Go back in your thoughts to your school days. You will probably recollect that some kids were popular and loved by everyone. They were volunteering to help others, always played for the team. Some kids were sitting in the corner invisible, and some were even rejected by the collective.
And then there were the cool kids. Those who were popular but at the same time hated by many. They were often arrogant, self-absorbed boys and girls who always had the latest gadget, set the fashion trends, did great with the opposite sex, and always acted in a self-assured manner. Everyone wanted to be like them and to be at good graces with them. Publicly. Privately, they were often envied, despised, and even their so-called friends would badmouth them behind their backs.
Types of popularity
Mitch Prinstein, in his book Popular, provides ample proof of the importance of likability in one’s life. As Prinstein writes, there are two types of popularity.
The first one is the reflection of status. You are popular because of your status in society, because of your riches, looks, or dominance. You are the cool kid in school. Though often, you may not be that successful and admired later in life. Status has nothing to do with whether people like you or not. It is about visibility, power, and influence. You may not be aware of this in early childhood, but the older you get, the more critical it becomes in life. In adulthood, status is very important as it gives you access to opportunities. Thus those who have status are admired or envied by those who lack it.
The second type of popularity is likability. You are likable when people feel they can trust you, enjoy your company, feel comfortable around you, know you are reliable, and always willing to help. You are a true friend. This type of popularity is something you should genuinely care about. This type of popularity is much more powerful and one that you can influence yourself.
Studies have shown that likable kids grow up to have high self-esteem, good quality relationships, and even make more money and better health. Likability is more important than intelligence or socioeconomic status in predicting your success in life.
Now let’s consider social networks. The smart people developing the software we use every day like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram use the word “like” a lot. In reality, if someone clicks on the “like” button below something you posted, it has nothing to do with whether they like you or what you wrote. They pretty much just indicate they saw the picture and want you to know that they noticed you. They essentially grant you status. And they may expect you to reciprocate and “like” their posts. The more likes you get, the higher status you have. Similar to having a high status in society or being rich. It has nothing to do with whether you are liked as a person. When you get more likes, you feel popular. If no one likes your tweets or pictures, you posted you feel rejected.
It seems rather silly to grant so much power over how you feel to others. The more you focus on chasing “likes” on the social networks, the more addicted you become to it, and you seek the rush you feel when a bunch of people “like” your posts. Don’t go there. It may not be easy during adolescence, but as an adult, you should reign in these urges.
I regularly post articles on my blog. In the early days, I followed closely the number of people reading my articles and liking them. I was excited when I saw that a hundred thousand people saw something I wrote. However, at some point, I realized that some of my worst articles got the most likes, and some pieces I considered brilliant and was proud of were pretty much ignored. The reasons are pretty straightforward. It is often other people with higher status, influencers, who are the culprits in a sudden increase in likes of something you share.
Imagine that someone with millions of followers re-shares something you posted—instant popularity. You will get tons of likes from people who never saw anything else from you and never will. The whole principle of liking at social networks is inherently flawed and full of cheating. It is unwise to allow your self-esteem to be tied to such a rigged system.
Don’t chase popularity
Stop chasing popularity. I know it is easy to say but not that easy to do. We are talking about addiction, like any other. Your brain chemistry works against you. The hormone called oxytocin and substance called dopamine work together to increase your desire to connect with others and reward you with pleasurable feelings. They make you seek influence, power, and admiration from your peers.
As Prinstein writes, people invested in having high status, power, wealth, fame, or beauty often believe that their whole life and identity depends on it. Neuroscience supports this belief. The moment you connect your happiness with social rewards, you start viewing everything through popularity lenses. You start believing that if you are not wealthy, powerful, and famous, you are worthless. Not a good frame of mind to be in. By chasing popularity, you are pretty much setting yourself up for a life of misery.
To understand how much we are under the influence of status based popularity, you can look no further than marketing. Look at the number of celebrities being asked by marketing executives to promote their particular brand of pretty much anything. Or look at the politics or the conversation about climate change. We are much more likely to listen to the voice of a famous celebrity because of their status than of an unknown scientist regardless of how good they might be.
It always baffled me when famous actors or actresses are asked their opinions on climate change, vaccinations, or any other hot topic of the day. Why should I listen and trust the opinion of someone who doesn’t have a clue? They didn’t study the subject; they are no experts in the particular domain; they only repeat something they heard elsewhere. And we trust them and follow their lead. It is scary. Yet, that is the power of status based popularity.
The funny thing is that those who have high status are often rather unhappy. You may want to be like a famous actor or actress and envy their position, power, and influence. Yet, they, who are surrounded by thousands of people and recognized everywhere they go, often long for genuine relationships. They wish for likability rather than popularity.
Go for likability instead
Research has consistently shown that likable people live happier and more fulfilling lives than their unlikable peers. They have better jobs, better relationships, more money, they do what they love, and the world genuinely loves them. You may cringe and say that they get ahead in life because of favoritism, because they get all the breaks, and because people treat them better and give them things they don’t deserve. You may say that because people like them, there is also the impression that they are better at their jobs and get promotions they shouldn’t have. This is envy talking.
Likable people are often truly better at their jobs and have genuinely better relationships because of their mindset. They live in a world of their own making. Because of their likability, they are exposed to situations and experiences that their unlikable peers are not. That, in turn, impacts their lives and their views of the world in dramatic ways. As a consequence, they get exposed to more opportunities and experiences, and so forth. It is a virtuous cycle.
So what is the secret sauce of likable people? If you expect some big revelation and hidden secret no one knows about, you will be disappointed. It is all common sense. People who are well-liked share some characteristics, like willingness to cooperate with others, being helpful, sharing, being fair, following rules, being positive, always having a good mood, using humor, listening, not interrupting others, and can hold an intelligent conversation. There is nothing that would be encoded in your DNA. You can’t blame your parents. You can learn all those things if you chose to do so.
You reap what you sow
Psychologists and sociologists talk about the transactional model when describing our interaction with the world. It essentially refers to a give-and-take approach where the world responds to you the same way you interact with it. This dynamic means that if you change your approach and start interacting differently, you also get different responses. For example, if you start smiling more at other people, you will find that other people smile back at you more often.
It starts with tiny, even negligible changes. To test this, I ran an experiment a couple of years back. I changed a signature in my emails, and it read, “life is great.” Every time I sent an email to someone, they would see this one short sentence at the bottom of the email. You would be surprised about the number of people who would write back something positive or say cheerfully “life is great” when we talked over the phone. It is small, you may say a ridiculous thing, but it does impact my world. It brings a bit more positivity into my life and the lives of people around me.
Consider how much different world you can create around yourself if you take small steps in a positive direction. That’s what likable people do. Because of their approach towards life, they change the world around them. The world treats them better because that is the world they created. It also reinforces their behavior and their likability. Again, a virtuous cycle.
If you feel you don’t belong to the likable category, then know that nothing is lost. You might be disliked today, but it is in your power to change it in the future. Whether we have positive or negative experiences is primarily driven by the way we behave and how we interact with others. Even a small change in your attitude towards others and life, in general, can put you on the right path.
All you need to do to become more likable is to really want to. Believe that it can be done, and then consistently push yourself to do the small things that will get you there. Smile a bit more. Offer help to others. Trust more. Listen more. Make positive statements. Stop negative gossip. Stop complaining. Every day is filled with small give and take transaction between you and others around you. The world responds to what you offer. You need to make the first step. It will start a virtuous cycle, and like a snowball effect, it will get bigger and bigger. Suddenly, you realize that your life has changed profoundly, and you are much happier and satisfied with the world around you.
I love this quote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” that has Talmudic origins and is often contributed to Anais Nin. It reflects the whole concept of us creating our world by the way we chose to respond to the environment around us.
What are your experiences with popularity? How did it impact your life? Do you see the difference in likability and status based popularity? What do you think is more important?
Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com