What is a Good Life?

It seems to me that a good life is a mix of these three realms: the sensual enjoyment of the physical, the pleasure of discovering and expressing our uniqueness and the delight we take in what is beyond ourselves.

One of the central questions of philosophy and one that lies at the heart of most religions is: what is a good life?

In the West there have been three kinds of answers to this question: pleasure, self-development and meaning. (A good, brief presentation of these three approaches is in The Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics, by Clive Hamilton, pp. 12-14 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. It is a book on a very important topic and accessibly written. How to do ethics in a ‘post-modern’ culture seems to be a vital question to me. I really recommend it.)

Pleasure
There are lots of different kinds of pleasure: food, aesthetics, creation, etc. We needn’t think of the ‘crassest’ pleasures: taste and pleasure can be refined and subtle. The life of pleasure may lead to outcomes, but the focus is on the individual experiencing as much pleasure as possible.
Self-development
“Self-development” is the translation I am using for eudaemonism. The good life devoted to self-development is the development of our capacities. This can involve pleasure — but as part of the project to develop the self, not as a devotion to the pleasure itself.
Meaning
What I mean by the life of “meaning” is that the person is dedicated to something ‘outside’ themselves. The life of meaning may be devoted to a craft or skill or art, it may be devoted to others or god; the distinctive thing about the life of meaning is the focus on something beyond the individual.

(Editor’s Note: The connection of eudaemonism — a term usually applied to theories of morality which locate the chief good in some form of happiness — with self-development can be tricky. Aristotle expanded the original meaning of the word to encompass the self-developmental idea of having all one’s powers performing freely in accordance with virtue, but confusion has reigned pretty much ever since, with different authors attempting variously to distinguish pleasure from eudaemonia, to combine them, or to make one the consequence of the other.)

These three answers to the question, “What is a good life?” can apply to the same thing. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring gives me goose bumps every time I hear it; the attraction is the pleasure it gives me. To learn to play it could be part of a musician’s self-development. It could also be a person’s way of communing with god and so a profoundly meaningful listening experience.

Alternatives?

These three versions of the good life are often presented as alternatives. Usually a life of meaning is considered higher and more respectable than a life of pleasure. A life devoted to self-development can be quite intolerant of the idea that there is anything beyond the self worth focusing on.

There are sometimes arguments about which version of the good life is preferable, and this can get quite complicated. People who advocate the meaningful life may argue that the deepest satisfaction or pleasure comes from god or something else. Those who are advocating self-development may say that meaning is created by the self. Those who advocate pleasure may want to know how it will improve their life if they pursue something beyond themselves.

These arguments can get very messy. Often I think that the arguments are used to bolster choices made on the basis of values (one person preferring pleasure, another self-development and another meaning). It seems to me that it is experience that is likely to change someone’s mind about what the good life is: arguments are rarely going to do this. In this sense I think that the three answers to the good life question are usually alternatives: most of us do prefer one to the other.

There is another sense in which they are alternatives too: we can only focus on one thing at a time. We may be able to do two things at once (walk and chew gum, as the saying has it) but we only focus on one thing at a time — although the focus may shift in split-seconds. A musician ‘in the zone’ caught up with the piece they are playing can focus on communicating the meaning of the piece to the audience, on playing it well, on the pleasure of playing the piece; can switch between each of these foci; but cannot focus on more than one at a time. (Once again this is about focus — getting the notes right and attaining the skill to play a piece, as well as the pleasure of playing it, are all part of the meaning that is conveyed to the audience. Again, we are often doing more than one thing — but we only focus on one thing at a time.)

There is an important sense in which they are not alternatives. We can switch between these different versions of the good life: we are capable of embracing all of them. I think a rich life can be made up of all three kinds of good life.

Pleasure

I am glad that the physical world, and my senses so finely tuned to it, give me pleasure. Those who are devoted to the life of meaning (those in a Stoic tradition or those who are monks, for instance) may view the physical world as a distraction. In my experience those who wish to do this can often end up very focused on the physical (how to avoid getting distracted by it).

For me the physical is no threat to the spiritual: it can be not only the means to the spiritual but participate in it. I think natural and human-made beauty can be spiritual experiences.

Self-Development

There are some things we do just because we are who we are. When we can do what we like then we do some things and not others. These things are often pleasurable, and they can be incredibly diverse: some people really do enjoy sport, others genuinely get a kick out of tidying up, and others would spend their whole time pursuing a craft, art or hobby if they could. With these things we often enjoy being challenged to do them better — more quickly or with greater skill. The pleasure of hitting a golf ball just right, producing a good sentence or making a delicious meal: the pleasure is in doing what we can. It is the pleasure of utilising the capacities and gifts that we have.

I can’t imagine a satisfying life without some element of self-development. Doing the same thing in the same way sounds like a life of tedium rather than satisfaction.

Meaning

For me at least, there are some things that just grip me. There are beautiful paintings and pieces of music; there are ideas and objects that fascinate me. My guess is that you have moments like this too: moments where you are taken out of yourself. The usual way of getting a sense of this part of life is to deal with death — to find what epitaph we would like or the legacy we want to leave. These can be life transforming moments.

In our advertising-saturated culture, the life of meaning may not get discussed much, but I think it is important to us (most of us anyway). When you ask someone what they care most about it is unlikely to be the latest shiny object. It may be rare to talk about this aspect of our lives, but I think it is important to most of us.

The Good Life

It seems to me that a good life is a mix of these three realms: the sensual enjoyment of the physical, the pleasure of discovering and expressing our uniqueness, and the delight we take in what is beyond ourselves.

I would like to hear what you think. Do you have a sense of what the good life is (or would be) for you? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

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