What does it mean to be a Good Human?

If you are reading this blog post, I think it’s safe to say that you are from a wealthy country and are probably looking to find more meaning and fulfillment in life. Finding purpose and a way to contribute to the world has certainly become the predominant focus of my life. The problem is that I still don’t know what that really means.

What are we trying to maximize?

Imagine that life were a quest to be the best we could be. What would we be trying to maximize?

Despite our actions, I would say that we are not trying to maximize such factors as:

  • number of hours of television watched
  • hour spent behind a desk in a cubicle
  • number of Tweets or Facebook updates
  • how fat we can get
  • total trash produced
  • volume of fossil fuels consumed
  • the size of our house
  • the speed of our cars
  • the number of stamps in our passports
  • the number of marathons we run

Those kinds of metrics seem somewhat foolish to mention as ultimate goals of being a good human, yet those types of activities end up taking a massive amount of our attention. Why is that?

What are Good Factors to Measure?

In our productivity focused age of ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ there must be valuable activities to measure our effectiveness at being good humans. I don’t have all the answers but I would suggest that some of them might be:

  • hours spent with family and friends
  • number of healthy meals eaten per day
  • days with adequate exercise
  • time spent learning foreign languages or a musical instrument
  • volunteer hours
  • contribution to the most disadvantaged in the world
  • time spent in artistic or cultural activities
  • time spent on meditative activities like gardening or yoga
  • number of personal development books read

Don’t activities like that make more sense to maximize than the first group?

 We are still Cave Men

No matter how evolved we pretend to be as humans, we are still fundamentally driven by animal desires. We have strong biological tendencies designed to make us procreate and protect our offspring. Basically, we are preoccupied with sex and it makes sense. If we don’t have children, we die as a species.

In humans, these biological signalling traits get expressed through our consumption and experiences. We try to impress potential mates and intimidate potential competitors, real or imagined, by what we buy and do.

It’s the reason why women buy expensive high heel shoes and young men tend to do dangerous activities like driving fast or adventure sports.

Buying an expensive car or wearing fancy clothes shows we have the resources to take care of offspring.

Running marathons and climbing mountains is an indicator of the quality of our genes.

We see it in all the advertisements around us. Men buy cologne, cars, watches and certain brands of beer to pick up beautiful women.

Women buy perfume, clothing and jewelry to attract men.

Sex sells.

Even after we are married or older, when there is little need to impress the opposite sex, these signaling traits still dominate our lives. Think of middle aged men buying big motorcycles or older women buying expensive purses.

The worst part, is that much of our consumption doesn’t matter or is counter-productive to our sexual desires. Do men really care if your high heels cost $50 or $500? Is your beer drinking going to make you more attractive to women?

Conspicuous consumption of goods or activities no longer serve a biological purpose, yet as a species, we still can’t stop. Our wants seem insatiable. No matter how much we have, it’s never enough.

Does Contribution Make us Better Humans

With all the suffering and poverty on this planet, I can’t help but thinking that contribution should be the ultimate goal of being a good human. Why should people go without food, water, education and basic human dignity when there is so much wealth in this world?

We could provide clean drinking water to everyone on this planet for as little as $20 billion dollars. That’s less than two weeks of US military spending.  Shouldn’t clean drink water for everyone on the planet be one of our primary goals?

Shouldn’t we all be striving to lessen the suffering of the most disadvantaged? For the price of a cable TV bill, each of us could provide permanent clean drink water for 5 people. Or, we could send 3 or 4 girls to school in the developing world.

Aren’t sacrifices like that a better measure of the quality of human beings we are?

I’ll Give More When I’m Richer

In every conversation I have on this topic, I hear something to the effect of “I’ll give more when I earn more. I have to provide for myself first.”

That’s a fair argument. If you can’t provide food and shelter for your family, you definitely don’t have enough to give to strangers on the other side of the world.

The problem with that argument is that there is no income level when we have enough for ourselves. We all suffer from lifestyle inflation, in that our consumption almost always rises to meet increases in our incomes, and then some.

Imagine if you are making $100,000 per year and you are just getting by. You have a big mortgage to pay. Payments on two cars. You just bought that vacation home and a new boat. Life is rough and you are strapped for cash, as always, so you contribute about the average in the developed world, 2% or less of your income.

What happens if you suddenly start making one million dollars per year after tax. At ten times the income, are you likely to give the surplus of $900,000 to social causes? Not very likely. If you are the average person, you’ll still contribute around 2% per year. Your consumption will massively increase and you’ll probably save and invest a lot more money, but it’s unlikely you’ll donate much more. Why is that?

If we are relatively wealthy globally speaking (close to 2 billion people still live on less than $2 per day) and living comfortably, why don’t we give 25% or 50% of our incomes to the poorest in the world. Is a dinner out with our family, worth more than the total monthly living expenses of a family in the most impoverished countries?

These are difficult issues for me to reconcile. I’ve had monthly living expenses ranging from $1000 to $5000 per month. Having more money to spend, didn’t make me want to contribute more on a percentage basis. More money, just encouraged me to spend more on selfish pursuits. That is a big reason why my wife and I decided to give up on most of our possessions. More consumption was not making us better humans, in fact the opposite was happening. We got lazier, watched more TV, exercised less and ate more unhealthy food.

Why do Humans Keep Making the Wrong Choices

We all know that our preoccupation with economic growth is burning too much fossil fuels, cutting down too many trees, over-fishing our oceans, making wildlife extinct and millions of other problems, yet very few of us are altering how we live our lives.

  • I like to travel, even though I know air travel is incredibly destructive to the planet.
  • I want to buy new electronics, while knowing that underpaid workers on the other side of the world are committing suicide in factories making those components.
  • I choose to buy inexpensive clothing even though workers, often children, in countries like Bangladesh have died to keep costs low.

Our everyday decisions, my everyday decisions, have an impact on this one and only planet we inhabit.

We may not think about it very often, but I think we all know that how we live is destructive, yet as a whole, we are not really altering our lifestyles. We continue to consume, pollute and waste more every year. In fact, the health of our countries is measured primarily by economic growth. We don’t seem to value any other measures.

It really doesn’t make sense to me.

Isn’t there a better way?

What if the smartest people in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street dedicated their lives to solving the world’s most pressing social problems? We don’t need more iPhone games or financial derivatives. Sure those things make more money than providing education and food to the poorest in the world, but is making lots of money on socially useless businesses really the best that humans are capable of?

What if more of us focused on making the biggest contribution we could?

  • Instead of watching TV every night, we could volunteer our time.
  • Instead of buying that new SUV, we could decide to bicycle more and use public transportation.
  • Instead of short weekend vacations to Las Vegas or Mexico, we could spend time in our communities.

Wouldn’t those types of activities make us better humans?

Our excessive consumption has made us fat, lazy and stupid. If consumption doesn’t make us better humans, what does?

Special thanks to Chris Kirkland of HoboCEO and ArtWeb for having these crazy conversations with me.


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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

10 Responses to What does it mean to be a Good Human?

  1. Great post John.

    I too think of this all to often. I sometimes wish I could just be ignorant like most of the population just so I didn’t realize the suffering that still goes on in the world.
    But then that would not help the problem either.

    It’s an incredibly deep thinking problem. The good news is that poverty is becoming much less and less each year. The bad news is that there is still lots of it. Would the U.S. become a world favourite again if it took 2 weeks off of military spending and gave clean water to the world. Would hateful nations suddenly reconcile with America? Maybe that would actually solve more than war.

    Technology like the iPhone has really changed the world. But your right, when it comes to apps, do we really need another Angry Birds? Unfortunately, greed has taken over and no one cares what they produce so long as it makes money. Change this thinking and the world will change rapidly.

    Even on a retail level, wal-mart is the death of free enterprise. They dictate what they want and how much they pay for it. Their low wages cost tax payers in the long run anyways. Franchises are killing personality and creativeness. Do we really want the same exact restaurant over and over everywhere we go? Served by people who truly don’t care about what they are doing so long as they are paid minimum wage.

    I hope not.

    Luckily, some people do care and organizations like Kiva (just one example) exist. Charity:Water exists. Now we just need to hit the Tipping Point.

    • John says:

      Thanks Matt,

      There are definitely mass reductions in global poverty, so yes that is encouraging. However, we are still many decades away from providing everyone on the planet with a basic level of subsistence. That’s just stupid to me. People in the west are suffering from malnutrition from eating too much processed garbage food, while underdeveloped nations suffer from malnutrition from a lack of simple food and water.

      I think a big part of the problem is that most people think someone else should do something about the problems. Most people assume governments and corporations need to take the initiative.

      In my mind, the purchasing choice of every consumer is to blame. If we all shop at Walmart, we can’t really blame the company for it’s low paying jobs and squeezing profits out of suppliers. Low prices is why we all shop there.

      If we don’t like the environmental devastation of tar sands oil producers, we each need to use much less oil. We need to vote with our wallets, but that would mean sacrifice. Very few are willing to make meaningful sacrifices in their lives, especially when it’s so easy to get everything we want now.

      Your comment on franchises is spot on. If we all shop at chain restaurants and Walmart-like big box retailers, it should come as no surprise that the primary jobs we have are mindless low wage positions. We can’t expect others to pay us for our creativity and skills, if we primarily buy from companies that purposely quash the creativity and skills of their workers.

      I feel that we are moving past an industrial age economy into something more. Peter Drucker called it Post-Capitalism. However, he wrote that book before the rise of the Internet and the startup culture it fostered.

      With all the abundance in the world, isn’t it possible that the constraint of resource limitations will be eliminated (there is enough food for everyone if it were more equitably distributed)?

      Free market capitalism has led to massive improvements in our quality of lives but it also fails at many very basic things. There is no business model for safe communities, clean air, healthy food supplies, quality education, poverty reduction, etc. I often say that a carrot can’t compete with a Happy Meal in profits and advertising dollars to convince children to consume. Carrots only win in nutrition, but there are little profits in nutrition and health. Our economy only prospers when we are sick.

      I feel we are moving to a new economic age, where economics is much less important. Unfortunately, it will only come about from a collapse in our financial institutions and governments.

  2. Thomas says:

    I posted the above link as the regrets we find we have most as we approach our senior years have dictated the life we led to have those in the first place, and thus the quality of both our lives and our humanity…Something to consider…=)

    • John says:

      Greetings Thomas,

      Thanks for sharing that link. Regret avoidance is a good way to approach what we do with our lives now.

      I already have many regrets, it would be a shame to have even more on my death bed.

  3. Jan says:

    Great post John! You’re doing some deep thinking over there, is it the fresh air :-)?

    I struggle with the same questions. Should I give more, change my work, start volunteering. It would surely make me more happy, but still I refrain. A comfort zone thing I think. But I already make a lot of concious dicisions daily. I will always remember the one thing they didnt teach me in Business school: It’s every economist duty to end poverty (amartya sen, but not exactly quoted correctly). That’s what drives our online businesses and makes up for traveling by air to underdeveloped countries in some way.

    Anyway, I think people make wrong choices because of ignorance. Ignorance is lack of knowledge. Knowledge about who you realy are and how everything is connected. It’s this spiritual crisis that worries me. Recommend Ken Wilbur on this by the way. Jan out!

    • John says:

      Thanks Jan,

      It’s good to hear from you.

      Your business is directly focused on improving the world, so I think you are on the right track. The problem is that the vast majority still are focused on largely destructive activities.

  4. Martina says:

    Thanks for this great post , made me think . I really believe that each and everyone can make the world a better place by their own actions. Im always looking for alternatives in my life and in my own choices , I will share a few , maybe it can be an inspiration to someone.
    Water – yes we so very much take it for granted . I live in the city , but sometimes I go out to the forest to find and drink a well water , you might be suprised but there are also many wells even in the city . Check out your location and I highly recommend to drink it .Fill also some glass bottles and bring it home with you . There is a difference !
    Another activity – have you ever heard of LETSystem – which is a local exchange trading system – locally initiated,not-for-profit community enterprise that provides a community information service and record transactions of members exchanging goods and service. Simple example – I will take pictures for somebody , they will fix my broken light for example. No money involved .Its going on all around the world , check your location if you like to join.

    TV and car I gave up years ago – highly recommended !

    Here are Four Agreements by Mr. Ruiz which I have met in Prague this year
    I will share his wisdom with you , these agreements can really improve lifes

    Be Impeccable With Your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

    Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

    Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

    Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

    • John says:

      Thanks for providing the great advice Martina.

      It’s a great reminder that making a contribution and living a more meaningful life don’t have to be complicated.

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