When you’re admired and well known, “people are always nice to you,” the actor Robert De Niro once confessed to Esquire magazine. “You’re in a conversation, and everybody’s agreeing with what you’re saying.” Sounds great! Agreement makes life smooth, and the praise and esteem of others gives us pleasure, even stimulating a reward center in our brain. Wanting to surround ourselves with admirers, if we can, is only natural.
But in his interview, De Niro clarified exactly what a life filled with admirers can mean. Admirers agree with you “even if you say something totally crazy.” And that’s bad: “You need people who can tell you what you don’t want to hear,” he said. In other words, the admiration of others can be a double-edged sword. Being admired for our accomplishments is pleasant, but it can also inflame our vanity and distort reality in ways that leave us worse off in the end.
If you want to be happy, now is the time to relinquish dreams of surrounding yourself with friends and fans who admire you. Instead, seek real friendship with people you admire.
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At its purest, admiration has a kind of magical quality. In his classic 1908 text, An Introduction to Social Psychology, the psychologist William McDougall described how we experience true admiration. “We approach it slowly, with a certain hesitation,” he wrote. “We are humbled by its presence, and, in the case of a person whom we intensely admire, we become shy, like a child in the presence of an adult stranger.”
This is how I felt the first time I met one of my scholarly heroes, the political scientist and Harvard professor James Q. Wilson. He was an intellectual iconoclast: ferociously honest, and willing to go wherever the data led him, without fear or favor. Yet he was famously a gentle and humble soul, always ready to consider the views of others and update his own. For reasons still mysterious to me, Wilson attended my dissertation defense. Although I passed the defense, it went poorly. Nonetheless, Wilson approached me afterward and offered to stay in touch as I entered academia.
In the subsequent years, Jim (as I came to know him) and I shared ideas; he wrote the foreword to my first commercial book and served on the board of trustees of the think tank I later led. After his death in 2012, I gave a eulogy at his funeral and dedicated a book to his memory.
To this day, I believe that my friendship with Jim made me a better scholar and a better person. And indeed, research has demonstrated that when people admire others, they can learn how to behave better, aspire to ambitious goals, and are motivated to improve themselves. For example, in a series of experiments documented in 2010 in the journal Psychological Science, participants who witnessed a charitable act were inspired by it, and went on to behave more charitably themselves.
Admiration is especially powerful when those we admire are true friends. This is a common insight in many religious and philosophical traditions. For example, as the Buddha taught in the Meghiya Sutta, “When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, it is to be expected that he will be discerning, endowed with the discernment relating to arising and passing away—noble, penetrating.”
In contrast, seeking admiration for its own sake is perilous. “The ‘appetite for applause,’” the Dutch political philosopher Jan-Willem van der Rijt has written, “counts amongst the lowest of human character traits.” Scholars have shown that this desire is associated with narcissism and self-promotion. Beyond being socially destructive, it often leads to unhappiness. In a 2001 study of business-school students in Singapore, a high desire for success, positive image, and popularity—including an affirmative answer to the statement “I will be admired by many people”—was negatively associated with self-actualization and vitality, and positively associated with anxiety.
Mutual admiration is the mark of what Aristotle would call a “perfect friendship.” But collecting friends who admire you more than vice versa—especially for your status, money, or looks—is good for neither happiness nor becoming a better person. If Wilson had befriended me simply because I admired him, it might have been all right for me, but it would have been bad for him. He befriended me because he saw someone he thought might develop into an unconventional thinker and a potential colleague—not an adoring fan, about which he cared little.
To maximize your happiness, mixing friendship and admiration requires threading a needle: Find friends whom you admire for their virtues; copy those virtues and be admirable; but don’t seek admiration per se. Nietzsche had it just right when he said, “There is an innocence in admiration: it occurs in one who has not yet realized that [they] might one day be admired.” Here is an exercise to get you started.
- Envision yourself in five years, having improved in one or two aspects of character. For example, perhaps you would like to be more honest and trustworthy, or more responsible and hardworking.
- Make a list of people you know who possess these traits you admire and desire, and be on the lookout for them in the people you meet. They don’t have to be perfect people; just those with the key characteristics that you want.
- Get to know the objects of your admiration personally, if possible. Don’t be fawning or obsequious, just friendly and complimentary about the virtues you admire. Seek to be a giver, not just a taker.
- If the object of your admiration is inaccessible, or perhaps dead, study how they lived, worked, and treated others, and model your own behavior on theirs.
As you hone your admiration skills, keep one note of caution in mind. Admiration can easily be confused with worship, which endows its object with sacred status—and doesn’t bring you the same meaningful benefits.
For example, about 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict XVI. I admired his intellect and scholarship, and as a Catholic, meeting the pope was a once-in-a-lifetime religious occurrence. I had my greeting and self-introduction all planned out as he approached me and grasped my hand. And then I forgot my name.
Though meeting the Pope made an enormous impression on me in that moment, my friendship with Wilson ultimately had a much greater effect on my life. If I had left our initial meeting feeling only hero worship toward an academic celebrity, the relationship would not have provided me a fraction of the benefit that it did, or the benefit that I hope Jim got as well. Friendship meant seeing him as a person, flaws and all.