Picking me up from a high-school football game, my dad saw me amidst a circle of my friends, all of them doubled over, roaring at my wild, rapid-fire jokes.
"Don't go," one of them wailed as I entered Dad's car. "Stay and make us laugh more!"
Driving home, Dad mimicked her voice: "Stayyy. Make us laaaaaugh." Pounding the steering wheel, he raged at me:
"Are you their court jester? Their dancing bear? Why are you such a goddamn people-pleaser?"
It was an accusation. As if this trait, this habit of pleasing people purposely, was somehow reprehensible. Or comical, but psychotically so, on par with scuba-diving in bathtubs or kindling campfires in the rain.
His rant still stings, decades hence, but Dad had a point: While making others happy is a nearly universal goal and seems innately positive, like most good things, it can be done for right reasons and wrong ones.
Hey, I helped him with his homework, gave her a gift, praised his awful cooking, let her sever my left leg (because she wanted to) and loaned him fifty thousand dollars. What could possibly go wrong?
We want to be kind. We want to support, soothe and amuse. But with how much integrity and honesty? And at what mental and physical cost to us? Whom do we really want to please, and why? It's worth examining our motives, methods and results.
#1 Best Reason: Because you like people. Not necessarily all people. Just the ones we aim to please. But to cheer or entertain these people purely because we treasure their lives and want to improve those lives by any means necessary is a sacred act.
#1 Worst Reason: Because you fear people. Offering pleasure just because we're terrified of being hurt, hated or punished if we don't makes pleasure-giving desperate and hollowly performative, flooding us with resentment and a sense of inequality that leave long-lasting scars.
#2 Best Reason: To make the world a better place. Teachers, counselors, clergy and artists need not personally love or even like all of their students, congregants or audience members, yet pleasing them is a gateway to educating, healing and enlightening them, which serves the greater good.
#2 Worst Reason: In order to deceive them. Pleasing people through lies, trickery or manipulation for one's own gain—financial, sexual, whatever—is one of the world's cruelest forms of theft. It's no accident that false flatterers are the villains of countless folk tales and parables.
#3 Best Reason: Because you like yourself. Serenity, cheerfulness, thoughtfulness, gratitude—all these qualities are "side effects" of at least a medium degree of self-esteem. And they're "contagious," spreading naturally to nearly everyone around you.
#3 Worst Reason: Because you hate yourself. Presenting oneself as the world's best listener/helper/worker/giver/performer, the 24/7 ever-forgiving friend/colleague/partner/plaything who never says no—and doing this because we believe that nothing else could possibly compensate for our horrible, irreparable flaws—sets up painful precedents and power-dynamics as others take advantage of and prey upon us.
As a basic rule of thumb, ask yourself: Does (or will) the pleasure I offer also cause pain—to its recipient(s) and/or to me? What is the nature of this pain? Is it "for a good cause," as befits honest, earnest sacrifice? Or is it some variety of punishment?