Chances are, you’ve had days where things don’t seem to be going your way—but then you receive a compliment from someone that turns your day around. While compliments may seem simple, they can have a large impact on you and the people around you, creating a ripple of positivity.
But why is that? In honor of March 1 being World Compliment Day—a day to spread joy through simple verbal affirmations—The Daily tapped into the expertise of Anthony (Tony) Jack—instructor of the popular undergraduate course, “PHIL222: The science of happiness” and associate professor of philosophy, psychology, neurology, neuroscience and organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University—to learn more about compliments and how they affect us.
Jack is the research director of Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence and principal investigator of the Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab, and is also a research fellow at the Coaching Research Lab. He has a doctorate in experimental psychology, post-doctoral training in brain imaging research, and extensive training in philosophy. He is currently working on a nonfiction book about his work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the tension between analytic and empathic thinking in the brain.
Read on to learn Jack’s top five reasons why you should give compliments.
1. Giving compliments increases your happiness.
Research shows you can reliably increase your personal well-being by engaging in random acts of kindness toward others. Paying a compliment is one free and easy way to do this. The research shows this is most effective if you pick one day a week to intentionally engage in five acts. In addition to giving a compliment, four other things you might do are pick up litter, help a friend with a chore, feed a stranger’s parking meter or buy someone a coffee. Surprisingly, research shows that spending money on someone else makes you happier for longer than spending money on yourself.
2. Giving compliments makes you grateful.
If you’re on social media, you are probably very used to seeing a stream of posts from your friends that invite you to compliment them. However, a compliment that is uninvited is much more powerful—both for them and for you.
An easy way to come up with a good compliment is to practice gratitude exercises. Research shows that gratitude exercises are one of the quickest and most effective ways to increase your happiness and make you feel more energetic.
To do this, think of three things that make you feel grateful. They can be big, such as Civil Rights legislation, or small, such as your coffee tasting good. Is there someone you can thank who did something to help bring one of those things about—such as your barista, a friend or a family member? You can let them know you appreciate what they did, even if it was small.
This is an effective way of coming up with a compliment, because it ensures you are complimenting someone for something meaningful that is under their control—an action they took that positively impacted you in some way—rather than something that invites social comparison (such as a vacation they took or their physical appearance).
3. Giving compliments strengthens your interpersonal relationships.
Levels of empathic concern and perspective taking in college students have been on the decline for decades. Getting caught up in that trend is bad for you as well as those who know you. The more social capital you accrue, the more likely you are to find support when you are down, and forgiveness when you make a mistake.
Regularly engaging in one or more practices that increase positive affect, such as gratitude, paying compliments, random acts of kindness, loving kindness meditation and religious practices strengthens your interpersonal relationships. According to positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build model, this leads to a virtuous cycle that not only improves your relationships but also broadens your awareness and makes your thinking more creative.
4. Giving compliments increases your stress resilience and physical health.
We are in the middle of an epidemic of loneliness. People who are lonely are less resilient to stress and suffer from inflammatory disorders (such as obesity, high blood pressure, and worse long-COVID symptoms). Loneliness leads to depression. To recover from depression, a decrease in negative emotions is most important. However, it is the amount of positive emotions an individual experiences (such as those from giving or receiving a compliment) that best predicts whether they will relapse.
Research shows the amount of positive versus negative emotions people experience is a surprisingly big predictor of health. Your positive-negative emotional balance has a substantially larger effect than many other things that you might have thought would be more important—such as income, having reliable access to food, being in a conflict zone and even whether or not you know where you are sleeping that night.
5. Giving compliments creates a ripple of positivity.
There’s a lot of research that shows that loneliness and negative emotion passes through groups— the friend, of your friend, of your friend, becomes lonelier if you’re lonely. We are in the middle of a mental health epidemic due to the challenges of the COVID pandemic. Even if you haven’t been directly affected, it is all but impossible to avoid some negative impact through your social contacts.
You don’t want to try to protect yourself by cutting yourself off from others because that isn’t kind and will make you lonely. Fortunately, the same contagion effect happens for positive emotion; it spreads like a wave through social networks. So go ahead, flip the emotional script and pay it forward. Simple small acts like giving compliments add up for you, and also go a surprisingly long way to help others.
Want to learn more about evidence-based ways to boost your own and others’ happiness? Here are some of Jack’s top recommendations: