- Ethical and prosocial behavior are known to have psychological and physical benefits.
- The Eightfold Path offers suggestions for ethical behavior that reduce suffering, called Right Action.
- In addition to decreasing one's own suffering, living according to ethical principles helps create a more compassionate society.
“We who are like senseless children shrink from suffering, but love its causes. We hurt ourselves; our pain is self-inflicted!”―Shantideva
Do you ever find that you do things that create problems for yourself... even when you know better? Maybe you occasionally gossip and end up regretting your words. Or you stay up late scrolling social media and wake up exhausted. Maybe you have bigger regrets—people you’ve harmed whether you intended to or not—that cause you to lose sleep or feel ashamed.
The concept of Right Action, the first of the ethical principles outlined by the Buddha on the eightfold path, provides guidance for avoiding behavior that predictably leads to suffering for ourselves and others. At its core, Right Action entails cultivating a mindset of non-harm. In short, we strive to behave ethically by avoiding harm to ourselves or others. We accomplish this through mindful restraint in our thoughts, actions, and words.
There is psychological research suggesting that engaging in prosocial behavior—such as altruism, cooperation, and caregiving—increases our well-being. For example, it has been shown to be positively related to a sense of meaning and purpose, well-being, psychological functioning, and physical health. The data demonstrate measurable improvements in mood, social relationships, blood pressure, and even longevity. Such prosocial behavior is at the core of the Right Action.
Right Action also encourages us to act thoughtfully with regard to behavior that may be self-harming or self-defeating. We all occasionally engage in these sorts of behaviors: procrastinating, people-pleasing, overeating, under-sleeping, perfectionism, etc. These behaviors prioritize short-term gratification over long-term goals and values. While there is a time and place for any of these behaviors, Right Action encourages us to choose mindfully which actions will be most useful for avoiding harm and promoting the future outcomes we desire.
How to Practice Right Action
The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The basis of Right Action is to do everything in mindfulness.” He offered five mindfulness practices that correlate to the Buddha’s teachings. These are:
- Respecting life by abstaining from killing.
- Being generous in spirit and action, promoting well-being for everyone. This includes donating our time and money to those in need.
- Avoiding sexual misconduct but honoring commitments and protecting others from sexual exploitation.
- Engaging in loving speech and deep listening; seeking to create understanding and reducing discord.
- Consuming nourishing food and mental content, and avoiding intoxicants or entertainment that is addictive or creates agitation. This includes being mindful of where the materials we consume come from (e.g., avoiding worker exploitation and environmental degradation.)
You can start practicing Right Action by experimenting with the principles outlined above or by developing your own values code. While we can avoid many of the predictable causes of suffering for ourselves and others by following these guidelines, research suggests that we benefit from ethical self-reflection. That is, we are best able to navigate murky situations if we really understand the why behind our values, and to do that requires thoughtfulness, experience making mistakes and learning uncomfortable lessons. A first step could be writing down your own ethical priorities and then examining how well these align with your daily behavior.
The Benefits of Right Action
Behaving in line with our values has numerous benefits, including:
- Reduced suffering for ourselves. When we behave in ways that feel wrong or violate our values, we increase unease and disquiet in the mind; we can increase our sense of ease and reduce such suffering by behaving in line with our principles.
- Reduced suffering for others. When we are prioritizing the good of all, we generate more positive outcomes for those around us.
- Greater confidence and clarity. When we know what we truly value, we can face difficult decisions with greater confidence. As our confidence grows and we repeatedly uphold our standards even under challenging circumstances, we learn to trust ourselves.
- Contributing to an ethical and compassionate community and society. We all play a role in creating the world around us. Ethical behavior may not always be reciprocated by others, but continuing to behave ethically slowly spreads outward to help create the type of society we all desire to live in.
Be Good, Feel Happy
Aspiring to live with ethical and compassionate behavior, as outlined in Right Action, offers tangible benefits to our psychological and physical well-being, as well as benefits the communities we live in. It's pretty simple: Be good, feel happy. Now go give it a try.
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