“You look great!”
“Your presentation was really moving.”
“I think you’re a really great friend.”
The truth is, few things in this world feel as wonderful as getting a compliment. Whether it’s about your appearance, something you did, or for just being you, compliments can always light up your day. What’s even more interesting is that aside from receiving them, giving compliments can feel just as good, too!
That may be why aside from National Compliment Day, which is on the 24th of January, we celebrate compliments once again a couple of months later for World Compliment Day. But given how good these little affirmations can make us and those around us feel — for free! — a compliment is definitely something we can make room for in our lives every single day.
Plus, research tells us that there’s a science behind why giving and receiving compliments feel really good.
What Are Compliments and Why Are They Important?
Compliments are expressions of any sincere appreciation of a trait, behavior, or attribute in someone else. They’re meant to communicate an appreciation of what we feel towards another person.
Compliments are important because feeling appreciated and valued is considered a basic psychological human need. Appreciation also forms the foundation for our relationships, including friends, partners, and family members.
When a person feels appreciated, it fosters cooperation and collaboration with the people around them. It also makes dealing with challenges and problems easier because knowing you’re appreciated and supported encourages you to work through whatever difficulties you’re facing.
Feeling that kind of acceptance, affirmation, and support makes people feel good. Researchers have actually found that getting a compliment activates the area of the brain that lights up when you receive a monetary reward. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like getting cash, but verbal affirmations activate the same parts of our brain that celebrate when we get paid.
Other findings from the same team also suggest that compliments and praise can help us learn new behaviors and motor skills better. One of the researchers, National Institute for Physiological Sciences Professor Norihiro Sadato, explains that this is why giving out verbal affirmations can be especially useful in the classroom or during rehabilitation.
Apart from making us feel good about ourselves, science says that compliments also help us like other people. This is because behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated. So, for example, if you compliment someone on their smile when they greet you, they’ll probably smile again the next time they see you. They will also feel a lot better about making someone feel good just by smiling!
Why We Underestimate the Power of Compliments
While it’s easy enough to understand why compliments make us feel good, it’s interesting to note that we actually tend to underestimate how powerful they can be for others in everyday life.
Indeed, several researchers did the same experiment on friends and strangers, where participants had to estimate how another person might feel after receiving a compliment. Those same participants then complimented another person. Both studies looked at how the complimentees actually felt compared to the compliment givers’ estimate.
The findings showed that people underestimated the effect of their compliments on the recipient. Not only did compliment givers believe their words would not have that much of an impact, but they actually thought that it would make the recipient feel uncomfortable! In truth, however, the opposite was true — the compliments positively impacted people more than anticipated pretty consistently.
These experiments show that our expectations create a psychological barrier to having more positive interactions. We doubt whether giving praise or appreciation will be received well by the other person, leaving us anxious and overly pessimistic about the effect of our words.
Unfortunately, this dissuades many people from engaging in positive behaviors that would benefit them and the receiving party. What’s more, compliment-givers still couldn’t believe the effect of their compliment after giving it!
However, the researchers also noted that despite not truly understanding the positive impact of their words, those who gave out compliments were in a better mood after doing so, and said that they were more likely to do that again in the future.
“Many of us have moments where we notice and appreciate something about another person — perhaps we like what they are wearing, or we were really impressed by their presentation — but we keep our appreciation to ourselves, rather than sharing it,” Cornell social psychologist Vanessa K. Bohns points out. “This research offers an explanation for why: In the moment, we tend to forget how good a simple, even awkwardly delivered, compliment will make another person feel.”
And it’s not only compliment-giving that is undervalued. Research has also shown that, in general, people also underestimate how much others appreciate gratitude.
One study had participants write gratitude letters that recipients would then read and share how they feel about. When the senders’ expectations were compared to the recipients’ feelings, the researchers found that senders underestimated how positively their compliments would be taken.
This once again demonstrates how people’s pessimistic beliefs can prevent them from sharing compliments that would benefit both themselves and the people they interact with.
Why You Should Give More Compliments
Now, you may worry that giving too many compliments will wear people out. Just as we tend to expect compliments to have a minimal effect on others, we also tend to believe that giving many compliments will eventually grow tiresome.
However, that’s simply not true. Kind words do not become tired words, and people’s moods brighten each day they receive compliments.
By bringing more appreciation and gratitude into your relationships, you can create an atmosphere of positivity and genuine social connection. With these findings, science continues to show us one of our fundamental needs: to be seen and appreciated.
Compliments are an easy way to help meet that need.
How to Give Good Compliments
Learning about the science of compliments is a good start. But it’s also a good idea to know how to give good compliments to others. This can help make sure that our compliments get the desired effect on people’s moods, as well as help us get over that awkward feeling or trepidation about giving out affirmations.
1. Be Sincere
While it may seem harmless to pay someone an insincere compliment with good intentions, it can actually do more damage.
For instance, you may want to tell someone that you think their blouse is pretty, even though you think it’s hideous. Much of what you actually communicate is conveyed through your tone and body language, so chances are, the recipient of your false compliment may figure out what you’re trying to do.
2. Pay Attention
To help in that first point, it helps to pay attention and recognize the qualities of people that are worth complimenting and give them genuine affirmations.
By paying attention to someone this way, you will make the person feel like their time and presence are valued. They will also appreciate that you have noticed little details about them and know that you mean what you say.
If you’re complimenting someone you spend a lot of time with, try and notice which kinds of affirmations they like the most. For example, someone with body image issues might be uncomfortable with comments about how they look, in which case you can always focus on their energy or what they do. If the trust is there, you can also ask them gently about what they prefer and what makes them feel good.
3. Do Not Exaggerate, but Be Specific
One way to remember this tip is to keep in mind the “KISS” method, which is to “Keep It Sincere and Specific.” Exaggerating can cheapen the compliment, making it feel disingenuous.
Honest compliments have a greater impact, even if they’re seemingly small and insignificant. This means that telling someone you like their cooking is better than saying they look just like a supermodel you admire (unless, of course, they really do).
It’s also important to be specific when you give a compliment. Being too general can make it seem like you give the same compliment to everybody. You want the recipient of your compliment to light up at how you noticed something unique about them, which shows that you’re interested and paying attention. For example, instead of telling someone they look nice, comment on how the color of their dress complements their skin tone.
4. Give Plenty of Compliments
Making an effort to notice the good things about your partner, friends, and family members can help maintain your relationships. Ideally, we should be giving and receiving compliments quite often. It’s easy to take things for granted, and showing appreciation in this way can help.
And if you’re taking the time to give genuine compliments, then you’ll also get into the habit of noticing the positive aspects frequently, and this starts off a healthy cycle of appreciation. This can strengthen any relationship, and boost your confidence about giving compliments, too.
5. If the Person Shows Discomfort, Then Try This:
Not everybody accepts compliments well. Some people who have low self-esteem may actually resist your praises and affirmations because it contradicts their negative self-perception.
They may fail or refuse to accept information that conflicts with that worldview and, as a result, doubt your sincerity or judgment as you compliment them. Others, who may be experiencing impostor syndrome, may even worry that they don’t deserve it, and they might fail to live up to your high expectations.
In this case, it may help to take it slow. Rather than giving compliments right away, do your best to show interest in the other person first. You may be able to slip in a kind word or two after you’ve gotten to know each other better.
6. Receive Compliments With Grace
If you tend to push compliments away because they make you feel uncomfortable, then you may have been taught that receiving them equates to bragging. Remember that this is untrue. Compliments are all about appreciating one another, and it’s just as important to learn how to graciously accept a compliment, as learning how to give a good one.
When you deny a compliment, you may be giving the impression that someone else’s perspective is wrong, and you may make them feel bad for trying to say something nice to you.
One way to accept compliments a bit more easily is to adjust your thinking: Think of it as similar to receiving a gift from someone. So, you can just say a simple “Thank you” or “That’s kind of you to say.” There’s no need to try and one-up the compliment — but appreciating someone else back is always welcome.
The Bottom Line
When giving or receiving a compliment, the entire interaction can take all of maybe 30 seconds, but the truth is that the effects can last for years afterward.
After all, how many of us still remember that one nice stranger who liked our shirt and made the effort to tell us, or that time your mother mentioned something that she liked about you? We might forget the exact words and details like place and time, but the way it made us feel will stay — and that’s something we can pass on very easily.
What all this tells us is that giving and receiving compliments isn’t just about feeling good. Aside from the brain imaging and surveys, the key takeaway is that we’re all equipped with the ability to show kindness to one another in a way that’s simple and free, but is quietly impactful.
So the next time you hesitate to tell someone how great they are, endure your discomfort and let them know with a heartfelt compliment. You never know what kind of positive impact you’ll make on their life, or the kind of effect it will have on you.