But knowing something works doesn't always mean knowing how to actually do it.
So how can you actually make people you work with -- and while you're at it, your family and friends -- happier? Here are five simple ways.
1. Offer "uncomfortable" praise.
Praise is great. No one gets enough recognition.
But praise can also be awkward for both parties.
Research conducted by Christopher Littlefield on praise and recognition shows that while 88 percent of respondents associate feeling valued with recognition, close to 70 percent also associate "embarrassment or discomfort with the process of being recognized."
To make things worse, a series of studies published in 2020 in found that people tend to "experience considerable anxiety and concern about their competence in giving compliments." Yet the same series of studies found that many people significantly over-estimate how uncomfortable the recipient will feel, and significantly underestimate the impact a compliment will make.
Any self-consciousness the other person may feel is far outweighed by how good they feel about being noticed, recognized, and valued.
And here's the kicker: You don't have to worry about praising someone too often. In a 2019 study published in Self and Identity, participants who were asked to compliment a friend once a day for five days in a row, often for the same thing, assumed the recipients "would adopt to multiple compliments, with each feeling less positive and sincere."
Wrong: In the words of the title of the study, "Kind words do not become tired words."
Even if you think you're terrible at giving compliments. Turns out recipients don't care about how you say it; they care about the quality of the compliment. The higher the praise, the better the person feels.
Regardless of whether you found the "perfect" words to say something nice.
And on the flip side...
2. Express gratitude a lot more often.
The same "awkwardness" applies to expressing gratitude. Research published in Psychological Science shows that expressers systematically undervalue its positive impact on the recipients of that gratitude.
As the researchers write:
Wise decisions are guided by an accurate assessment of the expected value of action. (Hi again, Captain Obvious.)
Underestimating the value of prosocial actions, such as expressing gratitude, may keep people from engaging in behavior that would maximize their own -- and others' -- well-being.
Want to make people happier? Tell them you're grateful for what they do.
Especially for you.
3. Reach out, for no reason at all.
A boss used to check in with us regularly, and by "regularly," I mean Thursday afternoons at 1.30: ("Visit the shop floor" was clearly a recurring calendar entry.) And while better than nothing... it was too formulaic to make much of an impact.
Contrast that with reaching out "just because."
According to a study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers documented a "robust underestimation of how much other people appreciate being reached out to -- and how much those doing the reaching out underestimate the impact."
As the researchers write:
We find evidence compatible with an account wherein one reason this underestimation of appreciation occurs is because responders (vs. initiators) are more focused on their feelings of surprise at being reached out to. A focus on feelings of surprise in turn predicts greater appreciation.
We further identify process-consistent moderators of the underestimation of reach-out appreciation, finding that it is magnified when the reach-out context is more surprising: when it occurs within a surprising (vs. unsurprising) context for the recipient and when it occurs between more socially distant (vs. socially close) others.
Or in non researcher-speak, while you might think people don't care when you reach out -- to say hi, or check in, or ask how things are going, or offer a few words of encouragement -- they do. Reach-outs help maintain relationships. Reach-outs help build relationships.
And make the recipients feel a little better about themselves.
4. Provide a "partial favor."
I've written about the power of a partial favor before. Someone asks you for a big favor. Too big. So you say no.
What you should say is, "No, but..."
According to research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people willing to offer less than what is requested significantly underestimate the value of what they are willing to provide to the recipient. As the researchers write, "Helpers anticipate less appreciation for partial help than help-seekers felt in receiving it."
If someone asks you for too big a favor, don't focus on what you can't do. Think about what you can do. A brief stint on another department's project team instead of a long-term assignment. An informal leadership role rather than a comprehensive development plan.
Offer what you can provide, because people in need appreciate any gesture, no matter how small.
5. Have serious conversations more often.
Most coworkers tend to default to small talk.
Most bosses definitely default to small talk. How was your weekend, how are the kids, how's training for that triathlon going... most bosses are the kings of small talk.
Neither of which make anyone happier.
A series of studies published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants said they felt less awkward, more connected, and a lot happier after a deep, serious conversation than they expected to feel. (In fact, it was hard to get participants to stop talking.)
The same held true with subsequent experiments. Participants predicted they would feel awkward and uncomfortable answering a question like "What is one of the more embarrassing moments in your life?" Yet the opposite turned out to be true.
In fact, the more "awkward and uncomfortable" a conversation sounded, the more participants actually enjoyed the conversation. The more they felt they bonded with the other person. The more they liked the other person.
Yep: The deeper the conversation, the more likely you are to enjoy it.
And the happier you, and the other person, are likely to feel afterward.
(If you're worried about how deep or serious you'll have to go, don't. Simple questions work extremely well. Lke, "What do you love doing?" Or, "What do you regret most?" Or, "Where do you see yourself in five years?"
You don't have to go crazy deep. Just deeper than, "Think the Cowboys will win the Super Bowl?" (To which the answer is always, "No.")
As the researchers write:
The people in our experiments expected that deeper conversations would be significantly more awkward than they actually were. In reality, the other person also typically enjoyed getting beyond superficialities.
Our research suggests that the person next to you would probably be happier talking about their passions and purpose than the weather and "what's up."
Granted, "What's up?" has its place.
But so does having the occasional meaningful conversation, because then you won't just learn more about the the other person.
You'll leave them feeling a little happier, too.