You don't have to volunteer on a consistent basis or give money to the homeless to be considered a decent human being. You don't even need to be kind to people all of the time. You just need to be considerate. Somewhat thoughtful. If your goal is to be a slightly better version of yourself with the least amount of effort, keep reading.
What I'm talking about is being a little-more-than-your-average average joe. The friend people can count on, the stranger who gives good directions when asked for a good bar recommendation in New York City. The person who will spot a friend a dollar because they found out a place is cash only and the ATM is broken.
Being a decent human being is about not blasting terrible music into the world at ungodly hours of the night. It's about talking on a cell phone at a normal volume, about letting someone walk in front of you on a crowded street and letting someone else have that last chocolate chip cookie on occasion. It's not about being the best. It's about being an acceptable member of society.
Here are nine convenient steps to becoming a decent human being:
1. Realize when you're being a jerk to someone and stop being a jerk.
You could be leaving the subway and someone abruptly stops and is standing directly in front of you on the stairwell -- blocking the flow of traffic -- because they're checking their phone. So, you give them the evil eye or exhale loudly next to them or, in true passive-aggressive form, nudge their shoulder to indicate they should please move and get out of the way. Maybe someone offers an idea in a meeting that you disagree with and you immediately, without intending to, shut them down. Maybe it really was a terrible idea, but a bit of common courtesy is required in everyday life. Just be nice... or something like it.
2. Become more open-minded. Immediately.
Too often, we only hear one side of the story -- the side we agree with, or the version that is championed in the media. It's time to open our minds and look at what else is out there. Ever get into an argument and know deep down in your gut that you're right, you've always been right, but the person you're talking with just can't see it? Maybe it's time to yield a bit and to fully listen to what the other person has to say. Even if you may not agree with their views, at least you're attempting to be understanding and objective. Who knows? Maybe you'll realize that their opinion is right after all. Maybe when listening to the opposite point of view, you can actually see what they're seeing for the first time. Being able to look at something from all angles is truly enlightening at times. Or infuriating. But hopefully, it's enlightening. It takes practice, but it's definitely possible to listen to a point of view from all sides.
3. Surround yourself with people you like.
If you surround yourself with people you don't even like, then what does it say about you as a human being? You should be around people you trust and who trust you. People who will do anything (or mostly anything) for you. Having people you love and who love you is a wonderful thing. It makes you happier. It doesn't matter if it's dozens of people or just one person -- as long as you have people you can count on, you'll be infinitely better off (and better to be around)!
4. Love unconditionally.
There will come a time in your life when you meet someone you will want to do everything for, for whom you want to make all problems go away. You want to see them smile, see the light shining in their eyes, hear their laughter at the punchline of every joke. Whenever something happens, whether it's something as mundane as spilling coffee all over your white shirt or as extraordinary as getting a promotion, you're going to want to call that person immediately and tell them about it. I believe you can have unconditional love for not only significant others, but also for friends and family members. Bottom line: When you love other people, you open yourself up to receive love in return.
5. Do what you love.
The moment you know what you want to do with your life, take steps toward it. If it's not possible to do what you want now, make a plan to get there. I was heavily involved in my high school newspaper, and our teacher repeated a phrase that became like a class mantra: "Keep the dream alive." And I can say keeping my dream alive has been a heck of a lot of work, but so worth it. Having a strong passion helps make you interesting and will help you meet people with similar interests. When you follow your passion, you light up. I've seen people in jobs they hate and in jobs they love and there's a stark difference. The emotions people have (whether good or bad) in their job seeps into everything else in their life -- their friends, their hobbies, their relationships. People who are doing what they love send that love into other areas of their life. When you are happy in your job, people know it.
6. Realize that bad things happen to everyone.
Life is a mix of good and bad -- it's all up to the luck of the draw. My grandmother's death has completely changed my perspective on everything. The fact that I grew up with a stutter altered the way I view making friends and what friendship is and what really matters in life.
Everyone has a skeleton hidden in their closet, but it takes a certain kind of person to be open and talk about the darker things. It's good to realize that bad things happen to everyone, even if sometimes it feels like that rain cloud seems to only be following you.
7. Have a thirst for knowledge and curiosity about the world around you.
I love learning. I love reading. I love that books are thoughts written in words on paper, and that we have access to so many different points of view in easily accessible ways. I love the fact that knowledge is everywhere and all we have to do is pick up a book or listen to a podcast. It's that simple. I find that learning helps me become more well-rounded. It makes what's happening in the world interesting and it adds interesting parallels to life. Learning helps you contribute to conversations at dinner parties, it makes you fun to talk to and it helps you meet people you wouldn't normally meet.
8. Find out how to take care of yourself first.
After a long day at the office, I tend to walk a little bit longer to one of the further subway stops as opposed to hopping on the train right outside the door. I sometimes stay in and just read a book or catch up on a television show. It's not about always going out and staying home only when your body is depleted of energy, or when you're sick and not feeling well. I think staying in can be just as rejuvenating as a night out on the town.
On that note, there is no shame in being alone. If there is a toxic person in your life, or if your relationship isn't working out anymore, what's holding you back from moving on? The answer: nothing.
9. Learn how to forgive yourself.
When I was in elementary school and high school, I didn't really know what to do when I was alone with my thoughts. I'd turn to writing and idly think about a crush or my to-do list. But as I got older and entered high school and college and the "real world," these thoughts lost their childlike innocence and instead hardened. Why didn't I get accepted into my first choice college? Why didn't I have a job lined up after graduation? What made me think I could actually pursue writing as a career?
These thoughts were harsh, merciless. It was hard to see friends and acquaintances attend graduate school and move on with their lives when I felt I was left behind. While I was happy for them, I was also resentful and bitter.
But then it was my turn to move to a new city to start a new job. To have a fresh start. A new beginning. After relocating, there were moments where I had no idea what I was doing in every sense of the word. Times where I was so stressed, the tears pricked at the corners of my eyes while walking home alone on the sidewalk.
After getting my bearings and trying to figure out what to do with my life, I had to rely on myself more. I broke up with my boyfriend of six years. I moved to a new apartment. I had different responsibilities in my job. I wrote more essays, met inspiring people. People believed in me, and I started to believe in myself.
My thoughts changed from negative to uplifting, from "I can't," to "I can and I will." I started going to yoga. I continued running. It took a long time, but I finally began to be happy with who I was. Wholly, completely happy. I thought about my mistakes, about past failures (or what I considered to be failures) and realized that the harsh thoughts that plagued my mind weren't there anymore. Instead, there were thoughts of acceptance and the realization that everything was going to be okay.
I've learned how to love myself, to be alone with my thoughts and I've learned how to forgive myself. And looking back, I wouldn't change a thing.
Whatever it may be, I feel much better and I really hope other people are able to experience what it is to love yourself. There's nothing else like it.