Growing up I was highly dubious about being good. I desperately wanted Sylvester to devour Tweety. I wanted to see the Coyote finally eat that stupid beeping Roadrunner for breakfast.
It was the 1980’s and at the time Michael Jackson was making a whole song and dance about being Bad. Admittedly, it didn’t seem quite as cool as when he was a werewolf, but apart from that being bad seemed like a reasonable way to go. The chances of me being properly bad were however about the same as the chances of my mum buying me a pet monkey for Christmas. I settled for being annoying, unless I was bribed with something sugary, in which case I would be temporarily good.
Following a few decades of personal experimentation and a close examination of the scientific literature, I can now confirm there are some real benefits to actually being good.
You are better off being more like Papa Smurf and less like Gargamel.
Experts will tell you that doing good is in fact, very good for you. It can provide you with a sense of purpose, which we know psychologically is an extremely powerful protective factor. While people such as paramedics, nurses and Wonderwoman all perform really stressful roles, they also benefit from having this strong sense of purpose.
Having performed some fairly meaningless jobs which served mainly to boost the profits of some ethically ambiguous enterprises, I can personally attest that some forms of work come with few positive mental health add-ons. These jobs paid the rent (which was really useful) but did little to fill me with purpose and nurture the lumpy grey squishy bit inside my skull. Sadly, I did not skip off to work every day singing La-Da-Di-Da-Da-Da like a contented Smurf.
While there is a current dearth of research into the mental health of drug lords, email scammers and people who put those annoying stickers on apples, doing evil deeds can sorely affect anyone who has an innate desire to be good. This intensely uncomfortable moral conflict results in ongoing stress and is perhaps why Michael Corleone didn’t want to be the Godfather and why Darth Vader finally abandoned the dark side.
Thankfully, quite a lot of research exists on actual real-life do-gooders – those wonderful people who volunteer. A meta-analysis of 40 studies showed that volunteering led to lower depression and increased wellbeing. Another very good reason to volunteer is that volunteers tend to live longer.
Become an optimist, drink that half glass of water and forget all that silly arguing.
After tuning in to the news you may well be convinced that the world is a bad place, filled with terrible people, who are continually making things worse. If however you step back and examine the big picture, it is clear that good is prevailing. Over the past half a century we have achieved major drops in violence, crime, poverty and disease. We have now become more inclusive, more open about mental health and have a wonderful generation of young people who would undoubtedly be horrified by if they boarded a time machine and travelled back to my 1980’s schoolyard. Humanity also continues to make great strides forward, coming up with incredible inventions such the internet, artificial organs and the cronut.
Research tells us those people who are optimistic enjoy greater psychological resilience than pessimists who continually expect more doom and gloom. Thankfully, your level of optimism is not fixed. One simple way to increase your optimism is by maintaining a daily gratitude practise. Another way is to complete Mindarma (increases in optimism were just one of the benefits found in research trials).
One great upside of being an optimist is that you are more likely to see the good in others. This is important because humans have a track record of behaving in some rather horrific ways when fearful of other humans. Optimists can also be relied upon to drive innovation, whereas your average pessimist just doesn’t see the point.
Don’t get angry, get compassionate
If there is one thing social media has given us, it’s the ability to be continually outraged, incensed and dissatisfied. Whenever you find your feed full of really awful stuff, the obvious option is to join the angry mob, share a lot of derisive memes and spend a lot of time countering trolls with considered, nuanced arguments. Of course, this approach tends to go nowhere, can leave you feeling even more exasperated and will eventually lead to you contracting RSI in your texting thumbs.
A less travelled, more difficult, but far more useful path, is to practise compassion. Practising compassion starts by realising that everyone (even the most dislikeable politician) is human. Just like you, this other human will have experienced suffering, faced difficult choices and got things wrong. Just like you, they are not some Dick Dastardly-style one-dimensional villain. If you can bring yourself to consider this, you may also find it possible to direct loving kindness towards those whom you may otherwise have directed anger, revulsion and nasty online comments. When you take this compassionate path, you will find it far less wearing on your heart, your mind and possibly even your texting thumbs.
Of course, it’s understandable that you may prefer to hear this message from someone who has spent more of his time on this earth attaining spiritual enlightenment and less of his time watching Scooby-Doo. As such, I would like to leave you with the wise words of The Dalai Lama, who says “only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.”