Want to Be Better? Try This

Everyone says they want to be better-be a better person, be a better father, a better mother, etc.  But do they really want to do the things that make that possible?  More importantly, do they know how to take that step?

In the 1980’s, such questions were answered by focusing on the self and ways to improve one’s image, self-worth, etc.  However, now we are experiencing a swing back to the classical definition of what it takes to be good and do good.  The first thing to know is that it isn’t about the self as much as it is about the other.  If you want to be better, focus on others rather than yourself.

Now that doesn’t mean living like you’re in some sort of utopia with a “pie in the sky attitude”.  You may have to make some tough choices and change some things.  For instance, if you’re in a toxic relationship at home or at work, perhaps it’s time for a change.  But that advice is for only the extreme situations.  No one’s relationships are perfect.  So we can start implementing this strategy right away, without excuses about our particular circumstances.
It can be difficult to believe that others generally have the best intentions; that just isn’t many people’s default assumption. We’re socialized from a young age to be critical of others’ motives, if not downright suspicious. Parents tell their children for their own protection to beware of strangers. And it’s not hard to find evidence in daily life that expressions like “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has some truth to it. In an era of fake news, taking anything at face value seems potentially foolhardy.

But these societal impulses may actually arise from deeper cognitive ones. Negative past events loom larger in our memories than positive experiences. As psychologist Roy Baumeister famously put it, “Bad is stronger than good.” This makes adaptive sense: To survive in a treacherous environment (especially social ones), early humans needed to recall the times their trust was ill-placed, when they were betrayed or misled and wound up getting hurt. By comparison, all the times when their trust led to good outcomes weren’t as critical to hang onto.

In addition, people have an unyielding desire to see themselves in a positive light. This can cause us to develop less favorable views of others. Research shows that we tend to think we’re better than average at almost everything, meaning that others are worse—including less trustworthy. As part of this process, Stanford behavioral scientist Chip Heath found that we tend to think our own motivations are intrinsic (“I work hard because I love my job”) whereas others’ are extrinsic (“They work hard only because they’re getting paid to do so”).

One of the keys to this new strategy is to catch yourself in your thoughts.  Stop right away when you start thinking ill of someone else.  That is usually associated with intent.  In your mind, you conjure up images of malicious intent when in the majority of situations there is no cause to do so.

If you adapt this type of living you’ll end up being happier and consequently better.  Happy people are generally better people.  Others are attracted to them.  Try it, you may just like it.


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