Many people want to live a good life. This presupposes that we know what a good life is. It’s been a problem philosophers have grappled with for centuries: what is a good life; how do we know what is good; and how do we actually do what is good?
I don’t pretend to answer all this in a few paragraphs on a rainy day. But I can offer a few thinking aids, if you’re grappling with the same problem. Perhaps you’re struggling with motivation, but want to try to live well. Or perhaps you have been forced by circumstance to reassess your life, and are wondering what to do next. Whatever the case, maybe try this thought framework to see what you think.
FOUR TYPES OF GOODNESS
When we say something is ‘good’, we can mean several things. In particular:
- We can mean that it is in achieving a goal (e.g. ‘a good toothbrush cleans teeth well’)
- We can mean that it is essentially free of fault and sin (e.g. ‘human nature is basically good – we just suffer from delusions’)
- We can mean that it is ‘true’, in the sense of being well aligned to ideas of logical consistency or fair representation (e.g. ‘a good argument’, ‘a good likeness’)
- We can mean that it is suitable for a particular person (e.g. ‘we’re good for each other’)
Broadly speaking, these are ideals of (1) function, (2) essential nature, (3) fairness, and (4) suitability. They overlap, but they differ enough to be worth differentiating.
When applied to a life, ‘I am leading a good life’ can therefore mean several different things. We have to decide whether we mean:
- ‘I am achieving my goal(s)’
- ‘I understand that I am, just by being here, essentially OK’
- ‘I am a fair person in thought or appearance’
- ‘I am appropriate to my surroundings’
Each of these approaches to the good life has advantages and disadvantages. If we are aware of these in advance, we are wiser and more psychologically protected.
- Advantage: goal-orientation gives us a ‘home focus’, and therefore helps us orientate ourselves in the world
- Disadvantage: goal-orientation impoverishes our focus, so that when the goal ends, we feel like our world ends
JUST BEING OK
- Advantage: working on accepting ourselves as essentially OK is highly protective, as it is context-independent
- Disadvantage: self-acceptance can be notoriously difficult for those with mental health difficulties and vulnerable self-esteem
BEING FAIR, RIGHT OR ATTRACTIVE
- Advantage: seeking consistency in our thoughts and personal appearance appeals to our sense of neatness. Those who like to be ‘right’ can feel at home when ‘in the right’, and those who like to be ‘beautiful’ can feel at home when presented well.
- Disadvantage: dependence on appearing ‘fair’ can make us vulnerable when we are demonstrably ‘in the wrong’, or appear ugly. Ageing can seem very harsh.
- Advantage: humans are social animals, and therefore ‘fitting in’ socially brings many health and protective benefits. Also, we love consistency, and so harmony with our environment can feel good.
- Disadvantage: when social acceptance disappears, or disharmony occurs it can feel as though our life is destroyed.
What is your recipe for a ‘good life’?
- Do you prefer to have goals and achieve them?
- Do you prefer to work on accepting yourself just as you are?
- Do you prefer to seek to be right (through mental effort) or beautiful (through physical effort)?
- Do you prefer to fit in with your social surroundings?
Perhaps you like a combination of the four. Whatever the case, it is good to be mindful of which ‘good life’ you are seeking. Such self-knowledge can help you to interpret your own behaviour, and your own patterns of thriving and distress.
As with all things, moderation can help. If you are obsessed with goal achievement at any cost, or obsessed with achieving total self-acceptance, or dependent on being 100% in the right at all times, or seeking to be permanently beautiful, or seeking never to offend those around you… then moderation is not there, and you may be headed for a fall.
In contrast, if you are aware of the balance of these four goods, you can work with them in moderation, without being unrealistic or over-controlling.