Books to help me be a better person
July 31, 2007 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I want to be a better person (don't we all?). I'm looking for texts and tips to help me on my journey.

I have come to the conclusion that I need to make some changes in my life. I want to be a "better person." That's a pretty broad term, but basically I want to work on improving my outlook and perceptions of the world, my compassion for other people, my consciousness and my self-destructive behaviors, to name a few things. I want to live in the now but I also want to be well-prepared for the future.

Searches for previous AskMe questions under the terms "better person", "consciousness", "introspection" and "self help" have turned up little. The tips I found here are good if a little too general. I'm looking for more advice along the same lines as what's contained in that link.

I realize that simply making the decision to become a better person is the very first step. I also know I need to slow down, shut my mouth and think about things before speaking or acting. I journal daily. I exercise and enjoy nature. What else should I be doing? What are some things I can do every day to help raise my awareness of the world around me and become more sensitive to other people and their needs?

I'm not looking for religion or hokey self-help books. I'd prefer something more traditional (maybe texts on philosophies , Buddhism, Daoism, whatever) or any advice that has helped you. Thanks in advance.
posted by Brittanie to Human Relations (29 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Cheers on trying this out. You'll be successful, no doubt. (Sorry, I didn't actually mean for that to rhyme.)

I think you'd have some better answers here if you can describe what "better person" means to you. I realize you've defined some aspects of it, but perhaps you could go further.

For instance, what "self-destructive behaviors" are you trying to remove?

Be as specific as you can with what you're trying to do and we'll all gladly help! ;-)


posted by tcv at 6:51 AM on July 31, 2007

I realize that simply making the decision to become a better person is the very first step.

The second step is defining (for yourself) what you mean by a better person, and if you'd like us to help, telling us.
posted by phrontist at 7:17 AM on July 31, 2007

Seek out someone who has the qualities you desire and allow them to mentor you in better living.
posted by The Straightener at 7:21 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: This book is superb for aphorisms that will inspire you and help you along the way. Ignore the zen focus of the chapter headings and just read all the snippets - they're from the wise of all ages and traditions. I can't stand self-help books generally and to reassure you, this isn't one. I find it genuinely inspiring.
posted by dowcrag at 7:24 AM on July 31, 2007

Response by poster: Well...

— I want to be more aware of other people's feelings and how the things I say and do might affect them. This goes for everyone from my SO to a stranger on the street.
— I want to worry less and be more carefree.
— I want to be less vindictive.
— I want to know myself better, know my emotional limitations and avoid situations where I lose control of my emotions.
— I want to help humanity, even if in a small way.
— I want to learn how to stop and listen before acting or speaking.
— I want to be more aware of my environment.
— I want to be more creative.
— I want to be nice (but not taken advantage of).
— I want to be more tolerant and patient.
— I want to see the positive in even negative situations.

There is so much more. I think most of this falls under the categories of "living in the now," being "more self-aware", being conscious and conscientious, being more empathetic and sympathetic. Since these "wants" extend to all aspects of my life I really don't know how to describe them other than saying "I want to be a better person."

And to add, I do not think I am a bad person, I just want to be more proactive in my quest to improve and grow as a human being.
posted by Brittanie at 7:29 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: Ben Franklin set out to do the same thing, enumerating 13 virtues and working on them systematically -- it's all laid out in his autobiography.

Also: "It was high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, 'always do what you are afraid to do.'" - -- Emerson
posted by futility closet at 7:30 AM on July 31, 2007

As far as "I want to worry less and be more carefree", I think everyone's looking looking for the trick to that. So if I were you, I wouldn't worry about it.
Some of the others, e.g. being less vindictive, more patient, etc., sound like you should get in the habit of forcing yourself to take a few deep breaths now and again and then asking yourself how important the thing really is in the long run -- and I mean, literally, forcefully interrupting your thoughts and just breathing deeply. Or, depending on the situation, just taking a day to think about things before reacting. I don't know of any way to get quicker insight into people, I think rather if you just wait before reacting the insight will gradually creep in and you won't have overhastily done something you regretted.
So I guess I would advocate living less "in the now".
posted by creasy boy at 7:42 AM on July 31, 2007

after a lifetime of depression and the associated self-destruction and lashing-out at friends, several years ago i made a similar decision to change my life for the better and be more compassionate and find a path to true happiness.

an ex-girlfriend and my doctor (was seeing a psych at the time) both recommended i read a book called 'the four agreements'. after one last self-destructive spiral, i went out and bought the book out of desparation.

its a pretty simple premise, based on ancient toltec philosophy: the book outlines four agreements that you make with yourself that will make you understand the world around you better, and will leave you more adept at handling it.

i came home and read the book (very short) in one night, and, amazingly, it all just came together. in spite of a lifetime of depression, i woke up the next morning and i swear the world *looked* different. the birds were louder and more beautiful, the sky was bluer, and the sun was brighter.

i went around and apologized to everyone i know for my previous actions, and then forgave myself for them, and i have never looked back. its been 7 years now and in spite of personal setbacks (job losses, breakups, etc) i have never fallen down. after 21 years of depression, i have had seven of happiness.

likewise i find that i am a much better person, who leads a life of love and compassion instead of the more common reactionary lifestyle most of us lead. i believe this is what youre looking for. i think this book can lay it out for you in simple, easy narratives that might change your life for the better.

check it out.

also you may want to read pretty much anything by the dalai lama. there are also tons of resources on the internet for buddhist teachings. the buddhist philosophy has helped to keep me on track as well.

good luck! i find it very positive to see someone making a decision like this.
posted by kneelconqueso at 7:44 AM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since you're open to Buddhism, "Start Where You Are" by Pema Chodron is a great book. Really, anything by her is great, and she's a good starting point for people that aren't too familiar with Buddhism.

If you ARE more familiar with Buddhism, or want to be, The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau is an amazing, classic book on the enlightenment of ordinary people. Plus it totally avoids all the trite self-help pop-psych banter.

Kudos to you for wanting to be more aware. It will give you more freedom than you ever imagined possible.
posted by desjardins at 7:48 AM on July 31, 2007

You're already in the habit of writing, which is a good start. I would like to suggest a David Burns technique, which is to do a written cost-benefit breakdown of any change you want to make.

This is a fairly straightforward matter of listing what you would get out of making the change vs what you would get out of not making the change. It's very important to be exhaustive about the benefits of your current behavior - you need to be really clear about the benefits of acting the way you are now, including things you might prefer not to acknowledge or things that you think you "shouldn't" see as benefits. For example, one benefit of being unmotivated and unproductive might be that you get given less jobs that you don't like to do, or a benefit of being insensitive might be that worrying about other people's problems might reduce your own happiness. You can then balance that out with a list of benefits from the new behavior.

Going through this semi-formal process gives you the ability to make a proper assessment as to whether or not you want to make the change. You'll be more committed to the change you are making, and will also have a better idea of what challenges to expect, having listed the negative aspects as well as the positives.

In general I think the definition of "better person" will depend on your circumstances. For example, sometimes it may be the case that making the best use of your talents for work may need to take more of a priority over taking time to understand other people's problems. Other times, work will be fairly steady and you'll have more time and energy to develop your relationships. This changing context is another reason why it's good to sit down and work through things on paper.
posted by teleskiving at 7:52 AM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You may have already seen these, or you may not find them entirely appropriate for what you want, but these former questions of mine might be of interest. On loving yourself and others and turning your life around.
posted by DarkForest at 7:59 AM on July 31, 2007

Well, just reading this thread has cheered me up a good deal, i.e. affected me in a positive way, so that's one step toward your goals. :)

Seriously, as I'm sure you know, these are all lifelong processes, rather than "goals" to be attained; you can still be working on all of them in your 90s. Also, even broken down into the list you provide above, they are pretty large and general, which is not bad, or course, but makes enacting them a little more of a challenge. What specifically can one do to become more aware, more creative, nicer?

One thing that's helped me with questions like that is framing them as "What, specifically, would a person who already is [aware, creative, nice] be doing right now, in this specific situation?" And then doing that thing. I think we often tend to limit ourselves by our beliefs about the kind of person we are, the kinds of things we do; thinking of specific behaviors that the person we'd like to be would enact, and then doing those actions, can be very helpful in breaking free of old habits and changing attitudes and beliefs about oneself.
posted by Kat Allison at 8:02 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: Also, looking over your list of wants, it sounds like you might be interested in mindfulness. The Miracle Of Mindfulness is an often-mentioned book. For a more westernized version, see John Kabat-Zinn's books. This might help you be more aware of your 'automatic' behaviors so you can see them and then perhaps avoid, redirect, or soften them.
posted by DarkForest at 8:05 AM on July 31, 2007

Do one good thing (a good thing that the average person wouldn't) each day. Don't tell anyone that you do this.
posted by ThFullEffect at 9:03 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: I recommend Leo Babauta's blog Zen Habits. It is all about making changes in different areas of your life for the better. He devotes each day of the week to a different topic (Productivity, Finance and Family, Simplifying, Happiness, and Health).

Here's an example of one of his posts, specifically on cultivating more compassion in your life.

In regards to your post, I specifically recommend taking a look at his posts on Happiness and Simplicity.

Also, check out this recent post of his on a new site called LifeRemix. Lots of great links to various different blogsites, all about improving your life.
posted by Squee at 9:06 AM on July 31, 2007

The Four Agreements is amazing. It's very simple and straightforward. You don't have to be spiritual at all in order to apply the principles.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:14 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: I've heard from a lot of people that a book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is worth a read if you want to change how you approach life. It's basically about a state he calls "flow" - sort of immersing yourself in whatever you're doing and feeling at one with it. Difficult to explain, but he's done a lot of research to back it up, and is well-regarded in his field. It's part of the "positive psychology" movement, which partly focuses on how people can become better at what they do and might be up your street. Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman is from the same sort of field, although I'm not as big a fan of Seligman for various reasons (inventing an entirely new field of psychology and promoting it by slagging off the rest of the discipline didn't help).

Also, a very powerful and classic text on finding meaning in life is Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor turned psychotherapist.
posted by terrynutkins at 9:17 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: Check out The Art of Living: The Classical Mannual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Epictetus. It's full of wise nuggets on how to be a better person, and you can pretty much flip open to any page for a quick lesson on something you could be doing to be a better person.
posted by vytae at 9:25 AM on July 31, 2007

As lame as it sounds, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is actual a fairly pragmatic introduction to improving your life and perspective.
posted by lubujackson at 10:17 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: 13 Ways to Become a Good Person (pdf)
posted by caddis at 10:31 AM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I find this helpful: it's a totally secular version of the 12 steps that is focused around positive personal change rather than addiction recovery. Not a bad resource, and free.
posted by Miko at 10:53 AM on July 31, 2007

not a self-help book, but a book about the writer's experience at Auschwitz, and his work as a psychotherapist. There are some incredibly moving descriptions about his search for meaning. It is aptly entitled, "Man's Search for Meaning" .

From the Amazon page:

Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl's theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos ("meaning")-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful. At the time of Frankl's death in 1997, Man's Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a "book that made a difference in your life" found Man's Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.

Not sure if this is what you're thinking, but it's a short read... (The first half is the memoir, the second is a bit more academic).
posted by prophetsearcher at 11:08 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: Seconding the Epictetus selection, _The Art of Living_. I tend to be a stickler for finding the most accurate translation and the most complete, unabridged edition. This is one of the exceptions. The translation is pretty loose and this is just a selection of, I believe, most of the Handbook and a small portion of the Discourses. Still, the editor did a great job. It is perfectly formed for its intended audience.

Take a look at Cheri Huber's books. The two best are _The Key, and the Name of the Key is Willingness_ and _There is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self Hate_. They are not as new agey pop psychologyish as they sound. Cheri Huber is the leader of a Zen monastery and these books have a strong Zen flavor although she isn't much for doctrine.

Charlotte Joko Beck is the other author on Zen that I have found to be helpful. Her books are _Everyday Zen_ and _Love and Work_. She is a bit more of what you would expect from a Zen community leader but there is no conflict between her writings and Cheri Huber's. Again, there is no emphasis on dogma. Both of them though, see meditation as an essential component in relieving suffering. And their definition of 'suffering' is probably different from yours.

I would also like to suggest Simone Weil's collection of aphorisms, _Gravity and Grace_. This book won't give you any instructions or overt guidance. That said, it is worth your time. Her insights are as profound as any I've read and beautifully expressed. They have a strong Christian flavor and an emphasis on service. If that puts you off, you are forewarned, but do know that she was a mystic and never converted to Christianity herself. The book is accessible and has plenty to offer to atheists or those of other faiths.

Finally, you emphasize slowing down. It's a good idea. Some kind of relaxation practice will help. I recommend the Open Focus set of 'objectless visualizations' ("Can you imagine the space between your eyes?"). These were devised by one of the early pioneers in neurofeedback, Les Fehmi, with the intent of finding a technique that would not only promote alpha waves (which all relaxation techniques do) but synchronize them as well. This guy has been around for a while, and he has had some scientific papers on his work published. Most of them are available on his website if you are curious about the relevance of brainwave synchrony. The book, _A Symphony in the Brain_ by Jim Robbins has a few pages where the author reports his own experience in listening to the guided visualizations. While I like this one, any regular relaxation practice will get you where you want to go.
posted by BigSky at 11:11 AM on July 31, 2007

Bookshelf recommendations - Spirit Matters, by Michael Lerner.
posted by lilithim at 11:56 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: Check out the Life 101 series by Peter McWilliams. It's available on Amazon, or for free, in it's entirety, on this website.
posted by Solomon at 11:57 AM on July 31, 2007

I'll add another voice of recommendation for The Art of Living (Epictetus) and The Four Agreements.

Wooden was also one of my favorite books along these lines -- it's not just about athletics -- it has a very general applicability.
posted by buzzv at 12:10 PM on July 31, 2007

I've been a buddhist for a long time, but I'm going to go in another direction here and recommend A Guide to Rational Living.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:38 PM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: Are audiobooks ok too? If so, I highly recommend Getting Unstuck by Pema Chodron. It's a recording of her teaching. You'll be amazed at how easy it is to listen to her but at the same time learn so much. She's the real deal. Read the reviews on Amazon. It's on too. Best of luck!
posted by philad at 10:19 PM on July 31, 2007

Although it is more of a philosophical meditation with contemporary and historical examples on the virtues and how they have been unsystematically dismantled by the ways our modern societies make us live, I find endless things to reflect on in Canadian John Ralston Saul's 'On Equilibrium', reflections that I hope make me a better man.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:24 PM on July 31, 2007

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