Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
Today is my graduation ceremony for my Master degree, a big and significant day. In this sweet and warm moment, I could not stop myself from reflecting on my life as a Masters’ student over the past year. This day makes me think of Praise and Appreciation, which I have learnt from my supervisor, Professor Michael West, Dean of the Aston Business School; which is so important to me, and of course also important to positive psychology and to one’s happiness.
“The praise that comes from love does not make us vain, but more humble.”
J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan (1860 – 1937)
“Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
Voltaire (1694 – 1778)
My Personal Experience
I have to admit I was really lazy as a student, even when I was in college. When I made the decision to do my Masters’ abroad, I just set a simple goal – to learn as much as I could, and to do my best academically so that I could catch my academically wasted time. However, as you can image, I was quite unconfident and always worried about my weak foundation in front of my bright fellows. Yet I was blessed enough to be supervised by a great teacher who appreciated and encouraged me all the way through this year.
Michael is a great educator who knows how to encourage his students, and to help them make the most out of themselves. As an occupational psychologist, one of his research interests concerns the importance of feedback in organizations. As a practitioner, he fully adopts his research findings in daily life. He knows how to appreciate everyone around him and is never stingy with his sincere encouragements and praises. I remember when I shared with him my thoughts and plans in my first meeting with him: no matter how trivial and naive my ideas were, he listened attentively, and was always able to find something desirable from my ideas and appreciate my efforts. He is definitely the one who was determined to keep me working hard on research and doing what is worth doing. Without all this appreciation, praise, and support from him during this year, I would not have done so well in every paper I wrote and every conference I attended.
Michael praises and he know how to praise. He seldom praises people for what they are, but focuses on how hard they have worked and how much effort they have made. This type of praising, according to findings of research on praise, is more effective in motivating people to do better (Mueller & Dweck, 1998).
Working with Michael is a wonderful and uplifting experience. He care about you and want you to succeed. Though I am not always smart and may have many inadequacies, Michael always reassures me through discovering my strengths, and offers me a lot of opportunities. When I got the Distinction and McDonald Prize for the Master in Science Best Research Project from Michael in today’s ceremony, the phrase “Thank you” from me is not just for the prize, but for his every appreciation to me that has lead to my improvement.
What Positive Psychologists Say
Everyone loves being praised and appreciated. It might be trivial to everyone that being praised and appreciated would boost up one’s self-esteem and self-efficacy and thus make one feel good. Researchers, particularly in the field of positive psychology, think that being appreciative also brings about happiness. For instance, Peterson and Seligman (2004) included “appreciation of beauty and excellence” and “gratitude” into the 24 character strengths, and proposed that constantly utilization of these strengths in life will bring us gratification and authentic happiness (Seligman, 2002). Moreover, Schneider (2001) suggested that appreciation promotes positive affect, more satisfying relationships, and improved coping with stress. According to Adler (2002), being appreciative and praise facilitates and enhances subjective well-being. Expressing appreciation to others also helps build and maintain social bonds.
Why Is Praise So Seldom Used?
Imagine that you are in a world without praise, appreciation, or encouragement: it would be like existing in complete darkness without light. No matter how hard you work and how much you get, happiness would seem unreachable. It costs us so little to appreciate nice things around us, or even to express our praise to others. Yet we often take people for granted, and tend to amplify upsets that are really trivial. This is like complaining about the small stain on a white sheet of paper, but ignoring the fact that most other areas of the paper are unstained.
It is particularly apparent in Asian societies. East Asians, especially the Japanese and Chinese, are found to be self-critical instead of self-enhancing, and this is suggested to be related to differences in parenting practice: East Asian parents usually downplay their children’s success and highlight their children’s failure whereas American parents do the opposite (Ng, Pomerantz, & Lam, 2007).
This story might happen in Asian families: a boy comes home in a good mood, and tells his Mum that he got 90 out of 100 on his test, and his Mum asks him why he didn’t get the full 100. Later the boy returns happily with the full 100 mark on another test, and his Mum says that academic results mean nothing, and that one’s conduct is more important. The boy keeps working hard and behaving himself, and finally gets a conduct award. His Mum says disdainfully “And so? Your school is actually not very good.” You can image how disappointed and frustrated the child would be.
Even if parents were to show approval to their children, they would not express it directly due to their adherence to high context communication styles (Hall, 1976), which are often indirect and require inference of meaning.
An Educational Perspective on Praise
Yes, it might be hard for parents who seldom praise their children to start complimenting them. Yet it would be easier for us to express our compliments to people around us when we recall the joyful and fulfilled feelings upon receiving praise from the others. Please keep in mind that praising does not mean simply saying good things to your child or student. When parents praise their children, apart from some general phrases such as “You’re great!” or “Well done!”, they should be more specific and concrete such that children would be able to learn which behaviors are good and could perform those more frequently.
Some parents praise their children for whatever they have done without considering the outcomes. According to researchers, this is detrimental to children. Researchers also suggested that praising children’s inherent characteristics (like appearance) but not their actual behavior may actually hinder their future performance (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Praising effort regardless of the quality of performance may be detrimental as well (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). It is important for parents to identify and praise children’s efforts to master essential skills for effective performance.
An Organizational Perspective on Praise
Praises and appreciation are not only applicable to children and students; they can also be used in organizations. I have discussed in my article on engagement that recognizing employees’ contribution fosters their engagement. Margaret Greenberg’s last article perhaps has an even better illustration of how when we “… love my employees, co-workers, colleagues or boss…,” we can let them feel truly appreciated through our sincere praise!
It is hence important for managers to praise employees’ doing well instead of just focusing on their mistakes. Comprehensive assessment tools such as the 360 degree feedback reveal employees’ strengths, yet its effect remains minimal if these strengths are not appreciated and praised.
When Thomas Edison was thrown out by his school, his Mum’s praise and appreciation reassured him. Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher considered that praise and encouragement from her father prompted her achievement. Walt Disney once said “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it requires people to make that dream a reality.” Yes, we can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it would not be actualized if there were criticisms but no praise or appreciation.
Special notes – I would like to end this article with my gratitude to everyone who has given me a hand during my master studies. Every encouragement, help, advice and support from you does play a significant role on my development. Thank You! And most importantly, special thanks to my beloved parents who never stop their care and support even for one second, your love has always reached me from thousand miles away to UK! Timothy, 18th March, 2008
Adler, M. G. (2002). Conceptualizing and measuring appreciation: The development of a positive psychology construct. Doctoral dissertation, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
Eisenberger, R., & Cameron, J. (1996). The detrimental effects of reward: Myth or reality? American Psychologist, 51, 1153-1166.
Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Double Day.
Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
Ng, F. F. Y., Pomerantz, E. M., & Lam, S. F. (2007). European American and Chinese parents’ responses to children’s success and failure: Implications for children’s responses. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1237-1255.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.
Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56, 250–263.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
The cap and diploma image was drawn by Kevin Gillespie for the version of this article that appears in the PPND Gratitude book.
The pictures of Timothy So are used with his permission.