internet apps and platforms devoted to random acts of kindness. Apps like Kindr or Brighten, allow you to send compliments. And some special Facebook “ groups” allow you to post anonymous compliments by sending a message and having a moderator repost the compliment publicly.
But we shouldn’t have to turn to the internet to dole out compliments surreptitiously like they’re some kind of sinful activity. Praise isn’t a vice, like eating chocolate or binge watching Friday Night Lights.
That night at the table I watched my five year old brother Felix stand up and explain why he loves his mummy, how much he loves her because he said, she’s a really a really good Mummy. That’s the praise that heats up your insides and makes faces go from sullen to animated. Praise is an untapped resource. It accrues interest not by sitting in the reserve banks of our well-wishing mind. Instead it gains power when give it away to the people we want to motivate.
I know I’m going to start more family dinners with the clink of glasses full of praise.