Hong Kong Instagram account wants you to show your praise: how to do it and why

  • Words of gratitude can release the ‘feel-good’ hormone dopamine and motivate a person, says clinical psychologist
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with exercises about the story we’ve written
Yanni Chow |

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Showing your praise and complimenting others can give you a more positive outlook on life and boost a person’s self-esteem. Photo: Shutterstock

It was a typical morning on a normal weekday when BYL* went for breakfast at his usual fast-food restaurant in Kwun Tong last month.

The packed eatery was busier than usual. After finishing his meal, he went to the counter to ask for a napkin.

The 30-year-old remembered seeing the staff member, Cindy, holding a cup of Coke in her left hand while using her right hand to balance a tray as she chatted with customers and responded to her colleagues’ calls. But somehow, among all this chaos, the employee politely handed him a napkin using both her hands.

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“I was quite surprised ... at that moment, I realised there are a lot of good, little things happening [around us] every day,” BYL said, explaining that he used to view the world more passively.

On his way back to the office, an idea popped into his head: he should write a letter of appreciation to praise Cindy.

“I had an epiphany: why do we [come up with] complaints, but when something good happens, we take it for granted? I find this very unbalanced,” he said, adding that he believed Hongkongers complain too much.

So he started an Instagram page called @whynotpraise, encouraging people to be more open about praising others.

“In the Chinese community, people are rather stingy with praise,” he said.

One example is between parents and children, noted James Yu, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong.

While parents shouldn’t overpraise their children, he said, many still offer up an insufficient amount.

“Many parents feel like ... if I give my children too much praise, it will make them too confident or too egotistical, and they will not be motivated to do any better. But the biological reactions in our body suggest the opposite,” he said.

James Yu, clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

Physical effects of praise

According to Yu, receiving praise activates the reward circuit in our brain and prompts it to release dopamine – the “feel good” neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and pleasure.

“Dopamine is released when we are in love, receiving love, getting a bonus, or even eating something delicious. When we [are praised], we have the same biological reaction in our nervous system,” Yu explained.

Triggering the reward circuit helps us feel more motivated, focused and positive. It also encourages us to keep pursuing the behaviour that resulted in the dopamine reward.

Treehole HK offers psychology education that is up to date and down to earth for everyday people in Hong Kong

While there’s no wrong way to praise someone, it’s best if it comes from a genuine place, Yu said. The key to delivering good praise is to make sure it has substance and to give it when it’s due: “For example, [one could say] great job planning and studying ahead of time ... to praise that specific behaviour.”

People in the Chinese community who are shy about showing their gratitude directly may opt to write it down instead of saying it out loud. Thankfully, Yu said that it doesn’t matter if praise is written or spoken – it just needs to come from the heart.

“Praise on social media might not be as powerful. But a personal letter ... could be different, like they really noticed something about you and wanted you to know that you deserved praise for that.”

It doesn’t matter if praise is written or spoken - as long as it comes from the heart. Photo: Shutterstock

A more positive outlook

In addition to sharing his daily appreciation on his Instagram page, BYL provides a free letter-writing service for people who wish to offer praise but don’t know how. Followers can fill out a Google form providing information about the person or company they want to compliment, and he will write and send a note of appreciation.

In the month since he started his page, he has garnered more than 1,800 followers and written more than 50 letters of gratitude. He has also found that expressing his thankfulness has made him happier.

“I used to be quite harsh on people, thinking that doing a good job comes naturally,” he said. “After giving praise, I find myself more positive. We are all experiencing life. Why be so harsh?”

* Name withheld at interviewee’s request

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