Is it good for you to be good?

Johnny B Goode

“Way back up in the woods among the evergreens

There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood

Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode

Who never ever learned to read or write so well

But he could play the guitar just like a ringing bell”

By: Tom Culham

When I was very young, 5 or 6, my parents called me Tommy and they were always telling me: “Tommy be good”. But all I wanted to do was run in the woods, play in puddles, eat fast, swim, and have fun. I didn’t have time for manners. Being good seemed always to benefit someone else not me. Why do I have to follow rules, not butt in line, say pleasant things to others when all I feel like doing is telling them off. It’s good for others right? Well…..yes and maybe no. Maybe it’s good for me too. It’s easy to see how following the rules of the road is good for you. In the late 70’s I was doing a masters in urban transportation engineering. At that time, I was a fan of the Rhinoceros party (an off the wall tongue in cheek party) because they promised to solve the traffic problems in our cities by changing the direction of traffic on the roads. They were going to do it gradually and start with big trucks first.

But I digress, what about other more subtle virtues like being polite, empathetic, generous, grateful, honest and even altruistic? The ancient Greeks had the view that the good or virtue was broader than our current understanding of morality[1]. They believed virtue could be witnessed in any object or behaviour of persons as the expression of excellence or perfection of the object or behaviour. For example they felt one could hear virtue in music or see it in a horse. In music, virtue might be described like it is in Johnny B Good as a ringing bell or in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as heavenly and could be generalized as excellence. Physically, a horse that is healthy and perfect in every way, might be considered an excellent (virtuous) specimen of a horse. The ancient Chinese also held a similar expansive view of virtue. They believed that the more virtuous one was the more virtue was apparent in the physical attributes of the person. It could be seen in the quality of their eyes and skin and there were positive consequences. A virtuous person would live a healthy long life[2].

If we think of human virtue as not limited to moral matters but to physical, emotional, mental and moral matters, then it’s possible to understand how being virtuous might be good for you. Take the physical level. We all know what it takes to be physically healthy: good diet; exercise; adequate sleep; etc. One could say that when we do these things we are being physically virtuous and we attain the virtue of good health. Similarly, from an emotional perspective we know that having a good positive social network, and having a positive state of mind by avoiding ruminating on anxious negative thoughts[3] are but two of many virtues we can practice to be emotionally virtuous. These examples illustrate that engaging in virtuous physical and emotional activities is good for you. Ok, so what about higher level virtues such as generosity, gratitude and integrity. Considering generosity, Smith and Davis said that: “Generosity is paradoxical. By giving ourselves away, we ourselves move toward flourishing”, and the opposite holds true, “By grasping onto what we currently have, we lose out on better goods that we might have gained”[4]. With respect to gratitude, Robert Emmons has studied its impact on happiness and well-being and discovered that there is a positive relationship between gratitude and happiness[5]. That is the more grateful one is that happier one will be.

These are matters of interpersonal affairs but even in business there is an argument that integrity[6] produces positive payback for individuals and firms. Jensen defines integrity as “A state or condition of being whole, complete, unbroken, unimpaired, sound, in perfect condition” and integrity is necessary to ensure optimal performance. Its not difficult to see the parallels between Jensen’s integrity and the ancient Greek notion of virtue as a kind of excellence.

We can understand that an automobile will not perform properly if one of the tires contains low air or is flat. You can probably still drive the car but it doesn’t work very well. From a human perspective, Jensen defines integrity as “keeping one’s word” meaning in simple terms, doing what one says one will do and if unable to follow through as promised, then one takes action to repair the damage or problems caused. Jensen takes some pains to describe exactly what keeping one’s word means and for those interested I recommend you look up his definition. We all know that when an automobile is whole and complete (in integrity), it performs effectively. Jensen argues similarly, that when people in an organization act with integrity, that is, keep their word, the organization will perform much better than when they don’t. He provides the example of implementing integrity in his firm the Social Science Research Network and experiencing increased output of 300% with no increase in costs[7]. Jensen argues that the interpersonal interactions of business people is a factor of production just as adequate and effective utilization of capital, and labour are necessary for the success of any business. The unique aspect of Jensen’s argument is that he holds that integrity is not an option rather it is a necessary condition for performance. These are not unusual or unfamiliar ideas. We all have experiences with companies that we know we can trust and those we don’t. Its not difficult to imagine that trustworthy companies will enjoy customer loyalty, repeat business and likely better financial performance.

Is it good for Tommy to be good? As a child, I thought being good was for the benefit of others and I thought it really wasn’t all that necessary. But I am learning at many levels that the virtues that contribute to good physical, emotional, mental health and interpersonal health defined as morals are good for Tommy. I would add one rider that applies to moral virtues, that is if I am generous to you and expect something in return this is not doing Good in the true sense of the word, it is a business exchange.

[1] Nehamas, A. (1999). Virtues of Authenticity, Essays of Plato and Socrates. Princeton N.J. University Press.

[2] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2006). Material virtue: Ethics and the body in early China. Boston: Brill.

[3] Amen, D. G. (2010). Change your brain, change your body: Use your brain to get and keep the body you have always wanted. Harmony.

[4] Smith, C., & Davidson, H. (p. 2, 2014). The paradox of generosity: Giving we receive, grasping we lose. Oxford University Press, USA.

[5] Emmons, Robert A. (2013) Gratitude Works!: A Twenty-One-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass,

[6] Erhard, W., Jensen, M. C., & Zaffron, S. (2016). Integrity: A Positive Model that Incorporates the Normative Phenomena of Morality, Ethics, and Legality–Abridged (English Language Version).

[7] Jensen, M. C. (p. 17, 2014). Integrity: Without it nothing works. Source:


Tom Culham teaches TRANSFORMATION THROUGH ETHICAL LEADERSHIP, A certificate program designed for Executive and Middle Management Leadership, offered through CityU’s Continuing Education programs. You can learn more about this certificate program HERE. The program is taught over 5 consecutive Wednesdays 9am – 1pm. The Feb 28 – Mar 28 session is currently in progress, but the program will be offered in the future again based on demand. Download a program flyer HERE.

Tom Culham, Ph.D., Program Director School of Management City University in Canada Co-Chair, Contemplative Inquiry and Holistic Education, Special Interest Group of the Comparative International Education Society. Representative at Large Research, Management, Spirituality and Religion Special Interest Group of the Academy of Management.

Tom is also head of the Bachelor of Management (BAM) program, an undergrad completion program with an emphasis on ethical leadership and socially and environmentally responsible management.  Learn more about the BAM program HERE.