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The Culture of Praise

May 14, 2007
S. Michael Craven
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The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story addressing the “culture of praise” that is becoming characteristic of the next generation of American workers.

The article reports that “corporations including Land’s End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees… The 1,000 employee Scooter Store, Inc… has a staff ‘celebrations’ assistant whose job it is throw confetti – 25 pounds a week – at employees… The Container Store Inc. estimates that one of its 4,000 employees receives praise every 20 seconds through such efforts as its ‘Celebration Voice Mailboxes.’” Bob Nelson, a consultant specializing in “praise issues” counsels up to 100 companies each year. Nelson says “workers under 40 require far more stroking…they want near-constant feedback.” Nelson advises bosses: “If a young worker has been chronically late for work and then starts arriving on time, commend him.” Commend him?! How about reminding him of his obligations and responsibilities for which he receives a paycheck!

Steve Smolinsky, a marketing consultant who teaches MBA students at the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says that he and his colleagues feel hand-cuffed by the language of self-esteem. “You have to tell students, ‘Its not as good as you can do. You’re really smart, and can do better.’” Smolinsky says he enjoys giving praise when it’s warranted “but there needs to be a flip-side. When people are lousy, they need to be told that.”  

The article’s author points out, “Childhood in recent decades has been defined by such stroking – by parents who see their job as building self-esteem, by soccer coaches who give every player a trophy, by schools who used to name one ‘student of the month’ and these days name 40.” What the article fails to identify is what produced this culture of superficial self-esteem building.

Christopher Lasch points out in his important book, The Culture of Narcissism, “The contemporary climate is therapeutic not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”  Following the eclipse of the Christian worldview that once shaped American life and culture, the “therapeutic” revolution of the sixties emerged to convince us that “personal happiness” was the ultimate goal of human life. This idea has only further encouraged the individual self to elevate his or her needs and interests above everyone else’s.  

By replacing the former religious culture with today’s therapeutic culture we have unwittingly created the most narcissistic generation in American history. “For a multi-university study released this year, 16,475 college students took the standardized narcissistic personality inventory… Students’ scores have risen steadily since the test was first offered, in 1982. The average college student in 2006 was 30 percent more narcissistic than the average student in 1982.” (WSJ)  

What precisely is this narcissism I speak of and how does the therapeutic sensibility contribute to its formation? In short, the advent of Freudian psychotherapy sought to liberate men from what it saw as outdated modes of thinking about such things as love, duty, self-sacrifice, and submission to higher authority. Under the Freudian premise “mental health,” which becomes the highest human goal, was defined as “the overthrow of inhibitions and the immediate gratification of every impulse.” Each person’s own desires and wants were given primacy over and above everything and everyone else, including God. Doing so, we were told, would make us “happy” and nearly every aspect of contemporary American culture has combined to reinforce this message.

By contrast, the Bible defines love as subordinating your needs to those of others; that we have a God-given duty to serve and assist others, that self-sacrifice is the ultimate demonstration of this love, and that we are to submit to authority in the same way we submit to God. Furthermore, happiness is NOT the central aim of human existence – knowing and glorifying God is, and from this flows something much deeper than temporal happiness: joy, which endures beyond circumstances, producing true contentment.  

Not surprisingly, the “praise me” generation are not only, NOT happy; they are, in many cases, increasingly alienated from others, disconnected from any transcendent meaning or purpose, insecure, and overly dependent upon the approval of others. This generation suffers from the highest levels of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and various other psychological pathologies, than any other generation in American history despite having been repeatedly told that they are the greatest!
This misguided love of self, personal happiness and self-gratification has effectively replaced the Gospel of Jesus Christ as mankind’s hope. Even, in some cases, within the Church itself by the creation of the “therapeutic Jesus,” who is presented as merely the religious means to these same ends.

How does the church, who takes it mission seriously, respond to and reach such a culture? Here, I refer not to my own “wisdom” but to the words of Jesus himself:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)

Add to this Jesus’ words given to the disciples in:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

This generation desperately needs to see and experience the love of Christ, not in word, but in deed. By witnessing and experiencing true love and acceptance – on no other basis than they are people made in the image of God – they can begin to discover their true value in something other than superficial praise. This is especially so among this generation, who, on one hand craves praise and attention, also recognizes the artificiality of same. They want praise and attention but their pervasive insecurities, because of the all-too-often unmerited praise, make them suspect of its authenticity when it is given. In general, they have become cynical when it comes to words spoken – they need authentication through demonstration.

Practically, this means that the Church must return to being “missional” by both strengthening its own sense of community (love for one another) and reaching out to and physically serving the community that surrounds them (love of neighbor). Quite simply, the Church must return to being the Church and stop relying on programs, events, and spectacles to win the lost and instead love one another and their neighbors in order to bear witness to the life-changing truth of Jesus. 

© 2007 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : David W. Duke  

May 14, 2007 9:30 AM

AMEN and AMEN !!!!!
Whoever this Craven fellow is has hit it on the head. Excellent article.

Response from : Sharon B  

May 14, 2007 10:01 AM

Aha! And the pendulum doth swing further! Do we now see remnants of Roman egotistical beings in our culture today?
There is a definite line between self-care in order to serve others and self-exhultation to make yourself "feel" better. You cannot straddle between the two, but you can be invited or enticed to do one or the other.

Response from : anninfaith  

May 14, 2007 2:44 PM

Michael, this article, like each of your articles, speaks such truth about our culture and the problems that 'ail us' here in the 21st century. Thank you for your identifying and clarifying words, written with love and with passion to help us examine ourselves and PRAY for ourselves and our nation/ world. Thank you for your unswerving honesty and 'stand for truth'. God's blessings are prayed for your ministry.

Response from : Diane Jensen  

May 17, 2007 3:06 AM

Dear Mr. Craven,
I always find your articles refreshing and enlightening, and this one did not disappoint. I am a mother of two teenage sons, and I have observed firsthand many of the false praises of which you speak, and the self-centeredness it encourages in the young. I am trying to raise my sons to be "men for others," and, believe me, it can be tough when outside of the house, they are surrounded by their peers, many of whom whose interest barely goes beyond their own noses. Moms and Dads need to deal tough hands to their sons and daughters to help them grow into the kind of people that God wants them to be. That makes life lonely for us sometimes, but if we truly love our sons and daughters, that is what we must do.
Thank you for your writings. I am always uplifted when I read them, and stirred to think.


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