A good life, lived well
Ask anyone what they want in life and many will say ‘I want to be happy’. It would certainly be odd if they wanted to be unhappy but I’ve always felt I must be odd because I frequently find that I am unhappy and dissatisfied.
It’s nice to be happy. Chatting to my wife on the couch, enjoying the company of friends, watching TV, playing games, reading the paper, and walking my dog in the sunshine; these are all things that make me happy, but I wouldn’t want to spend my whole life doing just these things.
Happiness, in the sense of blissful contentedness, is a positive emotion but its temporary, and its no basis for living a life. The Victorian thinker John Stuart Mill thought it better to be a human dissatisfied that a pig contented. I’m not as sure. It seems to me that being a contented pig is pretty good, if you are a pig. The trouble with us humans is we have imagination. No matter how good our life is, we can imagine a better one. For that reason, we are destined to be unsatisfied because there are always improvements that can be made. Being dissatisfied doesn’t lead to unhappiness. It leads to improvement.
Improvement of yourself and the world, is a better life goal than just being happy. Leaving the world a little better than you found it. Dissatisfaction becomes a necessary condition for an improving life. It’s the pursuit of happiness that’s more important than achieving it. Who the hell just wants to be happy?
The ancient Greeks had a word for what they thought a person should aim for: eudaimonia. It translates literally to mean ‘good spiritedness’ but was used in the sense of a good life, lived well.
Those ancient Greeks couldn’t agree on the components of eudaimonia. Here are mine:
From this list, you can see that the path to a good life, lived well involves a degree of luck. You have no control over the circumstances of your family or the personality you were born with. Let’s say that 50% of your ability to live a good life is baked in from the beginning. That still leaves a large part that is down to you, your choice of behaviour, and your ability to learn.
A good life, lived well starts with taking responsibility for your life, as all adults should, but some never do.