A lot has been said and written about the “good life,” and with some 7.3 billion people on this planet, there are quite possibly just as many opinions on what it constitutes.
If I have learned one thing in 36 years, it is the fact that “good” is a very subjective word.
Positive psychology uses science to understand why some humans thrive, while others do not. We hope this article establishes a reference point to establish a few basic practices of meaning-making.
Let’s begin with exploring the role of personal preference and opinion since few people have the same philosophy on what constitutes a good life.
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Your Values Create Your Own Personal Lens
In the context of life, everyone has a different definition of the word “good.” “Good” depends on many factors like where we live, how we live, what our childhood experiences are, and what character strengths we value in ourselves and others.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests one such definition. The scheme models different human needs as a pyramid in which each level builds on the last, from physiological needs such as food and water at the bottom to “self-actualization” at the top.
Applying Maslow’s idea, it can be assumed that as we move through and up the pyramid of needs to reach self-actualization, our idea of the “good life” changes.
For instance, people whose needs for security aren’t met may visualize the “good life” to be a secure environment with meaningful social bonds. However, there are many other factors which play a role, such as values.
It can be argued that your values are one of the drivers of what you perceive to be the good life. Values such as power, security, tradition, or benevolence are a collection of principles that guide our selection or evaluation of actions, events, and people and what we “deem to be correct and desirable in life” (Schwartz, 1992).
If security is one of your core values, rather than the freedom to travel to exotic countries, a secure job may be your idea of “the good life.” Or if one of your core values is achievement, you may find yourself working incredibly hard, and finding meaning through your work.
In a study across different countries, Inglehart & Klingemann (2000) found that the kind of values people hold is unrelated to their reported happiness, but the value difference is reflected in what they say is most important in determining their happiness.
To a certain extent, values codetermine what we consider the good life.
But once we have the secure job that we believe is desirable, do we actually consider ourselves to be leading the “good life?” Why are so many humans disillusioned after they get everything they want?
This begs further examination.
What Is “Better” Doesn’t Always Equal “What Is Good”
Ever stuck between two decisions because one seems more rational, financially-sound, or safe? While everyone needs basic needs like safety and financial security, sometimes, what seems “better” does not serve our quest for “the good life.”
Sometimes, according to adaption-level theory, what we aim to achieve is no longer good enough once we have it (Helson, 1964). In Helson’s study, they found that as people acquire that financial boost, better job, bigger house, etc., it did not always constitute lasting meaning.
Picture Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, or Madame Bovary in Madame Bovary. The more they got “what they wanted,” the less they got what they needed. It is a plot rooted in many of our classics and Western psyche. In our own quests for a meaningful life, it is key to reflect on potential “happiness traps.”
Social comparison also plays an important role: we rate what we have relative to what others have.
Having a secure job is so good, and maybe boosts all kinds of temporary feelings of elation. That is, until one of your friends gets a more attractive, better paid secure job, of course.
In other words, “what is better” is sometimes the enemy of “what is good.” More isn’t always better and sometimes, when we acquire what we thought we needed, we are still ambling for meaning.
We Live in a Society in Which Less Is More
In a study with a choice of either 6 or 30 different kinds of chocolates to choose from, Iyengar and Lepper (2000) found that consumers with a limited choice of 6 chocolates were actually happier with their choice than the ones who got to choose from 30 different kinds.
This is because of opportunity costs: making a choice also means deciding against alternatives.
The more choices we have and the more attractive they are, the more alternatives we have to deselect and potentially regret. Paradoxically, we feel more and more poor the more choices we have to drop (Binswanger, 2006).
We also expect more from the choice we have made because we had to let go of so many attractive alternatives for the one we made (Kast, 2012). This is how, in fact, life becomes more difficult with wealth and abundance.
Less is more, and possessions are losing their attraction. This is reflected in many trends such as renting rather than buying and spending money on experiences rather than possessions. We’ve learned that we fail to find happiness in things.
Choice means letting go of alternatives, and happiness means being grateful for being able to choose. So the “good life” may have to do with appreciating what we have.
“The seed of goodness is found in the soil of appreciation.” -The Dalai Lama
Gratitude is a positive emotion and can be defined as “the quality of being thankful.” It is focusing on what we have rather than what we don’t have, rating neutral events as positive and not taking anything for granted.
Studies have shown that being grateful makes us happier (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Rather than aspiring for bigger and better things, being grateful for what we have may be part of the “good life.”
It’s as simple as using a gratitude journal and writing down 3 good things every day. And while you’re at it, why not be the source of something good for someone else?
“Find meaning! When you go from ‘me’ to ‘we,’ the mind calms down.” -Nipun Mehta
Many people who “had it all” actually let go of the wealth, comfort, and lifestyle in order to find meaning. Think of Walt Disney’s descendant, Abigail Disney, who gives millions each year to charity organizations, and started a film company dedicated to documentaries aimed at creating social change.
Or take Geneva-born Liselotte (Lotti) Latrous who enjoyed a comfortable life with her husband, Nestle director Aziz Latrous. Through his work, the couple and their 3 children got to travel the world.
The family ended up in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast (West Africa), where Lotti, the woman who had a chauffeur, a chef, and a pool, started working in a hospital. Devastated by the hardship and poverty she found in Abidjan, she built an ambulatory with the financial support of her husband.
Eventually, when the family moved back to Switzerland, Lotti stayed in Abidjan where she still today spends most of her time. She has found something that lifestyle and comfort had not been able to provide: true meaning (Latrous, 2015).
Volunteering and devoting time to a cause has often been described as a source of meaning, and living a meaningful life may also be part of what we call the “good life.” Meaning cannot only be found in the big, but also in the most trivial of things.
If you can, remember the smallest and most important of all time periods: the current moment, the now.
“Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Every moment has meaning if we are mindful, because being present in the moment is the essence of being. Paying attention is a powerful tool.
So next time you take a shower, try to stay focused. Consciously explore the experience. Enjoy the warm water as it touches your shoulders and runs down your body. Smell the soap, examine the color and shape of the foam running through your fingers, and explore what it feels like your skin.
Listen to the sound of the water and the noise it makes hitting the ground. Try to feel a single drop falling on your skin. Take a deep breath and appreciate the availability of this precious resource.
You can cut back on energy and conserve water by switching it off while washing your hair, and consciously enjoy the wonderful feeling of the warm water on your body as you turn the water on again.
Even the most mundane task can be experienced intensely through mindfulness.
With a sense of curiosity, we can see our world through different eyes. With so much goodness in a small, everyday event such as a shower, you will soon realize how much beauty there is in life. For more information on mindfulness check out these TED talks.
“At every moment you have a choice that either leads you closer to your spirit or further away from it.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
A Take-Home Message
The “good life,” so it seems, has many different aspects to it. Personally, I love being in nature.
The sense of awe watching the sunrise in the morning makes me feel alive, the time I spend with family and friends is very precious, and writing about positive psychology while the sun is shining through the window is the “good life” taking place right this very moment.
To me, this is what counts.
What is your idea of the “good life?” Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Binswanger, H. C. (2006). Die Wachstumsspirale: Geld, Energie und Imagination in der Dynamik des Marktprozesses. Marburg: Metropolis.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377.
Helson, H. (1964). Current trends and issues in adaptation-level theory. Jan 1964, 26-38. American Psychologist, 19(1), 26-38.
Inglehart, R., & Klingemann, H.-D. (2000). Genes, culture, democracy and happiness. Culture and Subjective Well-being. MIT Press, Cambridge.
Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much
of a Good Thing? . Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.
Kast, B. (2012). Ich weiss nicht was ich wollen soll (Vol. 2). Nördlingen, Germany: S. Fischer Verlag GmbH.
Latrous, S. L. (2015). Lotti Latrous. Retrieved from http://www.lottilatrous.ch/index.php/de/menschen/lotti-latrous
Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the Context and Structure Of Values: Theoretical Advances and Empirical Tests in 20 Countries (Vol. 25): Academic Press. Inc.