Finding the Good in Lousy People

harry-grout-783336-unsplashPhoto by Harry Grout on Unsplash

It’s 9am on a Monday morning, and the meeting room is filled with the yawning, bleary-eyed faces of a dozen employees, lazily blinking into the iridescent glow of their laptops. As the meeting commences, the usual topics are discussed, lofty goals proposed, and innovative methods outlined. Things are going smoothly, until suddenly, the guy in accounts who seems to thrive on conflict opens his mouth to speak, and his audience inhale the quietest of gasps, taut with the potential of yet another heated discussion.

Though he raises great points, he does it in such a way that grates on people. His choice of tone and level of volume suggest marginal aggression, conveying a desire to control the situation and steer it in his preferred direction. He seems to treat disagreement as a personal affront; an attack on his intelligence, rather than an attempt to achieve a good outcome. His depressing cynicism and compulsive nit-picking has a tendency to stifle the creativity of the group, though he’ll view these aspects as positive—a realist in a world of blinkered idiots. There’s repeated moments of pointless rudeness, which are either failed attempts at humour, or just outright hostility.

If he were to take a personality test, he’d probably score highly on the dark triad of personality traits, particularly narcissism and Machiavellianism—a combination of highly heritable, unfortunate genetics, a flawed upbringing, and plenty of shitty circumstances. His personality might also be labelled as high-conflictan adversarial disposition that carries a tendency for extreme behaviour, and lack of culpability. Though he shares our unwavering freedom and responsibility to be a good person—to treat his fellow humans with agreeable kindness and compassion—the circumstances of his life make it extremely challenging. For this reason, regrettably, and unsurprisingly, most people don’t like him.

Our evolution, and the evolution of every single living thing, was made possible through our attuned sense of danger, increasing our chances of survival and procreation. This has instilled us with a negativity bias, in which events of a negative nature have a stronger effect on us—great for survival, but less desirable when trying to get along with someone cursed with insufferable narcissism. When we’re evaluating someone, negative traits make a stronger impact than positive ones. We might be faced with a character who is consistently kind, fair in judgment, and highly scrupulous, but those favourable attributes can be outshone by a rare, lackadaisical moment of rudeness, which wedges itself into our memories and hooks our attention during future encounters. When a consistently cantankerous, arrogant character comes along, positive traits can be dulled to the point of becoming imperceptible, making it easy to righteously dismiss them as awful people, and while this may be great for our survival (disagreeable characters can cause us damage), it’s a depressingly narrow, biased view.

There’s good in everybody, but sometimes, it’s extremely well-camouflaged. The unbearable character from your workplace could be a shining example of kindness in another environment—a charitable soup-kitchen volunteer on weekends, or an exceptional, unerring role model to his children. The impossible hag at the post office whose grimace could curdle fresh milk might be exhausted after months of nursing her cancer-ridden husband. Your father’s exasperating irascibility—developed from years of inability to be vulnerable, including a warped sense of men don’t cry—is occasionally cut through with moments of quiet tenderness. There’s good in everybody, no matter how small.

ea02af48d9b289e289354f59370f3ba1.jpgPeanuts cartoon — Charles M Schultz

Evolutionary game theory reminds us that the indiscretions of selfish, negative people should be remembered, so that we can display caution towards them in future. Caution is the appropriate, compassionate response because it includes the benefit of the doubt—a person has wronged you in some way, but you’re willing to look past that because they’re a flawed human, just like you. Though they may carry more objectionable traits than you’d like, you’re able to overcome your negativity bias and identify their inherent goodness, however small—a beautifully kind, humanising act, with the power to alter their personality. Kindness begets kindness.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” — Plato

Focusing on the good parts of a person’s character transforms them before your very eyes, from a potentially dark, malignant character to be kept at a distance, to a regular, impaired human who deserves to be treated with decency, just like everybody else. Blatant, repeated bad treatment is obviously something that shouldn’t be tolerated—sometimes you need to communicate your distaste, and walk away. Argument or punishment rarely has the power to change people for the good, but compassionate kindness does.

Seeing the good in other people has the potential to evoke the warm and expansive feeling of elevation, which creates an increased sense of appreciation and affection for the person in question, bolsters the original intention, and creates a happier encounter for both parties. It also generates an optimism towards humanity—a necessary antidote to the incessant doom and gloom that appears in the daily news. The good and admirable aspects of a person’s behaviour are examples of moral beauty, and focusing on them can help to break down overly-protective, negative barriers that we previously wedged between us. Aspiring to see the good in other people can cause ourselves to improve, with an increased motivation for compassion, kindness, altruism, and other forms of prosocial behaviour.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”—Leo Buscaglia

There’s also our Reticular Activating System (RAS) to consider, a function of the brain whose many operations include the ability to tune in to a desired goal. By consistently remembering to look for the good in others, we’re more likely to identify little nuggets of goodness that we might have previously missed. Our Reticular Activating System is the powerful engine behind the law of attraction, which rather than being a wishy washy, pseudoscientific concept of positive and negative energies, is actually just the improved ability to identify and attract something when we make an effort to look for it. Search for goodness, and you’ll probably find it.

“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.”—Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Everyone is just trying their best to make it through the day. Some unfortunate souls may have been born with hostile personality traits, had neglectful or abusive childhoods, or just made a ton of terrible choices. Our natural reaction to such people is dislike and separation—vigilant self-protection, but an inhumane lack of compassion. Most people deserve the benefit of the doubt, and though the task can be exceptionally difficult, overcoming our negativity bias by forcing ourselves to focus on the good aspects of a person’s character makes the world a more gracious, kindhearted and tolerant place to live.

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”—John Holmes

Turn up the brightness in your life by silencing your judge

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The gavel – that little polished hardwood hammer that fits most snugly in the judge’s hand – is something that we all love to use. Each occurrence in our lives is judged to be good, bad, or neutral, with an unforgiving and decisive smash on the block.

Judging our experiences is natural behaviour that has allowed us to endure through the ages, from the tiniest, inconsequential sea-dwelling microbes, to the complex Earth-ruling creatures that we are today. Judgment proffered us with the motivation to get the fuck out of the way when a rhino was charging at us, or to tip-toe towards the cave of an attractive, hairy neighbour. Without this evaluating force we’d be aimless wanderers, with nothing to entice us; zombies without a cause.

Our tendency to assess is a crucial force in our lives, but we’ve become overly partial to it, and perhaps a bit cocky. Our dynamic, businesslike brains can rapidly evaluate our desire or aversion towards something, and yet, the conclusions that we make aren’t always in our best interests. Watching a cricket match for six hours might seem like a hell designed just for you, and that’ll be a permanent assessment unless you approach it with a more receptive, open attitude. There’s nothing wrong with giving something a chance – let’s not pretend that you’re a high-flying socialite with a calendar busier than a hoard of spring bees. Your judgments aren’t infallible, and you could be missing out on a great deal of joy.

Judgment colours your experience, creating distortion before its even begun. Declaring that something is bad is like tarnishing it with hideous black paint – the encounter is bound to be ruined. Judgment often creates a self fulfilling prophecy; a miserable destiny authored by yourself.

Nothing in this world is inherently good or bad, we just label them so. A monstrous category five hurricane that hurtles towards an innocent American town isn’t fundamentally evil, just as the rains that make a poor farmer’s crops grow cannot be considered fundamentally good. This is Mother Nature at work, exhibiting her ruthless indifference towards our species. But these are extreme examples – less drastic occurrences happen to us a thousand times a day, with each one painted as good, bad, or neutral.

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet

Our incessant verdicts can cause us a great deal of stress. Relinquishing our judgment of “bad” offers us an escape route to a more peaceful mind, one in which our experiences aren’t automatically corrupted by bad habits.

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” – Epictetus

This is not to say that judgment can be permanently suspended, we still need it to survive. It’d be foolish to defer the assessment of an articulated lorry that is charging in our direction. Similarly, our sense of morality is pinged upon the ability to discern right from wrong; good and bad. Most of our deductions, however, are much more trivial, and their cessation can offer us serenity.

Non-judgment means you don’t have to make an evaluation of every experience, you can simply be aware. This state of mind can be delightfully tranquil, in which usually threatening events are stripped of their danger, encouraging us to pay close attention instead of turning our backs. We experience things just as they are, not how we’ve assumed them to be. Non-judgment is a way to see the world clearly, like getting a pair of spectacles after having blurred vision for years. Suddenly, a sharpened focus is attained, in which a thousand details that we’ve never noticed – that we were too judgmental to notice – are presented to us in dazzling fashion. Withholding our interminable judgments turns up the brightness in our lives.

“I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

How do you practice non-judgment? Much of it is about being mindful, which can be improved through meditation – a habit with so many benefits as to seem like snake oil. It requires no equipment or skill, just a dogged determination, and patience.

If the thought of sitting still for prolonged periods makes you want to start uppercutting people, you might consider trying the following instead:

  1. Notice when you’re judging. Pay attention to what happens in your body and mind.
  2. Recognize your thoughts without denouncing them as bad or good. Suspend your judgment.

We’re never going to stop smashing the gavel entirely, and nor should we – it’s essential for our survival. But we can train ourselves to use it less frequently by practising non-judgment, and in the process, our minds can attain a serenity in which we’ll live our lives with less friction, and greater contentment.