If you’re reading this, the chances are that you have some form of awareness about needing to improve yourself and become a better person. Being a better person sounds complicated. What is “better”? And what does it mean to be a “person”? For the purposes of this article, “better” simply means healthier and happier. The concept of “personhood,” while treated theoretically by many, is likewise a relationship between the inner and the outer. What I mean by this is the “person” you are internally — like how you feel about yourself and how rich your inner life is, for example — and the “person” you are in society.
To be a better person essentially means improving the relationship that exists between your inner self and the world around you. Healthy, happy people generally experience congruence between how they feel inside and the extent to which they contribute to the world around them. So what are some real ways to be a better person and strike the 1:1 ratio between how you feel and what you do in life?
1. Become More Self-Aware
Congratulations. Reading this article signals that you either have some self-awareness already, or on one level or another, are conscious of yourself and your needs. Awareness of the way that you feel, the way that others perceive you, and the goals that you have is absolutely fundamental as a first step towards changing those things if you don’t like them. So, how do you become more self-aware?
2. Get Someone to Listen to You
Therapy is an ideal resource. Talking to a qualified professional about your past and your hang-ups, as well as your strengths and dominant qualities can be a major help in truly realizing them yourself. If you can’t afford therapy, find a friend to talk to; someone who is a great listener and sounding board for emotions you don’t normally express.
3. Listen to Someone Else
When it comes to being a better person, communication in many forms is key, but often that communication doesn’t involve you saying a word. Rather, take the time and develop the skills you need to truly listen to someone else. You can practice by listening to news people on TV if you feel nervous about it, but listen — just one-on-one — to one of your family members or friends talk about their day, their stresses, worries, etc.
Listening accomplishes a couple of things. It helps you to get out of your ego and repetitive thought process, which is especially great if you are in a pattern of negative thinking, and it also helps you develop an awareness of your life and yourself. Maybe your life is easier than your friend’s right now, and you can offer some assistance to them. It doesn’t have to be big. However, listening is a first step towards making other people’s lives better and becoming a kinder, more generous person. It allows you to gather information and practice compassion.
4. Journal Your “Gratefuls”
Self-awareness, as such an important process in becoming a better person, really is an investigation of, well, yourself. Therapy, and especially psychotherapy, is very helpful. However, journaling can be just as powerful. The act of writing down what happened in your day, how it made you feel, what your long and short term goals are, etc. is the first step towards making positive changes in those avenues of your life.
Speaking of positivity, make it a point to write down between five and ten things that you are grateful for each day, and why. Start off each entry with “I am grateful for…” and after stating what that is (it can be anything or any person, by the way), write “because” followed by the reason.
This does a couple of things for you: first, it cognitively improves your mood because you are working at focusing on what is good in your life; secondly, it makes you aware of the difference between the positive and negative factors in your life, as the negative obviously won’t be written down as things you feel grateful for.
5. Revise Your Self-Perception
After you see these positive and negative groupings, you can then go back and think of negative things in your life. Write these negative things from a grateful point of view. This is basic cognition and is all about changing your perspective on the circumstances that govern your life. For example, if you were laid off recently and were to do this exercise, you probably wouldn’t go to list “unemployed” as something you were grateful for. However, forcing yourself to reverse this negative circumstance, in writing, as a positive condition and then making yourself find at least one reason with the “because” part of the exercise can quickly and easily help you to be happier by focusing on the positive. Psychologists call this “reframing.”
6. Track Your Goals
David Wong, in a funny and interesting article on Cracked.com, made a compelling argument for an action-first approach towards becoming a better person. The truth is that positive thinking and self-awareness is a form of “doing,” of “action,” and of self-improvement. It does have limitations though, which are signaled by the gaps between your goals and your current journey towards fulfilling them. To begin with, track your goals in your journal — both long- and short-term ones. Then, to the degree that you are not making progress already toward those goals, stop thinking and take action.
An easy example of this can be found in a fitness routine. If one of your goals is to lose weight and get in shape, but you realize that you lead a sedentary life and eat unhealthy foods (meaning you are not on track towards this goal), get off the couch and go for a walk without thinking about it. There is a fine line between increasing your self-awareness, and allowing this awareness to prevent you from taking action.
7. Start Small
In order to be a better person in society, you have to be a mentally stable and healthy person internally. As mentioned, this starts with cognition and the amount of control you have/gain over your thoughts. But this is never going to be a perfect control, a perfect stability. Some people struggle more with negativity than others, but the point is that it’s always going to be something you work at — no matter how positive you are, naturally.
This being said, you should start taking small actions based off of your self-awareness as soon as possible — even after your first journal entry. Realize you want to eat better? Limit fast-food intake to once a week. Realize your best friend always calls you first? Give her or him a ring. Starting small from an internal place of genuine self-awareness is essential towards taking action that will eventually benefit the “external”–society.
8. Get Into a Routine
Get yourself into a mental and physical routine, like “journal, exercise, job-hunt,” for instance. Having a routine is helpful in bridging the gap between how you feel and what you do, because often — as Wong writes — what you do dictates how you feel. When you are active in healthy pursuits, it contributes to your self-awareness, and vice-a-versa. Routines also provide you with stability when you get into a weird and/or destructive head-space.
Volunteering is one of the best ways to both demonstrate your self-growth, and see it register in the world around you. If you have the means, donating money to the homeless or needy is always helpful, but being generous with your time is a uniquely bettering experience.
You can ascertain skills, like via volunteering at an animal shelter for example, and you can more easily gain a perspective on your own life, too. From an altruistic point of view, the time you donate will go a long way towards helping other people and making the world a better place — no matter where you decide to volunteer.
10. Let Go
You don’t have to be Yoda to let go of your anger, rage, and hatred–anyone can work towards freeing themselves of these insidious moods and qualities in order to forgive others. Forgiving is really the key here, and it starts with empathy. Think about how you’re similar to the person who wronged you. Look at things from the other side, from their perspective Try to walk in the shoes of the individual who screwed you. Letting go of negative feelings–which only harm you, by the way–really begins with compassion that is derived from a feeling of “sameness.”
It may be healing for you to reach out to the person if there is a long-standing riff, and communicate your forgiveness, but you certainly don’t have to. This is about you becoming a better person, not about changing others or attempting to alter past situations you probably had no control over to start with.