As anyone with a tendency to want to please everyone will tell you, there are lots of ways being too nice can hurt you. In fact, when a Quora questioner asked for stories of how niceness can come back to bite you, users responded with tons of stories of warped expectations, unfortunate acquaintances, and bloated schedules.

But according to happiness expert and author Christine Carter there's a more fundamental problem with adjusting your behavior to please others -- not only does it harm you, but science shows that other people don't actually like it much either.

In a recent post for the Greater Good Science Center, Carter shares her own struggles with her people pleaser tendencies and outlines several ways being constantly keen to please backfires, including denting your concentration and increasing your stress levels. But perhaps the most profound point Carter makes is that, try as you might, you won't even make others happy despite all your efforts.

Say you are at work, and you're doing your best to put on a happy face even though your home life is feeling shaky. You may not want to reveal to your work friends that you and your significant other had a major fight over the weekend, but if you pretend that you are okay--and you're not--you'll probably make the people around you feel worse, too. Why?

We humans aren't actually very good at hiding how we are feeling. We exhibit micro-expressions that the people we are with might not know they are registering but that trigger mirror neurons--so a little part of their brain thinks that they are feeling our negative feelings. So trying to suppress negative emotions when we are talking with someone--like when we don't want to trouble someone else with our own distress--actually increases stress levels of both people more than if we had shared our distress in the first place.

The bottom line: being inauthentic isn't just bad for your own happiness, it's also bad for the happiness of those around you too. Therefore, efforts to please others at the expense of your own needs will almost certainly backfire.

Which isn't, of course, to say that you should ignore other people's perspectives. Empathy is essential to both personal fulfillment, good citizenship, and quality leadership. But empathy isn't the same thing as people pleasing. You do owe it to others to take a genuine interest in their views and desires -- and to respect them -- but not at the cost of twisting or hiding your own genuine self.

Looking for tips on increasing your authenticity whatever the challenges of the situation? There are plenty out there. (And this advice from Wharton's Adam Grant on how to politely say no will probably stand you in good stead too.)

Published on: Aug 23, 2016
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