How do you make yourself nicer?

I’m not, like, some expert on philosophy. But I have a degree in it! I took a bunch of ethics classes in college, ethics is great. I love ethics. You can quote me on that.

Here’s a question we never studied and nobody ever asked in an ethics class: how do you become a better person?

We talked (often endlessly) about what it means to be a better person, sure. How do you know if you’re a good person or not, what is a good action, is there really such a thing as good/bad. (Philosophy is all about those italics.)

How a person actually goes about the actual process of going from an OK person to a better person along any dimension is, apparently, not a question of philosophy at all. I can’t name a single philosopher I read who says much about it at all. Maybe that’s a limitation of my reading, maybe not, I don’t know, but doesn’t that say something?

I am also a religious person and was raised religious, but I’m only interested in the secular version of this question. Of the religious texts I’ve studied there are a few that tackle the question of moral self-improvement, but it’s still pretty vague. The most explicit Jewish writing about becoming more ethical is from the mussar movement and they are…intense and weird? Though sometimes insightful?

So let’s say that you woke up one morning and realized you were a jerk. You’d been denying it for years, but it’s time to get honest. You’re mean to people, and for no reason at all. You get angry — not “murder” angry but not-nice angry, and with some frequency. You have relationships, but it’s increasingly clear that these are people who tolerate and recognize your flaws. Because you’re not all bad — but you’re mean, and a bit of a jerk.

You realize this, and make a commitment to do something about it. It’s time, gosh darn it! (You’re working on your language, too.)

What exactly would you do about it?

[Oh, by the way, please nobody mention The Good Place to me. It’s good, I like it.]

Here are the only plausible things I can think of that might help you be nicer.

  1. Keep a diary about your efforts. But I have no idea how that would help. Maybe it would slow down your quick thinking so your slow brain could take control…is that how people get better? Their rationality just lashes out at the emotions, until emotions grow docile and tame? Look, maybe.
  2. Maybe you need a role model? I’ve sometimes felt myself be nicer to others after reading a biography about a really good person. For a few days that person lives in my head, asking questions like “What would Abraham Lincoln do?” or “Can you imagine what Gandhi would think of that?” The problem is that after a few days I go back to normal. But maybe there is a way to keep their presence around? If you wanted to be nicer, maybe spend some time each morning thinking about a really really nice person? I don’t know, I’m making this up.
  3. Put up sticky notes everywhere? But everything eventually loses its force and fades into the background.
  4. Study ethical texts with regularity? Not because they’ll help you manage complicated moral issues (though maybe they will) but because it’s a way to keep things fresh and interesting while still giving you a regular reminder that you’re aiming to be better?

I have no idea. I don’t think I’m a jerk, but I’d like to be a better father/husband/son/friend/teacher/person, sure. I don’t know how much I care — probably not enough. Most of us don’t care, though we probably should, as Eric Schwitzgebel argues.

I’ve looked around, there seems to be practically no empirical work on any of these questions. Moral psychology is the name of the field to look in, but they steer clear of the developmental question. I assume there’s a good reason, it veers too closely to “in this study I started a cult”, or it’s unstudiable for some other reason.

But this seems like a shame for our jerk, and for all of us too. Don’t we want to study the actual process of moral improvement? For are we not all jerks, wishing just a bit that we were a little better?

5 thoughts on “How do you make yourself nicer?

  1. Being around people who aren’t jerks may be a great way to begin, and, even if it doesn’t, well at least there’s the perk that you get to be with people who aren’t jerks.

    The “treating-others-as – you – like – be – treated” rule has merit.

    If all else fails, have people in your life randomly, surreptitiously record you. It’s amazing what can happen when we witness ourselves….though, granted, this doesn’t work for everyone, depending on the size of the ego being caught on camera. I mean, some jerks are such jerks that they revel in their jerkness. I don’t think that describes you (but what do I know?)

  2. Ok, this was interesting. A couple practical, secular, ideas…your mileage may vary:
    1. Set aside time every day for the project (like, actually set an alarm and go to the same place every day, even if it’s a place in your house/apartment). I started with 10 minutes in the morning, set aside for the specific purpose of preparing for the day. Maybe some of that time is reading, but at least a few minutes are spent mentally walking through the day: classes, scheduled meetings, commute, anything I can think of that I know I’ll be doing. I used to be a lot more impatient, which sometimes expressed as being short with people. Realizing that I can anticipate when I’m likely to be impatient or disappointed helps me think about what I want my response to look like, even sort of mentally rehearse it. Doesn’t help with unexpected situations, but it’s a start. 10 minutes at the end of the day is great too.
    2. Don’t try to be nice to everybody, all the time, at once–that’s too hard–but commit to looking for one way to be exceptionally nice to one person every day. Ideally this means looking for a way to do something that 1) they genuinely appreciate, 2) isn’t done with an ulterior motive, and 3) requires some kind of sacrifice or investment of time on your part. Sometimes situations present themselves–and the more you’re looking for them, the more you’re likely to see. I’m thinking along the lines of a teacher needs a class covered for a few minutes during your prep, someone needs a ride somewhere and you have a car, etc. But if you get to the end of the day and nothing’s come up, take a few minutes (maybe during that 10 you set aside) and write a quick note to someone expressing appreciation for something specific they do/add to your life. (This is easier if you’ve already got a box of notecards ready.) All kinds of options here–the custodian at school, the parent who volunteered to chaperone on the field trip, a coworker, sure, but also a note to the firefighters at the station closest to where you live, etc. Again, the goal is to get a streak going: one action every day. Then keeping the streak alive becomes kind of addicting. Along the way, I think it becomes easier to “be nice” to all kinds of people.

    • I’m most interested in how to be nicer online on places like twitter since that’s where things seem to fall apart much more easily.

      I notice that I most enjoy reading folks that mostly focus on their own messages and that’s what I try to model myself to greater and lesser degrees of success some days.

      So I bite my tongue most of the time except where I think I have a relationship with the person or its fairly clear they want to have a discussion (or my righteous indignation is just too high but even then I rarely feel good about tweeting afterwards)

  3. Two thoughts to add to this thread (everyone’s comments are interesting).

    1. How much of teaching skill is like being nicer? Do the kinds of habit-inculcating exercises in this post make sense for teacher improvement? On the other hand is learning and more knowledge-building activities, like what we do on these blogs.

    2. Walking away from this post, I realized that the real place where these questions live is in fiction. I love moral fiction, where the narrative tension is generated by a kind of ethical “will they won’t they.” A few things come to mind — a lot of George Saunders’ stories, Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, Huck Finn definitely, Chaim Grade’s The Yeshiva. I think there was also a time when people had more faith that reading literature could be morally instructive but that time may have passed, I don’t know.

    • I definitely had a very real moral experience reading The Hunger Games. It’s the most personally implicated I remember feeling from a work of fiction, and I did take on a particular (small, but still) concrete ethical practice springing from my reading. I think it also shaped my thinking about right and wrong in other broader / more subtle ways.

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