Eschew approval? Think again.

While I know this dates me, one of my favorite shows when I was a kid (granted, there were only about three morning kids’ shows from from which to choose), was Captain Kangaroo. Kindly, portly, huggable Captain Kangaroo was like a grandpa in the living room, jollying us along to learn those kid-focused life lessons, supported by his sidekick, Mr. Greenjeans. Not unlike a 1950s Dr. Phil, mustache and all. And at least as I recall, each episode ended with the mantra-like repetition of this message:

“You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

(and it’s funny that I can’t find any internet verification of this, so I guess I’ll just trust my memory!)

This lesson about the need for approval became well-ingrained in childhood, probably my first exposure to how unrealsitic expectations can set us up to feel unhappy.  From an early age, I tried to accustom myself to the idea that I didn’t need everyone to think well of me. Whenever I got caught up in that, I remembered the Captain, reminding me that a universal fuzzy blanket of approval simply wasn’t possible.  Fast forward to my college years of studying psychology, where I learned that, according to Karen Horney and other psychoanalytic thinkers, the need for approval and admiration were deemed “neurotic.” In other words, psychologically healthy people don’t need others’ approval. Instead, psychologically healthy people can offer themselves that approval.  I have preached to clients–and in my own head–that we don’t need any approval beyond our own. It’s just a nice bonus.

Yet, in my personal life and in the lives of my clients, that need for approval seemed pretty prevalent and powerful–maybe even universal. This means either that the psychoanalysts were wrong, and need for approval is simply human. Or that we are all a bit neurotic, all “bozos on the bus,” as Elizabeth Lesser proclaims in Broken Open. The truth is probably contained in each of these assertions. There is no such existence as perfect psychological health: we lowly humans all like approval. And as I wrote about in another blog, Captain Kangaroo was right, too. We can’t expect everyone to approve of us, all of the time.

Recently, some new research has shown that affirmation from others is indeed a major component of happiness. In a series of studies, participants rated themselves on measures of how respected and admired they felt, how happy they perceived themselves to be, and earned income. Repeatedly, the sense of feeling admired and a respected, contributing member of a group, was more strongly related to happiness than was financial well-being. The researchers dubbed this “sociometric status,” compared to “socioeconomic status.” Similar research has shown that an overall sense of belonging is related to happiness. These new studies expanded the finding to focus on how affirmed and respected you feel, above and beyond belonging.

Who says we don’t want to have approval from our peers? Sounds like a basic human need to me. Giving approval to ourselves may still be the cake of wellness, but a resounding sense that others agree with us about our value appears to be the icing on that cake. And the frosting has always been my favorite part.

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