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How to Be a Good Person, According to Science

Most of us aspire to improve ourselves, but it can be hard to know what defines a good person. Experts share tips on how to lead a moral life.

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How to be a good person, according to sciencePhoto: ShutterStock

What does it mean to be a good person?

Two people—an off-duty firefighter and a senior citizen using a cane—are walking down the street. All of a sudden, they come across a house on fire. Someone sticks their head out of a second-floor window and yells, “Help me! Help me!”

While the two passersby are facing the same problem, says Paul Bloomfield, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, they will most likely arrive at two different, equally moral decisions. In this situation, Bloomfield says, “It seems to me that the right thing for the firefighter to do is to run into the house and help, and the right thing for the elderly person to do is to call 911.”

Most of us don’t come across burning houses on a regular basis. However, we do face other kinds of moral decisions: should we sneak our nine-year-old grandson into the zoo for free as an under-eight? If our sister is having an affair, should we tell our brother-in-law? How you respond, says Bloomfield, is part of what determines if you are a “good person” or not.

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Being a good person isn't as simple as it soundsPhoto: ShutterStock

Being good is not a goal in and of itself

As a philosopher, Bloomfield defends virtue ethics, an approach inspired by the ancient Greeks that focuses on moral character. Here, the cardinal virtues—courage, justice, temperance (moderation or restraint) and wisdom—are meant to guide our decision-making processes. They also provide one set of criteria: a person who possesses these qualities might be considered objectively “good.”

For Bloomfield, being good is not simply a worthy goal in and of itself. The ancient Greeks, he notes, put forward the notion of eudaimonia, or a flourishing existence. According to this concept, barring tragic misfortune, happiness comes from being virtuous. Goodness, he believes, is a necessary component if we want to live our best lives.

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Even good people tell white liesPhoto: ShutterStock

Understand your motivations

It’s important to comprehend why we do the things we do—particularly if there’s a habit we’d like to change.

Victoria Talwar, an associate professor of educational and counseling psychology at McGill University in Montreal, studies verbal deception in children and notes that kids who are more empathetic are more likely to tell prosocial lies, which spare someone’s feelings or smooth over social relations. Even dishonesty, she suggests, isn’t a black-and-white thing: lying can actually be a way to demonstrate care for another person.

Similarly, when our behaviours are “bad” in an antisocial way, it’s important to get a sense of what’s behind them. “We might do something ‘bad,’ like lashing out in anger or turning to drugs or alcohol,” explains New Jersey–based psychotherapist Meredith Strauss. But, she adds, those actions can serve a purpose. She tries to help her patients understand what those negative aspects are protecting. A person with poor impulse control may not have been given the space they needed as a child to communicate their needs, for example; someone who numbs themselves with drugs or alcohol may be hiding from a painful truth.

Strauss, whose practice merges Eastern philosophy with Western psychology, believes we are all born good. Developing self-compassion for seemingly “bad” behaviours starts us on a path of healing: if we integrate those aspects into our understanding of ourselves, we can work to let go of them.

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Work to heal the world Photo: Shutterstock

Work to heal the world

“In Judaism, we’re largely defined by our actions,” says Lisa Grushcow, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal. “You can’t really be an armchair do-gooder.” This concept relates to the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, which translates as “to repair the world.” Our job as human beings, she says, “is to fix what’s been broken. It’s incumbent on us to not only take care of ourselves and each other but also to build a better world around us.”

This philosophy conceptualizes goodness as something based in service. Instead of asking “Am I a good person?” you may want to ask “What good do I do in the world?”

Grushcow’s temple puts these beliefs into action inside and outside their community. In the 1970s, they sponsored two refugee families from Vietnam to come to Canada; more recently, they helped two Syrian refugee families settle here. They also run Caring Cooks, a program where they make meals for people who live in less-affluent areas of Montreal, and they hold Mitzvah Days, where they collect clothing, decorate pots and deliver plants to seniors.

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What will people say at your funeral?Photo: ShutterStock

Consider what people will say at your funeral

“I think Judaism and religion in general are meant to help us realize that life’s not all about accumulating stuff or listing accomplishments,” says Grushcow. She points to author David Brooks’s notion of the difference between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Rather than degrees and material achievements, the latter category includes the stuff “people say about you at your funeral—how you acted, how you made a difference, what relationships you built and cherished.”

That distinction can help guide our own virtuous aspirations, particularly when we feel busy or overwhelmed. Are we pursuing things we value and find important? If not, what adjustments can we make to ensure we’re living lives we feel good about?

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Take time to fix mistakesPhoto: ShutterStock

Take time to fix mistakes

As Strauss suggests in her psychotherapy practice, sometimes doing good has to start with acknowledging, accepting and taking responsibility for our previous mistakes so that we may move forward and try to do better.

“Judaism has very defined steps written out for things like repentance,” adds Grushcow. For starters, acknowledge you’ve done something wrong. Make amends to the person you’ve harmed. And if you find yourself in the same situation again, be sure to act differently.

Being a virtuous person doesn’t mean you never mess up, says Grushcow—it means figuring out how best to respond when you do. Goodness isn’t a fixed, innate trait but rather something that can be assessed, recalibrated and nurtured over time. And understanding that fallibility is an essential part of being human may be one of our most important tools in becoming better people.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada