Can you tell a good person from a bad person?

It’s popularly acknowledged that doing a kind deed or helping someone out makes the ‘doer’ and the recipient feel good. It is posited that this can (or will) then ripple through society like a healing balm, and from one kind act somewhere, many folk will experience a lift in mood or a happier day. Now I’m not saying that this is fundamentally untrue, but is it universally true, and if so, why doesn’t everyone feel better?

During the pandemic many people have displayed a level of selflessness that has drawn the praise and admiration of many. Stories of courage, generosity and kindness are too numerous to mention. Parallels have been drawn between wartime and the pandemic; the blitz spirit rekindled or re-imagined for the present day.

Given the acts of heroism by many who have put their health and life at risk for others, why is kindness not sweeping through society as quickly as Covid? Amidst all this kindness there remains many people who appear to others as grumpy, inconsiderate or downright selfish; the miserable beings, the ‘glass half empty’ crew. Why?

To be clear, I’m not including those who may have been bereaved, are depressed or who are suffering the psychological effects of lockdown; I’m talking about the people who even in ‘normal times’ never pay compliments, support others or do kind things. Not necessarily nasty, but just not noticeably ‘nice’. Take this a level further and consider the people who seem mean, critical, or pathologically competitive, the people who cause others to feel bad; the ‘not nice’ people.

In my life and in my work as a therapist I hear lots of definitive statements and also lots of labels. ‘X is cruel, but Y is kind. That person is ‘a nasty piece of work’ and that person is an ‘angel’. But is it really that black and white? Are people good or bad, nasty or nice? Not to me. With the exception of dangerous, violent psychopaths (most psychopaths are not) and a minority of others, people are capable of (and demonstrate) a wide range of behaviours. ‘Kind people’ may at times do things that might be deemed unkind. ‘Unkind people’ will sometimes do things that are kind. ‘Nice people’ will sometimes do things that are not very nice, etc.

But what if a ‘nice’ person becomes really unhappy? What if a friendly, upbeat person loses a loved one or is dumped by a partner? What if a grumpy being finds love or companionship? Will their behaviour and mood remain as it was? No. It is easy to judge people without having the big picture. Perhaps the biggest challenge for us all is to do something kind for someone whose behaviour or demeanour doesn’t appear to warrant it. If we all did something kind today for someone who seems selfish, inconsiderate or miserable I wonder what we’d notice. Why not give it a try? And if they are not appreciative, let it go! Approach the challenge with curiosity and don’t be attached to the outcome!

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