How do you condense the essentials of being a good human into a few hundred words? It’s a lot harder to quantify kindness than to explain how to change a tire. It’s also more important.
For me, the basics of being a “good human” boil down to this: see the humanity in everyone and treat everyone with dignity. That includes yourself. Love yourself, love your neighbor.
First, human connection is not just important — it’s critical. Neuroscience research is finding that we are literally hard-wired to connect with others. For example, mirror neurons, only identified in the early 1990s, are neurons that fire in our brains when we see someone else perform an action the same way they would if we performed the action ourselves. A simple example is the urge to yawn when we see someone else yawn, or smile when they smile. Mirror neurons help us connect to each other, and they most definitely help us have empathy. We simply cannot get through this life without others.
Part of connecting with others is knowing how to be a good listener. The late Stephen R. Covey famously said: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” An average person speaks about 125 words per minute, but can process about 800 words per minute, which means we are often busy formulating a reply rather than truly listening.
Staying open (open-hearted and open-minded), and staying curious lets us learn from everyone, even those we may not agree with. If we see the humanity in others, we will treat them with dignity. Donna Hicks, an international expert in dignity, has defined it as “the glue that holds all of our relationships together” and “the mutual recognition of the desire to be seen, heard, listened to, and treated fairly; to be recognized, understood, and to feel safe in the world.” Make a commitment to be proactive in seeking out and learning from people who are different from you, over and over and over. Your life will continue to be enriched as you do.
Being a lifelong learner may sound cliché but it’s another key to being a good human. I hope you will learn from others’ lived experiences, whether that’s through talking directly to them, reading books, listening to podcasts or any other way people are sharing. I also hope you will never stop being curious and learning more, whether that’s through “formal” education or self-study. What can you learn about? Anything you want. The sky’s the limit — literally. Learn about astronomy, like Carolyn Shoemaker, who raised her family until she was 51, then joined her husband in mapping the stars. Though she had no formal education, she discovered or helped discover 377 asteroids and 32 comets, including Shoemaker-Levy 9.
Or, you could learn about politics or parenting, geology, geography or geometry. You could learn practical skills like changing the wax ring on a toilet or changing out your electrical outlets.
You could learn about writing, public speaking and how to advocate. I hope you learn to find your voice and use it effectively. I know it can be scary. Maggie Kuhn, who became an advocate after she was forced into retirement, said “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” Brené Brown notes that “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” Be courageous. Be vulnerable. It’s OK to do things scared. I do things scared all the time. You can too.
As you continue down this path we call life, another important skill to develop is resilience. How do you do that? Well, all the things you do to take care of yourself in emotionally healthy ways help you develop resilience. Adopting a growth mindset, exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, practicing gratitude, optimism, mindfulness and meditation, having strong relationships, reframing and depersonalizing the event you are working through are all powerful tools for building resilience. Adam Grant says, “Telling yourself that a situation is not personal, pervasive or permanent can be extremely useful.” This too shall pass. It may sound odd, but uncomfortable situations can help build resilience. So does serving others.
Multiple studies have detailed the benefits of volunteering, including longer life, increased quality of life, increased happiness, increased motivation, reduced loneliness and improved mental health. But, I’ll bet you don’t need academic studies to know that when you help others, you feel good.
If you’re not already volunteering regularly, go ahead and get started! You do not need to cross an ocean to serve. You can cross the street and serve your neighbor. You do not need to wait for “someday” to serve. You can serve in the midst of a hectically busy life, when both money and time are tight. You can serve when you are working full time, in or out of the home, or when you are unemployed. You can serve if you are in the trenches of parenthood or if you have no children. You can serve while you are in school and when you’re not. If you wait for “just the right time” to serve, that day will likely never come. Service is not a one-and-done — it is a lifestyle.
As you step away from high school and perhaps your family home, my encouragement to you is to love yourself, love your neighbor and be a good human.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.