“Welcome! Everything is fine.”
Those are the first words Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) sees on the wall in front of her when she opens her eyes in the first minutes of the NBC television series The Good Place.
Thanks to some kind of error, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), an ordinary woman, enters the afterlife and is sent to the Good Place – which is definitely not where she belongs. While hiding in plain sight from Michael (Ted Danson), the wise architect of the Good Place who is unaware that he’s made a mistake, she’s determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome person within. Helping Eleanor navigate her new surroundings are Chidi (William Jackson Harper), her kind, open-hearted “soulmate” who sees the good in people but finds himself facing quite a dilemma; her frustratingly perfect new neighbors, Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto); and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a walking, talking source for all the knowledge in the universe.
The Good Place is no ordinary TV show. It’s hilarious and engaging and occasionally touching, but that describes many shows these days. What makes The Good Place different from the competition is its diabolical complexity and philosophical curiosity. At the heart of the show is a question near and dear to our hearts here at Greater Good: What is goodness and what makes a person good?
Here is what the The Good Place looks like when we watch it through the lens of the science of a meaningful life.
In the Good Place, explains Michael, everyone is matched with a soulmate, infallibly chosen by a point system that sounds awfully similar to OkCupid’s. Unfortunately, as we discover, the soulmates are picked for torture, not bliss. The pathologically selfish, ruthless Eleanor is matched with someone who appears to actually be a good person, a moral philosophy professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Unlike Eleanor, Chidi is empathic and thoughtful.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” ~Daniel H. Pink
“You take the good, you take the bad,
you take them both and there you have
The facts of life, the facts of life.
There’s a time you got to go and show
You’re growin’ now you know about
The facts of life, the facts of life.
When the world never seems
to be livin up to your dreams
And suddenly you’re finding out
the facts of life are all about you, you.
It takes a lot to get ’em right
When you’re learning the facts of life. (learning the facts of life)
Learning the facts of life (learning the facts of life)
Learning the facts of life.”
A lot of research into empathy explores this pitfall. “To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we must strike a balance between emotion and thought and between self and other,” write Robin Stern and Diana Divecha. “Otherwise, empathy becomes a trap, and we can feel as if we’re being held hostage by the feelings of others.” That’s a trap Chidi fell into when he was alive, and in The Good Place his task is to escape.
Michael Schur, creator of The Good Place, says that empathy is the core of the series. As he told the New York Times, “If you could really boil down good behavior and bad behavior in a big umbrella kind of way, it seems to have a lot to do with empathy and a general sense of the way your actions affect other people, and vice versa. So when we write the Bad Place crew, the simple idea was zero empathy.”
Is empathy the difference between a good person and a bad person?
Is it a solid foundation for morality?
That topic is a hotly debated one, in the show and in the real world. The psychologist Paul Bloom, for example,argues that too much empathy for lawbreakers can undermine justice. Chidi’s character pretty much exists to illustrate this one point: empathy without boundaries renders you unable to address suffering.
There’s another problem with empathy, which is that it’s not always benign.
Scientists have pointed out that cognitive empathy (being able to take the perspective of others) is quite different from the emotional (or “affective”) kind. There’s an interesting moment in The Good Place when Michael says that demons like him live in human bodies so as to better torture them. That’s a psychopathic version of purely cognitive empathy—the demons don’t feel what humans feel, but walking in our shoes helps them to inflict physical and emotional pain on us.
Eleanor has a lot of cognitive empathy—in life, she excelled at selling fake medicines to senior citizens because she was able to expertly identify and manipulate their emotions. In The Good Place, Eleanor needs to learn emotional empathy, which helps her to feel the consequences of her words and actions.
“I felt bad about what I did,” says Eleanor at one point in her journey. “It was a weird feeling. Not used to it. Didn’t love it.”
Who does? That’s what Eleanor doesn’t yet understand: Feeling bad is sometimes a part of being good. What does Chidi need to learn? You can be good without feeling bad.
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?“
If you’d like to read more of this article of “What “The Good Place” Says about Good and Evil, click on the following site: