I think I am chasing smoke in asking this question — but that is sort of the point. The notion of a ‘good life’ is itself somewhat of a mirage, a formless concept that we can likely understand and describe, but who’s essence is constantly shifting. It means something different to us all, yet the adjectives we would use to describe it are similar. I want to chase these adjectives, and for me that involves trial and error, I need to check whether what I think will make my life ‘good’ does — else I risk wasting my time.
Happy vs Good
Recently I was thinking about the differences between a ‘happy’ life and ‘good’ life. While it may be tempting to see the two as overlapping or synonymous ideas, I think striving for happiness is both unhelpful and undesirable. Undoubtably we all want to be happy in the sense we find enjoyment in our lives, but we likely do not want to exist only in a state of happiness. Without the presence of more challenging emotions, we would struggle to appreciate and bask in the happiness which we had succeeded in securing. More bluntly, without a level of unhappiness we have little means by which to measure happiness, and therefore less reason to pursue it as an end state.
Instead of framing life as a mission to be happy, I find myself increasingly attracted to the idea of chasing fulfilment. Unlike happiness, fulfilment is a goal that allows for, and engages, the full spectrum of human emotions. Fulfilment, as a goal, recognises that sadness or anger can be positive experiences which give depth and satisfaction when it comes time to be happy, proud or content. This recognition allows us to be kinder to ourselves as we can construe negative emotions as the opportunity cost associated with finding fulfillment. Alternately when happiness is the outcome, each time we mentally check in with ourselves and realise we are not happy must necessarily be treated as a failure — and who likes failure? It’s not so much that we enjoy the lowest parts of our lives, much the opposite, but rather we can only appreciate the peaks relative to the valleys we emerge from. As a result, fulfilment encompasses happiness as an element within the notion of a good life, rather than as the entire goal.
Circles and Scissors
In my mind the question of the good life is usually approached by determining what a good life is not. Remove enough deadwood and the final answer will become more discernible, increasingly tangible. I thought like this initially. I spent my time itemising and cataloguing the things that I knew would not lead me to a good life; unfulfilling work, stagnating development, lack of mental stimulation and financial instability being some of the no-no’s that made my list. As the list grew, I waited for a neat answer to materialise — but it did not.
Have you ever had to cut out a circle from a piece of paper? It’s incredibly annoying, especially when the circle is smack bang in the middle of the page. There are generally two options to solving this problem; (1) begin cutting the paper from an edge and make your way towards the circle, or, (2) fold the paper near the circle, snip it slightly and create a starting point without needing to first begin from an edge. In each case you get a circle — how lovely.
The approach I initially used to determine what a good life was is analogous to option (1) in our circle problem. Bear with me. Consider that the circle to represents an answer (note an answer not the answer) to the question of what it means to live a good life. Each time I determined a thing that wouldn’t lead me to the good life was the equivalent of cutting out a piece of paper around the circle. Theoretically with enough pieces cut out I would be left with the circle I wanted. However, unlike a piece of paper which has a finite area to cut, the list of things that are not conducive to a good life is borderline infinite. Cutting out a circle by way of removing the paper around is it inefficient, just the same as it’s inefficient to arrive at conclusions for what a good life is by determining what is it not.
To me, it started making far more sense to cut the circle out directly — that is by thinking about what I do consider constitutes a good/fulfilling life. Yes, you may crinkle the paper a bit to get that initial snip, but you benefit from expediency. But why do we care about expediency? You’ll notice that earlier I was careful to define the circle as an answer, not the answer. In my mind I am going to get my first circle wrong. I’ll likely get the second one wrong too. In pursuit of a good life, I am likely to identify things that progress me no further towards that goal. In acts of unintentional self-sabotage, I’m also likely to pick things that are going to move me backwards, closer toward the bad life I spent time so clearly defining. But that is OK. My personal view is that an iterative approach to the question of the good life is more functional and valuable than attempting to strike perfection on your first attempt.
Cutting out a circle by way of removing the paper around is it inefficient, just the same as it’s inefficient to arrive at conclusions for what a good life is by determining what is it not.
Importantly, it also recognises that as a person you will have a need for different circles at different times. You might even want a triangle or a square at some point. Often, I hear people talking about the idea of their ‘good life’ as if it were written in stone, that somehow there would only ever be certain qualities which would leads them down the garden path of fulfilment. I’ve spoken to friends who are 22 seemed to have a single vision of what their future should look like; as if without that piece of stability nothing would tether them down.
A woman I spoke to recently in one of my interviews described how her life was broken down into phases, and that the purpose of life was to understand how to move through these phases (and to recognise when each one had ended). I very much enjoy her take. The level of effort we put into developing ourselves would indicate that there should be nothing scarier than realising you are the same person you used to be — for doing so would imply a failure to learn, improve or self-correct. It therefore follows that our goals in life should change, perhaps guided by unchanging principals, in a similar manner.
Each circle that I manage to cut out provides an opportunity to evaluate some hard data — did those choices/principals/ideas I strived for bring about the happiness I thought it would? If yes then congratulations, ultimate fulfilment and a book deal are in your near future. If not, then you can determine, with the confidence of experience, what to keep vice what to jettison. I am the kind of person who needs to touch the paint to know it’s wet, regardless of what others may claim. Science would call this kinaesthetic learning, but the friends I go to regularly for advice would call it annoying.
Press X to doubt
Ask someone over the age of 40 what they consider a good life to be, and you’ll likely get a response that closely accords with the life they currently live. Interesting. Either that means that people are capable and willing to alter their life until they reach the good life, or people are unwilling to admit that they have failed to achieve the ‘good’, so chose to lie instead. This is perhaps harsh, as our idea of what constitutes a fulfilling life can genuinely change over time, but not necessarily untrue, as our human nature makes it unlikely that we will admit to failure on such a grand scale. How then should I interpret the advice of those who tell me to ‘pursue what you’re passionate about’, despite it being evidently clear that they themselves have failed to heed their own advice? It is reasonable to believe that vast majority of middle-class citizens are happy and content with their life, and that such contentment was the result of active effort? Or, as is my suspicion, do many chose a path of post-hoc reasoning to neatly conclude that where they have ended up is precisely where they intended to land?
I think it’s likely that my cynicism regarding the ability of others to follow-through with their own beliefs when pursuing the good life is reflective of my ignorance and inexperience. Ignorance in the sense that, thus far, I have experienced a relatively smooth life. I’m yet to deal with the types of major catastrophes or disasters that derail your most carefully laid plans and laugh in the face of your good intentions. Between you and me I question whether I have the strength to push through absolute failure — despite my instance in the necessity of doing so. Admittedly, my view regarding the centrality of trial and error in defining a fulfilling life assumes that effort will be swapped for reward at a reasonable exchange rate. It does not consider the prospect that ‘life’ in a general sense may rudely block my pursuit of goodness in a specific sense.
The Rubber and The Road
So, what specifically do I think the good life entails? In other words what is the nature of those circles I was ranting about earlier? My initial theory holds that there are five key pillars that I will need to build to support the life I want to lead at the current moment in time. More specifically these are the 5 areas that, over the next year, I believe will provide fulfilment in my life.
Importantly, these five pillars are not reflective of the principals which I wish to build my entire life around. Rather they represent a single point in time and address the issues that are most pressing to me currently. You’ll note that my list has no mention of love, of kids, of travel or several other elements the majority would consider necessary. Not to say that I don’t want these things, but instead they rank low enough on my current list to be ignored. Perhaps someone could reasonably focus on all their desires at one time, but if I’m honest my attention span is low, my drive is sporadic and my willingness to accept failure low.
What a good life looks like over the next year.
§ Fulfilling and enjoyable productivity
§ Pursuit of intellectually stimulating ideas or projects
§ Adventure and Immersion in a new culture
§ Creation of enriching friendships with likeminded individuals
§ Detachment from the pressure and judgement I perceive from others and that I place on myself.
In any case, over the next year I am committed to cutting out at least a few circles. Maybe it will fail. Maybe not. But at least I will have touched the paint.