Two people staring at a mountain across a lake.

History’s Essential Guide to Being a Good Person

Is anyone truly good?

We rely on others. We rely on the farmers to grow our food, the banks to store our money, and the surgeons to mend our bodies. So saying someone is good is often another way of saying that they are helping the community succeed. They are selfless. They are giving. And they are charitable.

At the same time, humans are complex creatures. We like to put things into binary terms but rarely are our situations that easy to explain. The person who is giving may be doing so in order to fulfill their own selfish desires.

Further still, to say someone is or isn’t a good person is highly contextual. Two people watching someone pick up litter on the street may have entirely different opinions about the action. One person may say they are doing a service to the community. Another may criticize them for not putting the trash in the right receptacle.

Of the many biographies I’ve read, it is hard to simplify a person down into good or bad. Rather, what you often have is someone doing something good or something bad. The person is but a vehicle of that action. That said, here are three lessons from history that can be defined as good. Even though the person taking the action may not be deemed so by others.


Let Them Go

Empress Dowager Cixi ruled over China during the mid-1800s. It was a time of assassinations and eunuchs. Of harems and grand palaces.

In Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang, Cixi is faced with a troublesome task. The prince, her brother-in-law, isn’t equipped for the post he has. The country is in the midst of a war and he can’t handle the responsibility.

Cixi has a lot of options for dealing with the problem. She chooses the most direct one.

She removes him from his post. In other words, she fires her brother-in-law despite all expectations and customs. One would think the brother-in-law would be furious. But instead of becoming bitter and seeking revenge, he sees that she did it in the name of the country. He grows to respect her even more.

The lesson: if someone isn’t a good fit, remove them. In any context (work, dating, etc.). It will be uncomfortable, but it’s the right move. For both of you. They may dislike it in the moment, but they will see the merit of it later.


Step Right Up

To many, Robert Moses is not a good person. In The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Caro paints a picture of a man who puts his desires above all else.

Moses climbs the ranks of early-1900’s New York politics, clawing for whatever power he can get. Once he gets it, he is ruthless. He evicts people from their homes. He blackmails and bullies. And he manipulates those in his way. He gets a lot done – many of the bridges, parks, and parkways in New York City today are his creation – but he does so by employing the most brutal of tactics.

However, no one is purely good or bad. We are an accumulation of actions.

For example, Al Smith is Moses’ friend and mentor. When Smith retires from New York politics, he feels left out. He grows sad. And Moses doesn’t like seeing his friend unhappy. So he has an idea. Moses refurbishes the Central Park Zoo. Upon its grand reopening, Smith is brought up before the audience. He receives an honorary title. He also receives a master key to the zoo. Smith loves animals and is touched by his friend’s gift.

The lesson: When you have a chance to do something thoughtful for someone, do it. They will appreciate it more than you know.


Smile for the Camera

Ogimi is a small town in Okinawa, Japan. The town is special. Its residents often live to be over 100 years old. In the book, Ikigai by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, the authors interview the residents about their secrets to longevity. In one interview, a woman notes that being open, loving, and smiling is the key to having those you love be part of your life.

“Open your heart to people with a nice smile on your face. If you smile and open your heart, your grandchildren and everyone else will want to see you.”

Pause for a moment to take in that last part. “… your grandchildren and everyone else will want to see you.” Life is full of disagreement. Picture any teenager fighting with their parents. However, the centenarian from Ogimi seems to have uncovered a major key to getting others to want to spend time with you. Smile. Be open and loving.

Allow those disagreements to happen, but through it all remember to love the other person.

The lesson: When you smile, you make yourself happier and the person you are interacting with happier as well. The happier the other person feels around you, the more they’ll want to keep being around you. If they’re in a bad mood, it will put them in a good one. If they’re in a good mood, it will put them in a great one. It’s rare to see a “bad person” who is open, loving, and smiling.


Move Forward as a Good Person

People are complex entities. You may be considered good today while not being considered the same tomorrow. However, there are certainly good actions one can take.

Actions that can move you towards a more loving, fulfilled life. One where people want to see you and spend time with you. After all, being a good person can be of benefit to both you and those you are good to. It’s a win-win kind of deal. That said, here are the three actions once more that you can take to add some good to the world.

  1. Be honest in your relationships. If they’re not the right fit, let them go.
  2. When the opportunity to be thoughtful arises, jump on it.
  3. Smile at everyone you interact with.

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