How To Be A Good Person?

Agnieszka Zbieranska
9 min readJul 6, 2020
Image by Pexels

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re already a good person. Or at least aspiring to be. At the end of the day, only an aspiring ‘good person’ would even contemplate this question.

Surprisingly, though, some of the best-natured people I know, hold a deeply ingrained belief that, somehow, they are inherently not ‘good enough’ or plain ‘bad’.

Flawed — maybe. Aren’t we all?

But bad? It takes an intention to harm, conscious maliciousness, and propensity to derive joy from the misery of others for someone to be bad. And none of the people I associate myself with, would fall into this category.

And yet, many of us feel that we’re bad or ‘not good enough’, wrestling with anguish and disappointment at our imperfections.

I, also, often fear that despite my best intentions, my slip-ups and missteps prove that I’m not a good human after all.

Perhaps before we fall into despair, we should take a step back and analyse the factors that most commonly determine what being ‘good’ (or ‘bad’) means.

What does it mean to be good?

I recently watched Miss Americana, a documentary about Taylor Swift. I wasn’t expecting much from the movie, but one of the first things she said in it, sparked an ‘aha moment’ in my mind.

A statement that I could completely identify with and that’s made me feel quite miserable and ashamed throughout the years:

‘My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good. (…) It was a complete and total belief system that I subscribed to’.

The documentary then goes on to depict a moving story of a wanting-to-be-good woman who never feels that she’s good enough.

The reason for it, as she herself admits, was that she based her judgment of whether she was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on what others thought of her.

The problem with this approach is that ‘what others think of us’ is subject to three often quite contradictory factors that we may have very little influence over.

  1. Social norms.

Quite rightly, a part of what determines people’s opinions on what good and bad is, are social norms. Social norms are important, as they allow us to somehow regulate our otherwise irrational behaviours.

But social norms can also be extremely arbitrary and therefore not at all indicative of true ‘goodness’.

A careful observer would quickly realise that social norms have changed over the centuries. What ancient Greeks might have considered a norm, was then condemned in the 19th Century England, only to get back in good graces of the modern-day society. There are many examples of such shifting social norms — our stance toward homosexuality, religion, voting rights, multiculturalism, and even nutrition, smoking, or appearance… the list goes on.

2. Context.

Then, we’ve got context, which — paradoxically — might at times defy the generalisability of social norms in determining whether someone/something is good or bad.

For instance, a social/legal norm would dictate that stealing is bad. But would anyone consider a mother who steals food to feed her starving children a bad person? Perhaps, if you’re a ruthless lawyer (and by that I don’t mean to suggest that all lawyers are ruthless). But if you have any empathy in you, you could also see it as a heroic and self-sacrificing act of care and perhaps even… love.

3. Individual opinions.

Another trap that someone who derives their sense of ‘goodness’ from what others think about them, is that even within the framework of widely-accepted social norms and unique contexts, individual opinions will inevitably vary.

In one of his sketches a comedian Ricky Gervais recalls how one of his fans got deeply offended by his joke about food allergies, but completely disregarded one about Holocaust. In her mind, to joke about a condition that her daughter (and many more people) suffers from, was an indication of Ricky’s insensitivity and maliciousness. But joking about Holocaust was okay.

In Ricky’s eyes, however, joking in and of itself is neither good or bad an act, but rather a tool to normalise and overcome some of the world’s most traumatising events. In that sense, comedy could be seen as an ultimate device of good-doing.

This seemingly trivial example points at an uncomfortable yet important truth that no matter what we do and how we behave, we’re likely to find someone who will see our actions and behaviours as an indication of our inherent ‘bad-ness’ or ‘not-good-enough-ness’.

Religious guilt.

Occupied by the question posed in the title of this article, I’ve been talking to my friends and colleagues about what it means to be a good person.

One of them offered an interesting story of her friend, a CIA agent (believe it or not…), who had to go through a lie detector test as part of the assessment for the job.

A polygraph (the device used in this procedure) measures and records several physiological indicators, such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity, while a person is asked and answers a series of questions. Any abnormalities in these measurements are thought to indicate that the person might be lying.

My friend’s friend — let’s call her Anna — passed the assessment with flying colours except for a few questions, the answers to which were true, but the polygraph recorded them as lies.

An example of such a question could be — ‘are you married?’. ‘Yes’, Anna would say, and she was indeed, but the polygraph recorded her answer as a lie.
But I am married!’, Anna protested.
Are you religious?’, asked the assessor.
Not practicing, but I was raised in Catholic family.’
Did you have a religious wedding?’, the assessor inquired.
No, my husband is an atheist, so we had a secular wedding.’
Ah, it’s Catholic guilt! Nothing to worry about then.’, the assessor concluded matter-of-factly.

Wait a minute… Catholic guilt? What on Eart is that, you might ask?

Catholic guilt, or religious guilt more broadly, is remorse and a sensation of physical pain as an indication that someone committed some offense or wrong, real or imagined.

Now, to be clear, guilt in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s one of those feelings that keep us ‘in-check’, ensuring that we avoid and repent for our hurtful/harmful behaviours. In its healthy form, guilt can make us nicer and kinder to those around us.

But most religious narratives explicitly or implicitly suggest that our whole human nature is flawed and something that we should constantly feel ashamed of. And that, for sure, cannot be healthy.

In his book, Outgrowing God, Richard Dawkins aptly points out that many religions proclaim that even new-born children carry a heavy burden of the ‘original sin’ on their shoulders.

Does it mean that they’ve had a chance to sin in their mothers’ womb?

But let’s leave that aside for a moment.

More strikingly, the price we pay for not making up for that very sin, and any other missteps we might commit throughout our lives — as we will, we’re imperfect and human after all— is quite high. Not only the God’s wrath, but a ‘life sentence’ in hell when we die.

How many of you have been told that you’ll go to hell if you behave like a bad boy or girl? I certainly have! I even remember, back in the kindergarden, genuinely believing that I wasn’t a good person and fearing that I might not be able to squeeze into the Paradise through the Heaven’s Doors. The Purgatory’s, maybe? But Heaven’s? Hell no! Pun totally intended.

To those scientifically-minded, a notion that we might be carrying these narratives with us all the way through to our adulthood, experiencing unconscious feelings of guilt (and physical pain!), might seem ridiculous.

But the available research suggests that although there is no difference in the amount and intensity of guilt experienced across different religions, religiosity (whether practiced or ‘passive’) is indeed associated with increased feelings of guilt.

Even a ‘serious’ organisation like the CIA recognises that our self-esteem can be shaped by religious narratives of our inherently sinful nature and the punishment we’ll be subjected to for not being able to overcome it.

You’re in the Good Place.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t watched The Good Place (and I strongly urge you to do so) then you may want to skip this part.

Considering all of the above, no wonder that an increasing number of people opt out of religion, questioning the value of religious narratives in determining the valence of one’s character.

Many of my atheist or agnostic friends would say, ‘I don’t care what you believe in; just be a good person’.

As simple as this may sound, we’ve just seen that what it means to be a good person, doesn’t lend itself to simple answers.

But there’s one guy who’s managed to arrive at an answer I’m satisfied with — Michel Schur, a prolific American TV producer with an impressive list of renown blockbusters on his account: The Office, Master of None, Parks and Recreations, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and, importantly for this article, The Good Place.

Long story short, The Good Place tells a story of a rogue woman, Eleanor, who arrives in her afterlife, welcomed to ‘the Good Place’ by divine architect Michael. Only those who managed to collect a sufficient number of ‘good points’ throughout their life, can enter this highly-selective Heaven-like utopia.

The only caveat is that Eleanor’s life was anything but virtuous — she notoriously swore, stole, slept around, drank, took drugs, and treated others in a way that quite clearly showed her disdain for humanity. Ever heard of the the Ten Commandments? Well, she’s broken them all.

Eleanor quickly realises that she was sent to the Good Place by mistake and decides to hide her morally imperfect behavior while trying to become a better and more ethical person.

But no matter how much she tries, afterlife throws increasingly heavier curve balls at her, completely undermining her efforts.

It is then that she realises that the Good Place is actually an experimental Bad Place, designed to torture her and three other humans for eternity. And Michael, surprise surprise, is actually one of the most accomplished Bad Place demon-architects.

With the help of an indecisive moral philosopher Chidi, a snobbish socialite Tahani, and small-time criminal Jason, Eleanor decides to fight the system and prove that humans can show moral improvement no matter how flawed their nature is.

Their tireless pursuit for ‘goodness’ turns out to be infectuous, and Michael takes their side in trying to prove that the divine scoring system is ultimately flawed, making it virtually impossible for the majority of good-natured people to gain a sufficient amount of points to enter the Good Place.

Their case finally reaches the Judge, a celestial creature with powers to change the laws governing the Universe. The Judge, however, takes nothing for granted and decides to test our heroes herself.

After many trials and tribulations, Eleanor & Co. manage to convince the Judge that humans can indeed better their ultimately flawed nature.

In the end, The Judge decides to change the system. From then on what would determine one’s ‘goodness’ or ‘bad-ness’, aren’t their mishaps and mistakes, but rather their conscious effort to fix and avoid them in the future.

This is the Bad Place!

I started this article with a statement that it takes ‘an intention to harm, conscious maliciousness, and propensity to derive joy from the misery of others for someone to be bad.’

But even The Good Place shows us that very few people fit in that category.

Often, the reason why we end up doing ‘bad’ things isn’t because we’re inherently bad. Rather, we ‘slip up’ due to the nature of the world we live in.

This is the Bad Place, after all!

Just like Eleanor’s pursuit of morality was continuously undermined by challenges that Michael and the Bad Place threw at her, we’re constantly exposed to factors that sabotage even the best of our intentions.

There are situations in life that truly push our buttons and put us in a self-defence, survival mode. Situations that make us act out of fear or anger, when all we care about is getting through to the other side in one piece.

Sometimes, all we’ve been exposed to throughout life is cruelty and selfishness, and so those become our default attitudes.

Sometimes, being kind to others goes against our own well-being or interest, and in an individualistic world where it’s every man for himself, we need to look out for ourselves.

There are situations when our values clash, and we must choose between two equally unpleasant alternatives when someone inevitably gets hurt.

There are situations when we lack necessary information to accurately predict the outcomes of our actions. Or when for the life of us, we cannot tell how badly our behaviour would affect others.

Situations when social norms, context, and individual opinions misalign, and we’re so confused that we’re at a loss what to do.

In those situations all we can do is do ‘our best’, accepting that sometimes ‘our best’ can lead us to poor choices and outcomes.

We are human after all. And that means being capable of both kindness, generosity, and selflessness on the one hand, and cruelty, selfishness, and egotism on the other.

The big question is — which of those will you strive for, most of the time, despite being constantly pulled in the latter direction?



Agnieszka Zbieranska

Business Psychologist, Life Coach & NLP Practitioner, 200hr Yoga Teacher. A firm believer that we can all be better than ‘ok’, in every area of our lives.