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See the good in others

Many interactions these days have a kind of bumper-car quality to them. At work, at home, on the telephone, via email: we sort of bounce off of each other while we exchange information, smile or frown, and move on. How often do we actually take the extra few seconds to get a sense of what’s inside other people – especially their good qualities?

In fact, because of what scientists call the brain’s “negativity bias” (you could see my talk at Google for more on this), we’re most likely to notice the bad qualities in others rather than the good ones: the things that worry or annoy us, or make us critical.

Unfortunately, if you feel surrounded by lots of bad or at best neutral qualities in others, and only a sprinkling of dimly-sensed good ones, then you naturally feel less supported, less safe, and less inclined to be generous or pursue your dreams. Plus, in a circular way, when another person gets the feeling that you don’t really see much that’s good in him or her, that person is less likely to take the time to see much that’s good in you.

Seeing the good in others is thus a simple but very powerful way to feel happier and more confident, and become more loving and more productive in the world.

How can we learn to see the good in others?

  • Slow down. Step out of the bumper car and spend a few moments being curious about the good qualities in the other person. You are not looking through rose-colored glasses: instead, you are opening your eyes, taking off the smog-colored glasses of the negativity bias, and seeing what the facts really are.
  • See positive intentions. Recently I was at the dentist’s, and her assistant told me a long story about her electric company. My mouth was full of cotton wads, and I didn’t feel interested. But then I started noticing her underlying aims: to put me at ease, fill the time until she could pull the cotton out, and connect with each other as people. Maybe she could have pursued those aims in better ways. But the aims themselves were positive – which is true of all fundamental wants even if the methods used to fulfill them have problems. For example, a toddler throwing mashed potatoes wants fun, a teenager dripping attitude wants higher status, and a mate who avoids housework wants leisure. Try to see the good intentions in the people around you. In particular, sense the longing to be happy in the heart of every person.
  • See abilities. Going through school, I was very young and therefore routinely picked last for teams in PE: not good for a guy’s self-esteem. Then, my first year at UCLA, I gave intramural touch football a try. We had a great quarterback who was too small for college football. After one practice, he told me in passing, “You’re good and I’m going to throw to you.” I was floored. But this was the beginning of me realizing that I was actually quite a good athlete. His recognition also made me play better which helped our team. Thirty-five years later I can still remember his comment. He had no idea of its impact, yet it was a major boost to my sense of worth. In the same way, unseen ripples spread far and wide when we see abilities in others – especially if we acknowledge them openly.
  • See positive character traits – Unless you’re surrounded by deadbeats and sociopaths, everyone you know must have many virtues, such as determination, generosity, kindness, patience, energy, grit, honesty, fairness, or compassion. Take a moment to observe virtues in others. You could make a list of virtues in key people in your life – even in people who are challenging for you!

* * *

Last and not least: recognize that the good you see in others is also in you. You couldn’t see that good if you did not have an inkling of what it was. You, too, have positive intentions, real abilities, and virtues of mind and heart. Those qualities are a fact, as much a fact as the chair you’re sitting on. Take a moment to let that fact sink in. You don’t need a halo to be a truly good person. You are a truly good person.

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About Rick Hanson PhD

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Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. He has several audio programs and his free Just One Thing newsletter has over 100,000 subscribers.

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