Psychology Sociology

What is ‘the good life’?


“I want the money, money and the cars, cars and the clothes… I just wanna be successful.” – Trey Songz

When it comes down to it, “the good life” refers to one of happiness. But where does happiness come from? The ‘success ideology’ tells us it can be found in material possessions, status, and a life filled with luxury. But as many of us already know, these things can bring pleasure, but this version of happiness is like a bottomless pit, needing to be fueled by ever more stimulus to sustain it, eventually making us miserable. As Durkheim states:

“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…”

Luckily, Aristotle gave us a version of the ‘good life’ that is not only sustainable, but it also promotes true happiness. His first principal is that all things aim at ‘the good’. Like archers directing an arrow toward a target, ‘the good’ is the ultimate target of our actions. The problem is that this ultimate aim is often interrupted. As Jean Vanier states in Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle:

Today, as always, many people are not interested in the target, that is to say, the ultimate end of their actions. They are prompted by what everyone wants — as if their family, society, and the media were determining their development. Of course they want success, pleasure, recognition, but without really knowing why. They are caught up in short-term projects that prevent them from thinking about the purpose and meaning of human life.

Aristotle tells us that the key to redirecting our life toward ‘the good’ is to use our reason to direct our passions and chaotic desires toward virtue. Jean Vanier gives the following metaphor of reason taking the reins of the passions:

Like runaway, riderless horses, they await direction. Man’s proper task is to take hold of the reins and guide them, to orient these desires, with all their fulminating energy, towards the sought-after end.

The problem is that this is far easier said than done and contradicts a great deal of recent psychological evidence about human decision making. Contemporary moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, empirically demonstrates that David Hume’s passion-driven conception of human reason is more in line with reality. Rather than a rider taking the reigns of a horse, Haidt says reason is more like a rider on an elephant. Although reason can nudge us in a specific direction, the emotions, represented by the elephant, overwhelmingly drive our behavior. Since reason is not sovereign, this idea flips Aristotle’s method of virtuous self-development on his head, forcing us to train our emotions rather than our reason.

How does one go about training their emotions? In the case of psychological disorders, emotion-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy or present-centered breathing techniques may be beneficial. But beyond the case of psychological disorders, a morally virtuous character is not built from within. Rather, the virtuous character is built between the individual and society. Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, gives two possible methods of facilitating this type of interaction:

What is the meaning of life? The question is unanswerable in that form, but with a slight rephrasing we can answer it. Part of the answer is to tie yourself down, commit yourself to people and projects, and enter a state of “vital engagement” with them. The other part is to attain a state of “cross-level coherence” within yourself, and within your life. Religion is an evolved mechanism for satisfying these needs. We can find meaning and happiness without religion, but we must understand our evolved religious nature before we can find effective substitutes.

So to recap, the archer whose target is ‘the good life’ is not merely distracted by emotions, but driven by them. Training the emotional elephant can take the form of individual therapy, but must take the form of vital social engagement to build a virtuous character. Developing this character is its own reward, producing happiness throughout the process. Therefore, happiness is not to be confused with ‘the good life’. If ‘the good life’ is the target, happiness is the vehicle by which one works toward it. Happiness is facilitated by social forces that promote moral commitment such as work and religious life. Johnathen Haidt supports this model of happiness and virtue, and raises the important question of how a diverse society can promote a common morality:

Is virtue its own reward? Yes, but in the modern West we’ve lost the ability to grow most virtues in good soil, and we’ve reduced virtue to just being nice. Where did we go wrong, and how can we forge a common morality in a diverse society?

Haidt’s question is a topic for future consideration, but to get to the main point of this post, what is ‘the good life’? What is this target at which our archers on elephants must aim? Going back to Aristotle and his conception of man, ‘the good life’ is our communal life together. He states, “man is by nature a political animal.” By political he means our organized life together governed by a common morality and procedures arrived at through the power of speech and moral reasoning. Fundamentally, man’s desire toward ‘the good life’ is the desire to have a common purpose found in community.

As I expand on in my post, ‘What Drives Human Behaviour’, individualistic social contexts have a tendency to leave this desire unfulfilled. This results in the pursuit of status, encouraged by ‘the success ideology’, as highlighted in the beginning of this post. Luxurious lifestyles and status symbols can give us the thrill of temporary pleasure, but it is ultimately a bottomless pit, always demanding more. True happiness comes from a life of virtue, nourished by a moral social context that provides purpose and direction, promoting our lives together.

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  1. When my children were very young a psychologist asked me if I wanted to raise my children to be happy adults. I told him that I wanted to raise responsible adults. And that responsible adults would be able to be happy with themselves.Guess what? They are.

  2. True happiness comes from within most definitely, if we souly relie on material or others to fulfill our pleasures we will undoubtedly be disappointed. People come and go as do objects they can disappoint us. Feeling content within ourselves, feeling and allowing love of ourselves and each other is the key. Not letting the ego rule our thoughts. Fantastic piece by the way…… 🙂

  3. When I am in a state of happiness the meaning of life seems simple, straight forward and understandable. Not that I fully understand the meaning of life when I am happy, it just seems like an attainable goal. But when I am in a state of depression the meaning of life seems out of reach and unattainable. It is an interesting subject to discuss but I don’t know if happiness and the meaning of life can be approached intellectually as something to figure out. At least I have never had success using that approach.

  4. We want to love, and we want to be loved. Many people believe they won’t be loved when they have nothing outside of love to give. It’s the old problem of people underestimating their own materialism and overestimating other’s. I have been (and often still am) a victim to this folly, but our bias toward that is too often confirmed to entirely shake this. So, in order to be happy, to be able to love and be loved in return, we believe that we need materials to win this love – money, cars, clothes. This is our torture.

  5. Hi Steve, thanks for today’s post. The pathology of greed perhaps has never been greater than now, in the era of “late capitalism.” People are catching on. But on the other hand, the consolidation of markets, especially the media, is keeping many blind. On the Melissa Harris Perry show yesterday there were four commercials for new cars in fifteen minutes or less.

    So when I ran across this video, I was reminded once again that things need not be this way.

  6. “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”

    Thomas Jefferson

  7. At the root of it all- it comes down to perception! The life someone experiences – IS THE ONE IN WHICH THEY PERCEIVE
    Of course, there are plenty of variables that effect or influence our perception.
    The one that is most influential and most toxic (in my opinion)– is the “expected norm” that we tend to gauge and reference the way we “should” experience things.
    People should never lose their individuality because of any “conformity” of beliefs or acceptable thought….

  8. Great post! Certainly thought provoking.

    I love the idea that the ‘good life’ ultimately comes from interdependence found in community than in material possessions.

    I think the success ideology can co-exist with the pursuit of a ‘good life’ or true happiness only when success includes the desire to fulfil others more than the individual.

  9. If having a good life is defined by any and everything that’s external, then, you won’t have a good life after those things that are outside of your controls are taken away, so, i believe, that happiness comes from inside oneself.

  10. Robert,

    “I was especially taken with this: Is virtue its own reward? Yes, but in the modern West we’ve lost the ability to grow most virtues in good soil, and we’ve reduced virtue to just being nice. Where did we go wrong, and how can we forge a common morality in a diverse society?”

    The same quote grabbed me as well. But my thought was on how each of us as individuals might grow in virtue. The more I consider it, the more I wonder if it is even possible to have a common morality these days. We are so divided about what is right and what is wrong, we can’t even define it.

    Great post though!

  11. “I was especially taken with this: Is virtue its own reward? Yes, but in the modern West we’ve lost the ability to grow most virtues in good soil, and we’ve reduced virtue to just being nice. Where did we go wrong, and how can we forge a common morality in a diverse society?”

    I think part of the problem, at least for those of us in the United States, is that we’ve broken
    with the rule of law and the underlying premise of justice in democratic systems: that is that
    all people, rich and poor, are equal before the law.

    We as a people have cheered the disintegration of everything previous generations died to preserve. If we are to restore virtue to our culture then we will do the hard things: we will understand that we are the government and that there is nothing even remotely polite about
    allowing our leaders to torture innocent people or voting for politicians who hate the poor
    and who mistake wealth for virtue..

    One way to begin is for the people of the World to demand that our Congress do its job and investigate the lies that led to our invasion of Iraq and to the torture of the people we held as prisoners. An investigation into what may have been one of the first war crimes of the 21st century would go a long way to restoring faith in our ability to do what is truly virtuous.

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