July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
EVA DICKERSON Hi.
WOMAN 1 Hi.
EVA DICKERSON Did you know that you’re beautiful?
WOMAN 1 Aww!
EVA DICKERSON Did you know that you’re really beautiful? You are!
WOMAN 2 Thank you!
EVA DICKERSON Did you know that you’re beautiful?
WOMAN 3 Thank you.
EVA DICKERSON You’re welcome.
WOMAN 3 Yeah? I did know.
EVA DICKERSON Good, own that!...Did you ladies know that you’re beautiful?
WOMAN 4 Aww, thank you!
WOMAN 5 I needed that, I definitely needed that
EVA DICKERSON Now you know!
DACHER KELTNER Those were clips from a video created by college student Eva Dickerson, and it shows how powerful a compliment can be, and how it can boost someone else’s feelings of self-worth and well-being.
In each episode of our show, we have someone try out a different research-based practice for happiness, resilience, kindness, and connection. And today we’re talking with Eva about her own practice to spread happiness around her college campus. Eva, thanks so much for being with us.
EVA DICKERSON Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited for this.
DACHER KELTNER Tell us about the practice, and how did you get this idea?
EVA DICKERSON I took a film class with Julie Dash, who is an amazing, world-renowned director. And the assignment was to go around getting roving reporter footage. You kind of just go up to anyone that you think might be willing to participate in an interview and ask them questions and get the drop.
So I had my iPhone, and I went around campus and I walked up to people I knew, and some of which I didn’t, and I asked them if they knew they were beautiful or not. And the responses were so sweet. From the girls who knew—and I’m so enamored with the girls who knew and who owned it—from the people who needed that little pick-me-up, even to my friend Brooke, who was saying, ‘I didn’t know, but thank you for letting me know.’ And, you know, the kind of countrywide response to everyone championing Brooke saying, ‘You are beautiful and you should know it.’ It continues to warm my heart all these months later.
DACHER KELTNER Wow. You know, one of the things that we know from the science of compliments—and believe it or not, scientists are studying this. This is a study coming out of Japan that, you know, if I compliment you, Eva, there’s this region of the brain, the ventral striatum, which is where our sense of rewards is processed. So if I eat chocolate, or get a nice pat on the back, or win some money, that part of the brain is activated. And so too with compliments. And you can almost see it in their faces, couldn’t you, that they just felt appreciated?
EVA DICKERSON Joy.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. And what about the range? It seemed like some people were a little bit modest about it, and other people felt empowered or proud. What struck you about the range of reactions?
EVA DICKERSON I think the range of reactions really spoke to the authentic-ness of each drop that I captured. Even though, in an ideal world, if every woman you asked if she thought she was beautiful said yes, that is an ideal world. But we can appreciate everyone’s journey and the path they’re taking toward self-love and self-appreciation. Especially in the environment of a campus as rigorous and competitive as Spelman, sometimes you really just need to randomly hear from someone else who has nothing to gain from it, that you’re seen. Someone sees you. I think, really, some of those people just needed to be seen. Just in that moment, just in that day.
DACHER KELTNER A quote I often refer to, William James, one of the founders of psychology said, you know, ‘Our deepest craving is to be appreciated.’
EVA DICKERSON Absolutely. After I showed my film class, and they all loved it so much, I put it on my Twitter. I thought this is something that, you know, my friends would enjoy. So I put it on, was in class for a few hours, went to study, came back to my phone, and my phone is crashing because of how many re-tweets I’m getting on this video of me telling my Spelman sisters that they’re beautiful.
DACHER KELTNER Wow. And what were some of their reactions to it? Like what did people say?
EVA DICKERSON I think people felt communion, and happiness, and it felt good just to see something in the world that was good and just good. Not good, but here’s this follow-up surprise of badness. It’s just like, here’s some goodness for your day. Here’s some girls smiling.
DACHER KELTNER One of the hardest things to convey in the science of happiness is the subtlety of how we can cultivate happiness socially. You know, a lot of people think that happiness is like this big existential thing you figure out in your mind, and that’s kind of true. And then a lot of people think that it’s about, you know, the deep emotions like gratitude or compassion. But a lot of happiness is—and, you know, the studies show, like, just being connected and feeling supported gives you big boosts in happiness, ten years of life expectancy, and it boils down really to everyday acts like you’ve captured. It was just striking to me.
EVA DICKERSON And, you know, I feel I can kind of resonate with that. I think when I was younger, for me happiness had to be this constant continuous state of exuberance and joy, but really, like you said, it’s these tiny moments that really matter. Even in the longest, worst day ever, you’ll remember the small moment that made you smile from ear-to ear—and then you go back to work and things like that but that small moment really, really matters.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, and it’s and it’s this resource that we all have, right? That, you know, we can share a compliment, or a kind word, or a supportive act, or a pat on the back. And you know, I just have to cite Naomi Eisenberger, this great neuroscientist down at UCLA. She’s doing this new work where if you hear kind words from a friend, right? Just like you did in the video, these regions of your brain that are related to safety and also once again this reward circuit, the ventral striatum, are activated and it’s just such a testimony to what you captured on film and what happens in the brain.
EVA DICKERSON I felt so light, and so—just really energized just feeding off of their happy energy. Especially something that was no cost to myself. And something that I’m hoping they walked away with for the rest of their day, just a small moment of good pure energy exchange between two people so I felt amazing.
DACHER KELTNER I’m curious, Eva, is there a kind of a personal history to why compliments mean so much to you? Do you have a family member who is a great complimenter, or somebody who inspired this idea that may come from your earlier life?
EVA DICKERSON I have to shout-out my dad. When we were really little he used to always, just always, always, always just tell us like, ‘Y’all are so smart.’ And I think it’s because my dad knew he was raising two young black women. And that’s something girls don’t hear regardless, but especially young black girls. So my father was always letting us know how brilliant we were. Or that our voices were valued, asking us about what we dreamed the night before, hearing our opinions on political things that we possibly couldn’t grasp at that age, but making sure that we heard from someone who loved us, how valued we were for things outside of how we looked, or what we could produce.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, you know, when I teach and I get to the topic of kindness and self-compassion and just hearing kindness from others. That’s a powerful source of kindness, isn’t it?
EVA DICKERSON It is, absolutely. I think as it pertains to compliments about, you know, attractiveness and the politics of attraction. I grew up in Howard County, Maryland, which is not a very diverse place at all. And I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of people who looked at me. And before I got to college I had a really low self-image, really bad body image. In high school, just all the girls around me had really silky, pretty hair, and I didn’t have that so I hid my hair. I didn’t like myself and I didn’t like my hair.
And then I got to school where everyone is so genuinely themselves, despite what society says how they should dress, or wear their hair, how they should speak, how they should dance. And it really taught me to value me being myself, at the most basic level without special clothes or makeup or knowing how to sing or having a basic talent. So especially when it came to telling other young, black women that they were beautiful, there was definitely some personal attachment to that. I think that’s something I needed to hear. I think it’s something like a little message I tell my younger self every day that, you know, you don’t really see anyone who looks like you or dresses like you, or is interested in the things that you’re interested in. But you’re still valid, and you still matter, and you’re still very, very beautiful. And I wish a lot more young women would wake up every day, look in the mirror, and the first thing they say to themselves is, you’re beautiful. You’re gonna have a great day. You’re gonna accomplish the things that you want to accomplish.
DACHER KELTNER Just growing out of your own life history with this, and this work that you did with the video, what do you think are some of the just basic social things people can do to counter those body image worries?
EVA DICKERSON One big thing I think really is to move away from social media. I think right now most of what we get from social media is this standard image of how you should look and how you need to look for your life to be happy. And people don’t look like that. And people don’t have access to the things that look like that.
But really looking to find validation within ourselves. You can’t wait for other people to help you love yourself. And I try to tell younger women this all the time, I had to teach myself how to love myself. I had to catch myself when I was looking in the mirror and the first thing I had to say was something nasty or negative or mean. I literally had to train myself to wake up and say thank you to the universe that, I woke up today! Like yeah, I was studying all night so I’ve got bags under my eyes, but I’m alive and that’s something to be celebrated.
Now I style my hair naturally and it’s something I’m incredibly proud of. This, you know, current millennial revitalization of the natural hair movement is really a big, big messaging around self-love and self-determination and acceptance of who you are and how you were born into this world. You know, like this is the combination of my mom and dad’s hair and their mom and dad’s hair. This is a legacy. This speaks to where I came from and my children will have hair like this and this speaks to where they come from. So it’s something I’m incredibly proud of now. Happiness, I don’t think is something that we can just expect to fall in our laps. Neither is self-love. I think it’s something we have to work for and practice every day. I still practice self-love every day.
DACHER KELTNER Well Eva, one of the things that we know from the science of happiness is there are these very everyday sort of regular practices that are deep in our sense of community and the fabric of our social ties of saying thank you, and laughing, and telling funny stories. And then your practice, which is to just compliment somebody with full force, or with kindness, and how important that is to our happiness and our social connections. I feel like your film shows us how powerful compliments are in the cultivation of happiness. So thanks for being with us.
EVA DICKERSON Thank you so much for having me. I’m smiling from ear to ear so this is really special for me.
DACHER KELTNER We’ll be back with another simple compliments practice you can try, and talk about the science behind giving and receiving compliments.
Paying someone a compliment can be a powerful act that benefits both the giver and the receiver. We know that by giving someone a compliment, we not only trigger the reward system of their brain—we also boost our own happiness. Some of our listeners shared with us how they’re lighting up other people’s lives in this way. I particularly loved Laura Remington’s story.
LAURA REMINGTON I just thought of it as something fun to do on Facebook. I said, ‘Does anyone need a compliment today? I’m giving them out for free.’ And people jumped all over it! It started as a trickle, and it became a tidal wave of people saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take a compliment.’ And so for each person I wrote probably two, three, four sentences. And then I had this opportunity to share it both with them but also with the larger Facebook community. I said something about my friend Brian, and other people would chime in, ‘Oh, that’s perfect. That’s Brian.’ And then I think all of us felt, ‘Wow, we’re really lucky to have Brian in our lives.’
DACHER KELTNER So can you share Brian’s compliment with us?
LAURA REMINGTON Okay so I wrote, ‘Brian, you are incredibly loyal and loving, and you are dedicated to chronicling events and sharing memories. You do not waste time trying to hide your quirks. You cherish your friends just the way they are and know that we return that love.’
I didn’t just bang it out on the keyboard right away. I would think about it. And, you know, when I was washing dishes or when I was taking my walk, I was thinking about my friend Becca or my friend Dave or my Aunt Sue, and what is it that is so special about that person? What am I going to write for that person? So it really flooded me with all sorts of good feelings. It brought me this real sense of connection, and just the sense of liveliness and gratitude for having these people in my life.
DACHER KELTNER We’d love to hear more about what our listeners do to boost happiness, kindness, resilience and connection. Call us at 510.519 4903 and share it with us.
It may seem obvious that compliments provide a quick boost to other people’s happiness. But the effects of a compliment can go so much deeper than that. Denise Marigold at the University of Waterloo has been studying how compliments can change the quality of people’s relationships.
DENISE MARIGOLD We brought in couples who were in romantic relationships to the lab and individually they each went through the compliment intervention.
They’d be asked, ‘Think of a time when your partner told you how much he or she likes something about you. For example, a personal quality or ability you have that he or she thinks very highly of, or something you did that really impressed him or her.’ And they’re then asked to just kind of write down a few key words that would identify that to them and then they’re asked to describe the compliment more fully. So the key condition was to explain why our partner admired you, describe what it meant to you and its significance for your relationship.
And then we had them engage in a discussion about an ongoing conflict in their relationship. They might talk about one partner who wants to spend more time together than the other partner does, or often one partner wanted more expressions of affection than the other partner was comfortable with.
Half of participants did the compliment intervention. The other half did not. So when we compare those two conditions, particularly those couples that tend to be higher in conflict initially going in, when those who got the intervention had better outcomes than those who didn’t get the intervention. Better outcomes in terms of how they feel about the discussion, how they feel about the partner and then looking at actual behavior and quality of the discussion. If they’re expecting more positive outcome they will actually tend to behave in a more positive way, which in a self-fulfilling prophecy, makes that positive outcome more likely to happen.
Compliments can be really powerful if done in a way that’s really genuine. What really matters is choosing a quality that you know is important to your partner to show that you notice it, you appreciate it you value it. Humans have a key need for validation. That someone is noticing what they’re doing. Notices it, gets it and accepts it.
DACHER KELTNER To learn more about practices that can increase happiness, kindness, resilience or connection, visit our website, Greater Good in Action. That’s GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. And then email us at email@example.com and let us know how it went!
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with production assistance from Jennies Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Lee Mengistu, our executive producer is Jane Park. The editor-in-chief of the Greater Good Science Center is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.