The mental health crisis surrounding COVID-19 has brought depression rates through the roof. In a study from Boston University soon after the pandemic, 27.8 percent of adults reported having symptoms of depression — triple the amount from before coronavirus hit.
One strategy social scientists suggest to boost positivity is to give compliments. In fact, this Sunday — January 24 — is National Compliment Day.
We spoke to psychologist Dr. Han Ren from Austin, Texas to discuss what makes a “good” compliment and how little things can positively impact the human brain.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Pratham Dalal: It’s almost National Compliment Day. How important are compliments to our mental health?
Dr. Han Ren: I think compliments that are authentic, that come from the heart, that really capture a person’s essence, are really well received. You know, things like “I like being around you”, “You make me feel really good” [or] “I love the conversations that we have.”
You know, what’s interesting about humans is that it’s a lot easier to give things [than] to receive things. A lot of people can be very generous with their money, food, whatever. But then when it comes to accepting it from other people, it actually activates this unworthiness [feeling]. Because we’re like, “Oh, my God, am I going to owe this person? Like, why are they being so nice to me?” So especially if we weren’t raised in households where compliments and love was freely doled out, we’re kind of taught to be suspicious.
PD: What social or behavioral patterns are you seeing among people right now?
Dr. Ren: People are exhausted and just have a lot of difficulty with concentration, finishing tasks, a lot of just anhedonia, which is when they’re not enjoying things that they used to enjoy. Say they used to like bike riding or gardening. They try to do the things that they know to be uplifting, and then find that they’re just not getting very much pleasure out of them anymore.
I think it’s necessary to check on people, you know, just check on humans like people that you care about, people that you would see like in passing. And they’re as classmates or coworkers or people that would ordinarily be within your day-to-day social bubble.
And I think, you know, on the flip side, like, don’t take it personally if people aren’t checking in on you, it’s not because of something about you. It’s just like we’re all just kind of scraping by and we don’t really have the energy or resources to.
PD: What tips can you give to people to get a little moment of joy?
Dr. Ren: Tap into your little pockets of joy, whether it’s a hobby, whether it’s a new show, you can binge watch — whatever is bringing you joy, let it be satisfying and just find moments where you can smile and forget that we’re in this kind of unfolding terrible thing.
Trying to get present in your experiences, getting outside, moving your body — I think that’s really important. We forget that we actually need fresh air and we need to move our bodies and we need to walk. Laughter’s huge, like having Zoom calls with your friend who cracks you up. Or watching stupid YouTube videos — things that allow you to connect to your body are certainly really important.
PD: How important is it for people to be there for each other through hard times?
Dr. Ren: There is a whole field devoted to it in psychology called interpersonal neurobiology, where we heal in connection with others. So much of our relational patterns and the way that we find cause and effect within our relationships are set from a very early age based on our relationships with caregivers. So we really need each other to thrive. If you think about it from a carceral state perspective, the ultimate punishment is solitary — where they keep people away from the general population.
PD: What happens if people are not there for each other?
Dr. Ren: They become depressed. They become lonely. They get in their head. They turn to not-so-healthy ways to cope. And in the extreme cases, people lose some of their social skills and they forget that they even need each other.
When you think about people who are really hurt in relationships, they tend to not trust people. They keep to themselves. Their life is more safe, but is it more satisfying? Probably not. You can’t just turn off the bad things. If you turn off [your] emotions, you turn off all of the emotions — including joy.