Walking around Tribeca one summer evening, I found myself a few feet behind a little boy riding his bicycle. He pedaled across the cobblestone street ahead, closely supervised by his parents walking beside him. The boy reached the other side and easily cleared the slight bump where the stones turned back to sidewalk. His parents cheered and congratulated him for a job well done, as parents often do. The look on the boy’s face in response, however, wasn’t of joy, but indifference. He was painfully aware that this had been no Herculean feat. His parents knew the boy had done nothing difficult or special, but they gleefully heaped approbation upon him, regardless. In that moment, I realized something the boy might never learn, and his parents would never admit: that the praise he had been given had done him no good.
Praise is like sugar. Our ancestors evolved to crave sugar, to gorge on it in those rare moments when they found it, and to store the excess as fat for the inevitable scarcity to come. Our bodies still operate that way today, but for most of us the scarcity no longer exists. We now live in a world where we deep-fry candy bars and can have a dozen chocolate chip cookies delivered to our apartments at 3 a.m. We can satisfy our hard-wired cravings without ever leaving our sofas, and as a result obesity and its associated health issues are endemic.
Our addiction to adulation is causing analogous problems. Social media is the mother lode, and with every “like” and retweet, every selfie and Snap filter, we are overfeeding. We all walk around with a boundless source of praise in our pockets, and we dig in like gluttons, dozens of times a day, every single day.
The vast majority of the praise we get, and the praise we crave, requires no energy to acquire. It takes no deep thought or real effort, like clearing a curb less than an inch high. Say something you and all your friends already agree with. Post a photo of what you’re having for lunch. The bar is so low that the feedback we get is meaningless, like the empty calories in a can of soda or a cupcake, but we want it anyway. It’s just too delicious to resist in the moment, even if it makes us sick—and it does. The more we get, the less we feel it, and the more we seek out to try and get the same, ever-dwindling satisfaction. Our brains can’t handle all the excess and become sluggish as a result. We are morbidly obese with praise, and we need to start hitting the gym.
Try this: avoid sugar completely for three days, and on the fourth day bite into an apple. It’s going to taste incredible. What’s more, if you lay off sugar for long enough you’ll start to find your taste buds changing. Where you used to eat two or three cookies, you’re now satisfied with just one. You’ll stop craving sugar so much, and you’ll realize that half of the junk you ate didn’t even taste very good to begin with. Instead of bingeing on a sleeve of Oreo’s tonight, you’ll hold out for dessert at that restaurant you like next week.
Next, try disconnecting from social media for three days and see how you feel on the fourth. You may similarly reassess your tastes, how you use your time, and what sort of praise you truly value.
Praise, like sugar, isn’t always a bad thing. A slice of cake on your birthday or some ice cream on a summer evening won’t kill you, so long as the rest of your diet isn’t more of the same. The key is scarcity. Part of what makes your birthday cake so good is that you only get it once a year. When you aren’t inundated with praise every day, and for every little thing, it means more when you finally do get it. You’ll work harder for it, and its quality rises exponentially. You’ll begin to notice that some praise is more meaningful; that praise earned is richer and more satisfying than praise thoughtlessly given away. A pat on the back from your parents for acing a math test won’t move you if they throw you a parade whenever you make it across the street on your bike.
I don’t fault that little boy’s parents for overdoing it. They just want to raise a happy, confident kid, and they want him to know their parents are there to support him. I’m sure I would be tempted to do the same thing, were I in their position. I’m not suggesting that they be cold and unsupportive; raising the bar too high causes just as many problems. The goal is to strike the right balance—always showing love and support, but withholding excessive praise for when it’s truly earned. Instill a work ethic. Show that effortful achievements garner more satisfying rewards. That night, the boy was coasting along and inadvertently being taught that praise was on tap, that he could get as much as he wanted without lifting a finger, and that is doing him a disservice. I don’t know how old the boy was, but chances are that, if he doesn’t already have a phone, he soon will. And when he first ventures into that infinite Candyland of Praise, who knows how glutted he’ll already be.