What is the good life? Entire books have been written to address this question. Philosophers of all ages pondered about this transcendent query as well. Still, the question remains to this present day. It therefore comes as no surprise that people are still looking to discover what it truly means to be living the good life. Finding an answer to this question is not easy, even in the modern age of information. The term “living the good life” can mean quite a variety of different things to different people. The following will present from a variety of different perspectives what the good life is all about. In its basic form, living the good life is all about the exploration of that which gives you joy and satisfaction. It’s about finding purpose and meaning in your life and drawing happiness from that which you do.
Every human being aspires to live a good life. The problem is, we all define the phrase “good life” differently. Some are looking to live an honest life, full of integrity, joy and happiness. Others seek wealth, social status and fame, as they hope these aspects will help them to live the good life. In fact, they directly associate the good life with money and material belongings.
In people’s quest for a good life, some completely disregard the needs of other people, while others consider helping people a means of living a good life. In the end, the question who gets to decide what it is that constitutes a good life remains.
What is the good life?
Not every person that is living “the dream” or “the good life” is actually living a good life. Take for instance the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. He surely lived well. After all, Escobar is recorded to have been the wealthiest criminal in history. He had private jets, race cars and luxurious mansions. And I’m pretty sure he certainly draw happiness and satisfaction from his life. But was his life a good life? Certainly not.
As you can see, there’s potentially a huge difference between living the good life and living a good life. Not every person that is living a satisfied life is living a good life.
Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.
Let’s have a closer look what a good life is.
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The good life is a term that refers to a (desirable) state that is primarily characterized by a high standard of living or the adherence to ethical and moral laws. In its two different expressions, living the good life can be either expressed through an abundant/luxurious lifestyle full of material belongings or the attempt to live life in accordance with the ethical, moral, legal and religious laws of one’s country or culture. As such, the term can both be understood as the quest for wealth, material possessions or luxuries and the quest to create a worthwhile, honest and meaningful existence.
The term is also a central concept in the works of Aristotle that are centered around ethics (see also Eudaimonia).
What exactly is the good life and what contributes to living a good life?
When it comes to living the good life, we almost all have a certain idea how such a life should look like. For some, the good life is all about spending time playing video games or watching television, while eating and drinking as much as they please. Others associate the good life with days spent in nature, pondering and philosophizing about life. Some simply want to spend their time in a worthwhile and productive manner, for example by trying to make this world a better place. Others believe that the good life is all about pleasure, wealth and the fulfillment of all their (material) wishes.
These examples raise an important issue. When it comes to the good life, some understand it as the continuous pursuit of their desires by means of mundane activities. Others consider it as the striving for personal excellence and the wish to contribute something meaningful in life.
We then have to ask ourselves the question, if the good life could really be characterized by a high standard of living alone. If this were the case, living the good life would primarily consist of the never-ending attempt to fulfill one’s desires and material wishes. As we all know, human desires can be boundless, while the earth’s resources are quite limited. As such, the (excessive) good life of one group of people might prevent others from living the “high-standard-of-living good life.” Or it might hinder future generations from ever living the good life.
A high standard of living can certainly be regarded as part of the good life. But in itself, the good life does not alone consist of wealth and abundance. As such, it would be quite limited and out of balance.
In line with this arguing, the popular philosophers Socrates and Plato primarily define in their works the good life as the examination of life, the mastery of the self and the contribution to one’s community. To them, living the good life integrated aspects of self-control and civic duty. As such, the good life consisted of reining in your passions by attaining mastery over yourself and to contribute to your community.
To return to the initial question, what is the good life?
Living the good life means living a life that sets you free. A life that satisfies and fulfills you, that adds happiness, joy and a sense of purpose to your life. But it also means to live a life that is worthwhile – a life that makes a contribution, instead of being solely self-centered. The good life is a life that is not primarily wasted with mundane activities. Instead, it adds value and contributes to making this world a better place. Even more so, it also contributes to your own growth. The attainment of a high standard of living alone might not be fully fulfilling and will definitely not set you free. Therefore, the good life combines aspects of exploration, self-mastery and civic responsibility with the endeavor to spend your time in a worthwhile manner that both satisfies and fulfills. It is only through the combination of these aspects that a joyous and happy life can be truly considered the good life.
Plato about the good life
In his work Apology, Plato gives an account of a speech given by Socrates while defending himself against allegations of impiety and corrupting the youth in the year 399 BC. When being asked by the court why Socrates simply cannot stop questioning the way people live, Socrates responds with a simple, yet profound answer. According to Socrates the unexamined life is not worth living. Living life without ever reflecting upon it is not worth living. The person who unquestioningly and continuously repeats the cycle of waking up, working and going back to sleep, is not living the good life. Even further, people that do not reflect on the nature of things are not living a worthwhile life. If a person is not examining what they value and why, the chances of them being able to live a good life are reduced.
Examining, reflecting and questioning the nature of things, however, is not enough. Similarly, it’s not enough to reflect on your personal values. Living the good life requires you to become a Master of yourself. Socrates compared this process to a charioteer directing two horses. Socrates argued that each and every one of us is such a charioteer. We all have to handle two horses. The first horse is stubborn. It is a direct reflection of our animal instincts with a boundless appetite for lust and pleasure. The first horse goes in whatever direction it pleases, if not tightly controlled. It is egotistical and does not reflect what it does. It simply does. The second horse is of a much nobler and more sensible spirit. It resembles reason and man’s capability to reflect upon that which he does.
If the charioteer ever wants to live the good life, the stubborn appetites of the first horse must be controlled. Only by using your reason to reign in your passions, the two horses will lead you on the path of the good life. In line with this arguing, not being able to control your desires and passions will make you behave like an uncontrolled and misdirected stubborn horse. Socrates concluded that by living a just life, based on reflection, examination and servitude to society, a person can truly live the good life. But those who allow desires and passions to guide their actions, are most likely not living worthwhile lives.
Aristotle about the good life
In Aristotle’s best-known work, Nicomachean Ethics, the philosopher adds important insights about the good life. Very early in this work, Aristotle seeks to construct a framework by developing an understanding about the highest good for human beings. He points out that to most people, the highest good consists either in the acquisition of wealth, the pursuit of honor or the satisfying of bodily pleasures. As a result, most people act accordingly. They seek wealth, honor or satisfaction and thereby hope to ultimately attain happiness. Aristotle, however, points out that none of these aspects can ever serve as the highest good. Firstly, he argues that wealth is primarily used to acquire other things. In itself, wealth cannot make happy. Secondly, honor might not necessarily contribute to a person’s happiness. Instead, honor is primarily sought to change how people think of us. Thirdly, the desire to fulfill one’s (bodily) desires is not something limited to human beings alone. Animals are seeking pleasure, too. Even more so, by orientating one’s life primarily to the satisfaction of bodily pleasures, a human being behaves no differently than an animal. According to Aristotle, such a life is neither fit nor meant for human beings.
From this Aristotle concludes that the highest good cannot consist primarily out of these three aspects. Instead, the highest good should be something that aims to maximize the inherent faculties of man. It helps human beings to develop that which separates them from animals. In line with this arguing, the capacity for reason is that which separates man from cattle.
Based on his reflections, Aristotle highlights the essential qualities of the good life. These qualities primarily consist of contemplation and learning. It is through the process of contemplating and learning that intellectual virtues are steadily acquired. These virtues can for instance stem from the acquisition of knowledge about the fundamental principles of nature. Furthermore, this knowledge can be expanded by applying the principles of nature.
However, contemplation and acquiring knowledge is not enough to live the good life. Solely understanding nature’s principles and contemplating on these does not contribute the highest good. It is only through right action that knowledge can be put to its proper use. Hence, the development of a strong and virtuous character is necessary to perform right actions. Aristotle therefore concludes that the highest good consists of the acquisition of both intellectual and personal virtues. And, by living in accordance to the highest good, happiness (or Eudaimonia) can be attained. Consequently, a person achieves happiness by contemplation, learning and the mental strength to perform right actions. Such a person does not only know what is right, but also acts accordingly and derives happiness, fulfillment and purpose from it.
As pointed out in the above, living the good life consists of three essential aspects. These aspects are centered around concepts of self-mastery, exploration/contemplation/learning and civic engagement:
By integrating these fundamental aspects into life, the good life that creates happiness, fulfillment and gives you a sense of purpose and meaning in life can be attained. Therefore, the ideal of the good life does not set you on a pursuit of wealth, status and pleasure, but creates happiness, fulfillment and joy through understanding the world you live in, mastering yourself and helping your community to thrive.
In the following you can find several ideas to live the good life.
1. Examine life, seek knowledge
Examine life, explore its concepts and principles and seek to learn new things each day. Be open for new ideas and never cease to go through life with open eyes.
Aristotle stated for a good reason that the unexamined life is not worth living. Living without questioning and reflecting your behavior, beliefs and values, can result in spending your time with activities that are not worthwhile. Even more so, it might even make it all the more difficult to live the good life. On the other hand however, by applying reason to the examination of (your own) life, a continuous stream of knowledge and virtues can be acquired. It is our capacity for reason that differentiates human beings from (instinct-driven and pleasure-seeking) animals. If we explore the world and contemplate on our discoveries, new sources of pleasure, happiness and well-being can be tapped into.
2. Slow down and enjoy simplicity
A great number of people assume that the good life can only be attained by adding more to their life. As a consequence, they seek to add material belongings, wealth, social status, fame or something entirely different to their lives. This, however, is the wrong approach. You don’t necessarily have to add something new to your life to enjoy the good life. Quite the contrary is the case. The good life does not consist of continuously chasing evermore. Instead, simplicity and the ability to draw happiness from what you already have can be integral aspects of a good life. This shift in perception can help you to start living the good life in this present moment, without being dependent upon external influences.
3. Seek to attain self-mastery
Living the good life is all about mastering yourself. But interestingly, most people do not consider self-mastery when it comes to the pursuit of a good life. Instead of seeking discipline and mastery over themselves, they prefer to chase wealth, material possessions, status or the fulfillment of desires. However, without self-discipline one’s actions are primarily centered around the wish to fulfill desires. As a result, we waste important time and energy on feeding desires that can never be fully satisfied. Consequently, our actions are egotistical, self-centered and unreflected. Instead of living the good life, we succumb to the instinct-driven and unreasoned qualities we share with animals.
It is only through self-mastery that we can replace our boundless appetite for pleasure with a nobler and more reasonable thinking. Instead of being instinct-driven, it allows us to reflect and to think about what we do.
4. Drawing joy and happiness from life’s simple pleasures
In their quest to live the good life, the vast majority of people shift their attention from the present moment to a desirable state in the future. They think that the good life can only be attained through the acquisition of wealth, status and a variety of other things. Therefore, these people will never truly be able to live the good life, because there will always be something missing. They either do not have enough material possessions to satisfy all their desires. Or they are no longer able to enjoy these possessions after a certain period of time.
For this reason, the ability to draw happiness from life’s simple pleasures is essential. It’s a person’s ability to take pleasure from even the most simplistic things in life that will help in understanding how worthwhile this present moment is.
5. Help in making this world a better place
Almost all philosophers that pondered about the good life highlighted the importance of civic engagement. It is an integral aspect of a good life. Even more so, all the other aspects of the good life can only be committed in a worthwhile manner by utilizing them for the greater cause. Therefore, the life that is solely lived for the purpose of fulfilling one’s own desires can never be fully considered a truly meaningful and worthwhile existence.
6. Be grateful for what you have
Gratitude is an important aspect of the good life. It helps us to overcome the feeling of not having enough. By being grateful we can also overcome the never-ending pursuit of boundless desires.
7. Don’t worry about things you can’t control
Life presents us with two different aspects. Firstly, those aspects of our life that can be influenced or changed. Secondly, there are those aspects or events that are beyond our ability to influence or alter. We are simply incapable of exerting even the slightest influence over these events. We therefore feel extremely intimidated and helpless. Feelings that even further contribute to our fear about things we cannot control.
However, the principal key to withstanding life’s hardship, lies in the way we allow these happenings to influence us. While we’re not able to control a great variety of events in life, we still have the capacity to control our responses to these events. We therefore have the choice to allow these happenings to break us and to incite fear within us, or to get back up from the ground and to recover from it.
8. Value and nurture relationships
Imagine you’re living the good life but no one is around you can share your joy with. The concept of living the good life includes the relationship dimension as well. Without it, it would not fully contribute to your happiness and fulfillment. Even more so, relationships are an integral part of a worthwhile life. Neither wealth nor social status can grant access to true friendship. Therefore, living the good life also consists of spending a significant amounts of your time with those that you love and enjoy being around. The good life is all about growing, developing and becoming stronger together, not alone.
9. Live your passions
Living the good life is all about discovering your true passions and having the courage to pursue these activities. By doing what you’re passionate about, a sense of fulfillment, accomplishment and true satisfaction can be added to your life.
10. Live in the moment
While it is certainly true that the good life means a great variety of different things to different people, we can all agree that being haunted by the past or having fear of the future is certainly not part of it. Instead of being trapped in the past or fearful about the future, try to enjoy this present moment. There’s nothing you can do to change what happened. Also, the future can be greatly impacted in this very moment. Be here right now, this is exactly where you need to be.
Conclusion about the good life
Living the good life means to strive for self-mastery, exploration and the improvement of the world around you. It is a worthwhile life that sets you free. A life that is in balance and fully satisfies and fulfills you. But the good life is not just a life that adds happiness, joy and pleasure, but it also desires to attain mastery over the self. The good life therefore is not a life spend by the never-ending pursuit of personal desires. Instead, it seeks to reign in your passions by attaining self-control. The one who is living the good life also contributes to the betterment of this world and adds value to it.
The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the good life.