How Do We Lead A Good Life?
It’s far from controversial to state that the majority of people want the good life. And certainly, within that group, there’s likely a large subset that actively strives for some sort of version of their good life. Now these versions differ substantially. Where one individual defines a life worth living as a montage of babbling brooks, tending to ones garden, and some good old peace and quiet, another may direct you to the nearest brothel.
Where do we begin in even attempting to define ‘a good life’? We could argue, as did Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, and Aristotle, that the good life is, to a great extent, the same as the happy life.
Well that’s sure helpful. What exactly is happiness to begin with?
Happiness is generally seen as a state rather than a trait. That is, it’s not permanent. It’s also not quite as intense as bliss or joy and is rather associated with pleasure or contentment. However, happiness is not equal to pleasure but instead far more stable. Pleasure can enhance happiness and happiness can enhance pleasure although the two can also act independently. Namely, happiness is more meaning-dependent. Your muscles might be sore and you might be tired from a marathon, but the months of training and significant experience of running it fills you with happiness because of the meaning behind the physical suffering. However, happiness and meaning aren’t necessarily equal either. Meaning is, as the psychologist Roy Baumeister argues, something that makes us unique in comparison with animals. Whereas a dog or monkey may strive for happiness, they likely never suffer the mid-life crises that come about in man’s search for purpose. Like pleasure, meaning and happiness may likewise contribute to one another.
The relationship of pleasure and meaning with happiness reveals an important philosophical distinction in what makes the good life. There are two main paths to pursue the good life, the hedonistic way or the eudaemonistic way. The former, as you can tell, strives to experience more pleasure than pain. The latter strives to attach oneself to a purpose, to become oneself or to find meaning in life.
The problem with the hedonistic life is the lack of stability. Since it’s rooted in pleasure, a very unstable state, it is in a constant pursuit of pleasurable items. These pleasurable items, as many noted hedonists have shown, rarely consist of Sunday masses, a good sleep schedule, or delayed gratification. One common argument is provided by Robert Nozick, who asks of us to imagine an experience machine where one can experience friendship, icecream, or whatever makes you the most happy. A hedonist would want to remain in that machine. However, Nozick presents us with some reasons why we shouldn’t choose this machine of eternal pleasure. Firstly, we want to be or become some sort of person, rather than a blob that simply receives pleasurable sensations (although some living members of our species may prefer the latter). Secondly, such a machine is constrained by our imagination, by what we think would make us happy. How many time have you been pleasantly surprised by an experience that you had thought to be dreadful?
Overall, hedonistic delights, although certainly tied with happiness, fail to entirely agree with the frustratingly human need for meaning. Perhaps the eudaemonistic way, in which one follows rules of morality and honour, will quench our psychological thirst for purpose.
However, one can also see this path taking its toll. When one follows rules too strictly they can deprive themselves of happiness, especially when they slip up and indulge. As Mark Kingwell writes in “The Pursuit of Happiness”, “the trouble with seeing oneself in terms of sin is that…this sort of moral judgment divides the personality against itself”. We drift from guilty pleasure to self-hatred, never truly finding peace with ourselves. These “self-denying imperatives” may even suggest that morality and happiness are fundamentally at odds. At this point, the individual searching for some sort of path between pleasure and meaning may find themselves in an “endless cycle of extreme indulgence and punishing denial”. Is it good to feel good or do good?
Aristotle, as Kingwell writes, found that happiness and goodness were quite compatible. Living virtuously for Aristotle wasn’t a strict adherence to some sort of objective and universal ethic. Rather, he recognized that humans have a double-edged sword, the ability to reflect on their condition; something seemingly absent from our animal friends who strive to eat and procreate. Hence we do need something a little more than simple pleasures. “…humans are both social and contemplative by nature. We form associations and have intentions, not just instincts. We make judgements about the world and ourselves. We possess character, which surrenders its secrets to rational insight.” This leads Aristotle to see human life as ordered by ideas of excellence. Excellence means accomplishing what serves our interests or making the correct contextual judgement. Instead of having a life ruled by imperative duties, we have one directed towards attractive guidelines based upon happiness and character, our fundamental goals according to Aristotle. Here we bridge the gap between what the right thing to do is and what we want to do. In a perfect world, our actions become instinctual, where we perform the right action that simultaneously fills us with satisfaction. However this may only be achievable when we take Nietzsche’s word and reflect on who we feel we should become
“What does your conscience say? — ‘You should become the person you are”.
Here we could argue that the good life is closely allied with a life-long journey of self-discovery. More so, it is active rather than passive. Our very human urge to become rather than simply ‘to be’ must be satisfied.
Kingwell himself puts forth the good life as a concern for the need of rational satisfaction and a life worth living. “It is wrong to live life without a sense of its possibilities, to simply wander through it. It is virtuous to pursue goals that are both productive and satisfying.” Certainly certain external things are required for the good life. Bertrand Russell states “ …these are simple things: food and shelter, health, love, successful work and the respect of ones herd”. The fact of the matter is that the good life is a far more internal matter. “The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realization of the world in which we live”.
Is this overly abstract? Perhaps, but that points to a greater truth. The very fact that the voyage towards the good life is an intensely personal matter. It has to be.