How to find the recipe to a good life, according to a Brown philosopher

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Q: What questions can people ask themselves to determine what “happiness” or “well-being” means for them? How can they begin to search for the correct recipe, so to speak?

Well, you cannot escape the fundamental question of what well-being is. What is it for your life to go well for you? Is it a matter of it being pleasant, or of getting you what you want? Is it exclusively a matter of what is going on in your mind, or is it also a matter of what is going on in the world outside of your mind? 

Another question to ask: Is happiness the type of prudential good that matters most to you? Meaningfulness is another type of prudential good; another way in which your life can go well for you. Most people agree that it’s good for you to be happy and it’s good for you to have a meaningful life. But the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of meaningfulness can sometimes pull you in different directions. You can live a pleasant life, for example, which is good for you — but it may not necessarily be very meaningful. On the other hand, you can live a life that’s full of meaning but requires you to sacrifice happiness and subject yourself to great pain and discomfort. In my classes, I use the example of the artist Paul Gauguin. He pursued a life of meaning: He abandoned his comfortable bourgeois life to travel to Tahiti in search of a new pictorial language, and he succeeded. But he was so miserable that he attempted suicide not once, but twice.

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Yet another question: Aside from prudential value, what else contributes to a good life? I suspect that when people set out to make New Year’s resolutions, they are motivated by an aspiration to make their lives better in a more comprehensive sense, and not just better for them. If you have a happy or meaningful life, that’s something that’s good for you — but it doesn’t necessarily benefit the world or anybody else. You can be happy while also living a morally atrocious life: The Mongol emperor Genghis Khan is said to have declared, “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth…” But you can live a morally good life that is bad for you. There was a Polish priest at Auschwitz named Maximilian Kolbe who offered to die in the place of a Jewish father of five. Did he live a good life? Well, in the moral sense, yes. But did his life go well for him? That is at least questionable.

Q: Assuming that most people want all of these things — happiness and meaningfulness, but also to be a morally good person who helps others — why are the most popular New Year’s resolutions typically geared toward personal well-being and not toward making a positive impact on the world?

I can’t speculate on people’s intentions when they make their New Year’s resolutions. But I suspect that their resolutions are often shaped by the advice they find in books or articles they read about happiness, many of which draw on studies in so-called “positive psychology.” These studies sometimes present themselves as offering answers to the generic question: What is a good life? However, they only offer advice about a particular aspect of this question. People may resolve to eat better, meditate more, take walks in nature and spend more time with friends, for example, in part because this is the most salient information they have. It’s all good advice, but only if you wish to be happier in the psychological sense. It won’t necessarily make your life better in other ways — and psychologists don’t claim that it will. 

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Q: Where might people turn instead for more holistic thinking on how to live a “good” life? 

I don’t think you can escape the work philosophers do on this issue. I know philosophy is difficult to read, but these are difficult questions, aren’t they?

Philosophers have a lot to say about the connections between morality and well-being. The ancient Greeks, for example, thought that the reason to behave virtuously was because it was good for you. The modern conception of morality, by contrast, puts it at odds with well-being, in the sense that doing what morality requires does not necessarily benefit you. Morality and well-being may conflict, and then the question arises of how to adjudicate this conflict. But there are some interesting recent studies in empirical psychology that showed that practicing morally “good” behavior, like spending money on your friends rather than on yourself, actually does make you happier.  

In the last two centuries, philosophers have also taken an interest in what it is for life to be “meaningful.” Some say that your life is meaningful if it leaves a certain kind of mark on the world, if it makes a difference. Others claim that your life is meaningful if you produce objectively valuable achievements. Still others hold that your life is meaningful if you get to do what you love. Psychologists have begun to study this psychological conception of meaningfulness, and they have shown that the psychological markers of meaningfulness are different from, and sometimes incompatible with, the psychological markers of happiness. If happiness and meaningfulness can come into conflict — if you can’t always experience both things simultaneously — which would you choose to pursue?

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Again, these sorts of questions are difficult. But look, I’m sorry to say, there are no shortcuts. If you’re really concerned about having a good life, then these are questions you’re going to have to ask.

Q: That’s a tough thing to ask of people who are busy and stressed and just want that recipe. Have you ever become overwhelmed with these questions in your own life?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t be a philosopher if I had never asked myself these questions.

But if you feel overwhelmed by these questions, here is a thought to consider — this is taken from “The Apology of Socrates,” arguably the inaugural text of Western philosophy. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, and he was put on trial on penalty of death. In his speech defending himself, he famously said that only the examined life is a life worth living. He didn’t mean, “Oh, first you have to examine what makes a good life, find the recipe and live well by following it.” No, what he meant was that the life worth living is the life spent asking and considering the hard questions. 

Collected by Cookingtom

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