In my years of talking to single people, one theme that comes up routinely is that the important events in their lives, the kinds of accomplishments that make them proud, are often ignored rather than validated. That is entirely different from what happens with culturally celebrated events such as weddings — validation is nearly automatic. Tell someone you are getting married and the gasps of enthusiasm are almost obligatory. Other kinds of life events, though, may or may not even be acknowledged, much less greeted with genuine warmth, appreciation, or praise.
I don’t think it is unfair to ask, “so what?” If you are doing something that is meaningful and important to you, why should you need anyone else to validate your experience? One way to approach this is from the societal level, as a matter of fairness. Why are some “accomplishments” commonly regarded as praiseworthy (and gift-worthy), while others meet with a collective shrug? Years ago, when Bill Clinton gushed over Chelsea’s wedding, Rebecca Traister asked:
“What about ‘handing off’ your daughter to another man proves that you’ve done your work as a father? How does it demonstrate that you’ve done what you’re supposed to do more vividly than watching your daughter graduate from college, make friends, live independently, land big jobs, develop and follow through on ambitions, help her mother run for president?”
Today, though, I want to talk about why validation matters on a personal level. In one of the flagship journals for social psychologists, five studies were published in an article titled, “Are you happy for me? How sharing positive events with others provides personal and interpersonal benefits.” The authors are Harry Reis and six of his colleagues.
The researchers predicted that just telling someone else about the good things that happened to you might not be enough. In addition, the other person needs to respond positively. If you tell someone how happy you are about a recent success and the person responds with envy, hostility, disparagement, or indifference, that’s not going to help.
Here I’ll tell you what the psychologists found. For those of you interested in more of the details, I’ve described three of the studies in the section at the end.
The authors found that if you tell someone about something great that you accomplished or experienced, and they respond with enthusiasm, that makes you feel even better about your positive experience than if you hadn’t told anyone at all (or, of course, if you told someone and they responded with indifference or disparagement). Maybe, as you tell your story and notice the enthusiasm of the other person, you elaborate on what it was that made you happy or proud. Probably, the other person’s positive reaction adds to your own savoring of your wonderful experience. The other person’s attention and enthusiasm probably also conveys that they recognize the value of your experience, and its importance to you.
You are not the only one who benefits when the other person responds with enthusiasm to your good news – so does that other person and your relationship with that person. There are many kinds of interactions that can increase your liking for another person – sharing a fun experience, for example. But sharing an accomplishment and getting a good response leaves you feeling more than just fondness. You also feel more trusting. You are more generous to the person who validated your experiences. You are more willing to confide in that person, and not just about good things.
The set of studies did not address the ways in which the teller of good news can screw up – for example, by acting entitled or by only seeking validating and never offering it. That, as they say in the journals, is a topic for future research.
The Details of the Studies
In one of the studies, undergraduates were asked to think of a person with whom they had a meaningful relationship – someone they expected to be in touch with every day for the next two weeks. Most named a close friend; romantic partners were often named, too. Then the students kept a diary in which they recorded the best thing that happened to them each day, whether they had told their that person about that event, and how the person responded. They also answered several questions tapping their feelings of generosity and graciousness toward the person. At the end of the two weeks, they were asked again about each of the positive events: How positive did each one seem to them now?
When the students had told their friend or partner about the best things that had happened to them, and when that person responded enthusiastically, the students benefited and so did their relationships. At the end of the study, those students felt even better about the best things that had happened to them than they had before they shared the good news. They also felt closer to the person who had responded with enthusiasm, and they were more inclined to behave generously toward that person (for example, by going out of their way to help the person, or forgiving an inconsiderate act).
In another experiment, an interviewer approached people individually on college campuses, and asked if they would talk for 5 minutes about a positive experience in return for a dollar. The interviewer then asked each person to describe one of their most positive events from the past few years. The interviewer responded in one of three ways: enthusiastically (saying something like, “that’s really great”), neutrally (the interviewer merely took notes as the person talked), or disparagingly (saying something like, “that’s your best event?”).
The payment was handed to the participants in an envelope, which “accidentally” included two dollars instead of one. How many people would ‘fess up to the overpayment and return it?
Unsurprisingly, it depended on how the interviewer had reacted to the description of the positive event. The interviewers who had validated the student’s stories, responding to them with enthusiasm, got the extra dollar back 68% of the time. The others did less well, especially the disparaging interviewers, who got their money back only 36% of the time.
In one of the other studies, some of the participants were asked to think of one of the best events they had experienced in the past few years, and tell the other person in the study about it. (They didn’t know that the other person was actually recruited and trained by the experimenter to respond enthusiastically.) Other participants also interacted with another person they believed to be a fellow participant in the study, but rather than talking about some great experience, they just did something friendly and fun together. Participants in both conditions liked the other person more, and had more fun with that person, than did participants in a control condition. But only in the validation condition (in which they described something great that had happened to them and got an enthusiastic response) did they also trust the other person more and express greater willingness to confide in that person. Telling someone about your best experiences and getting a validating response in return isn’t just fun. It is better than that. It creates closeness and trust.