What makes a life a good life?
Philosophers have struggled over this question for centuries. It seems such a simple question but it’s not so easy to answer. One of the biggest problems with the question, of course, is that what constitutes a good life for each of us is probably a bit different.
Despite what the self-help books in the Body Mind Spirit section of the bookstores tell you, there’s no magic formula.
A C Grayling has recently published a book about this, ‘The Choice Of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century’. He was talking about it on ‘Start The Week’ on BBC Radio 4 on Monday morning (podcast available here)
In a nutshell, he is considering the often opposing drives of duty and pleasure, or as Oliver Sacks, one of the other guests on the show said, between work and love. How we balance these determines how good we feel our lives are. A C Grayling concluded that those rare individuals who love their work, are amongst those who have good lives. Well, I can sign up to that one. I have a good life and I certainly love my work.
I’ve just finished reading ‘The Weight of Things’ by Jean Kazez (ISBN 978-1-4051-6078-0). I bought this after reading an excellent article written by her, where she reviewed and compared three books on happiness. I was impressed with her balance, style and insight and I’ve really enjoyed ‘The Weight of Things’. It’s about what constitutes a good life. She’s very clear in her book that she is not writing a manual or even giving a set of recommendations about living well. It’s a much more thoughtful and thought provoking book because of that. She refuses to be pinned down to a fixed set of specifics and I think that is so right, although at first, I thought, why is she being so difficult? Why doesn’t she just list the necessary features of a good life? I realised I was chasing the magic formula that doesn’t exist. Jean Kazez is much more realistic than that and completely acknowledges that we are all different and it would be wrong of her to proscribe the features which she thinks make life good. This is such a refreshing approach. I can’t stress often enough how much I value individual difference and diversity. I just can’t accept formulaic, one-size-fits-all approaches, and I don’t see the world through a two-value lens. (Ok, you’re probably thinking, ‘a what?’ ‘a two-value lens’? Well, I mean the categorisation of everything into one of two opposites – good/bad; black/white; proven/unproven. Sorry, life just doesn’t seem to fit that straightjacket for me).
What she does in this book is to consider some (but she expects, not all) features which are probably necessities if you want to have good life, then goes on to consider other features, which she calls the B list, which make life better, but probably aren’t essential.
Here’s her very nice way of putting it –
The target we should aim for, if we want our lives to get better and better, is not like the familiar set of concentric circles. It’s like a grid of different coloured squares with different hues representing necessary and optional ingredients. The necessities are different shades of green (say) and we need to aim at each one. The various shades of purple are worth aiming for too, but they’re not so critical. If we start out with a life that’s not going well, we need to aim at the various greens: happiness, autonomy and the other basics. They remain central throughout our lives. But the purple squares – balance, accomplishment, and the like – are also life-enhancing.
I like that a lot. Maybe I wouldn’t pick green and purple but I like it all the same! The idea that a good life is not achieved through a recipe or formula but has ever changing variables which colour our lives in various hues and shades……that’s good. And it’s dynamic – she says –
a good life isn’t static, but involves some sort of growth over time.
I also like it because each of her characteristics, or squares is worthing focusing on and developing in its own right. She says that’s because making your aim a better life, as if ‘the good life’ has an independent quality you can aim at directly, is likely to fail.
Aiming for a better life is to be expected when life is going badly, but many of us take our focusoff our own lives when we feel like our lives are ‘good enough’. Many perfectly reasonable people with good lives will not aim for even better lives, let alone some conceivable ‘best life’. In some cases important things beyond ourselves start to take precedence.
How important is that last sentence? It’s a bit we often miss in our atomistic, disconnected lives. Remember the Hugh Grant character in About a Boy? That 80’s and 90’s idea of separateness, and, yes, selfishness, wasn’t enriching. Neither is the celebrity culture of our current times. Life really IS good when we get in touch with “important things beyond ourselves” – whether we see that in social, political, personal or spiritual terms.
Oh, I know, you still want her list, don’t you?
So did I.
(please remember – neither of lists should be considered definitive or complete!)
Here’s her A list (the fundamental essentials)
- Sense of identity
And here’s her B list (features which enrich life but needn’t be seen in themselves as essential)
- friendship, love, affiliation
- making music
- creating art
She makes it very clear that different people will need each of these to different degrees to have a good life and that there may be other features others would add, and people might find for them that some of her B list needs to be on their A list.