What makes for a good life?
Happiness, wellness, health and wealth have meant different things to different people over the millennia, but the search for a good life is ongoing. The following thoughts and theories are some of the most popular over the last millennia, and while they may or may not resonate with you, they’re definitely worth considering in the quest to answer the question:
‘What makes for a good life?’
You may have heard the term ‘stoic’ being used when referring to a hero unbending in the face of their opposition, like the famous Tank Man or any mother that’s refused to kowtow to a toddler mid-fit.
Stoicism is a eudemonic philosophy. Eudaimonia refers to ‘human flourishing’ and ‘wellness’, which stoics believed could be achieved by practicing values and living an ethical life.
What are the values of stoicism?
The stoics believed in that things are best when they follow their natural order, and for people to reach their natural order they had to be both rational and in control of their rationality. Stoics believed that while you were unable to change many things about the world, you could change or take charge of how you felt about the world around you.
Bob is cut off in traffic. This event is outside of Bob’s control, but his reaction to events is not. Getting angry will not change the fact he was cut off, so he can make the choice to learn from the experience and remain calm.
According to stoics, there are three categories of values; goods, evils and indifferents (which were separated into preferred things and rejected things).
Indifferents – Preferred:
- Basic survival
- Physical beauty
- Good reputation
Indifferents – Rejected:
- Being unpopular
Find out more on stoicism
While our modern image of hedonism might conjure ideas of excesses of food, drink and other physical pleasures, hedonism had very simple and virtuous beginnings.
What are the values of hedonism?
Hedonism is a fairly straight-forward philosophy – pleasure is preferable to pain, pleasure is intrinsically valuable, and life’s goal is to seek pleasure and avoid pain where possible. Because experiences can only fall into these two categories, pleasure and pain have broad meanings; pleasure might include things as simple as the enjoyment of a walk, and pain could be having an itch.
This still doesn’t justify seeking pleasure for the sake of pleasure, though, as hedonism did put thought into the future.
Bob considers eating an entire cake. The idea, taste and consumption would be pleasurable, but there would be pain consequences in the feelings of discomfort, sickness, and potentially diabetes. Therefore, enjoying a sensible amount of cake provides the greatest pleasure and the least pain.
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This philosophy is all about numero-uno – you and what you want are the most important things.
What are the values of egoism?
Here’s where it gets tricky; there are a few branches of egoism, namely Descriptive/Psychological egoism and Normative Egoism (which is split into Rational and Ethical egoism).
The core value of these different branches is the same – acting in your own self-interest is logical, beneficial, and almost unavoidable. Even acts of altruism can be related back to the ego, as acting selflessly provides an individual with a sense of happiness.
Like hedonism, egoism and the pursuit of self-interest is nuanced; pursuing small pleasures now may be directly opposed to larger interests later on. However, egoism takes it a step further and brings in a moral angle – pursuing your self-interest is a moral act.
Some may view egoism as yet another excuse for narcissism, yet it could be helpful for those who feel as though they rarely take their own interest into account when making decisions.
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The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
Bertrand Russel was a mathematician and philosopher born in 1872 who wrote a great deal on the human condition. In one of his most popular and well-known works called ‘The Conquest of Happiness’, he outlines what he thinks are the causes of unhappiness and happiness:
Competition – Basically, the desire to not only ‘keep up with the Joneses’ but to outdo them. Russel contends that this kind of competition never allows people to enjoy or be satisfied with what they have.
Boredom – The unique position of man to be in a place of boredom. He describes the life of an animal, who must constantly be on the lookout for enemies, or for food, or to get comfortable, is never going to experience boredom. People, on the other hand, have plenty of free, unthreatened existence in which to feel bored, and further, we are afraid of boredom. Chasing excitement to quell this fear is also a cause of unhappiness, in the same way addiction causes unhappiness – excitement becomes a fix, and boredom is unbearable.
Fatigue – Anyone who’s enjoyed public transport can empathise with Russell’s view of fatigue. He explains that being in the constant presence of strangers as something that can fray the nerves, and that it promotes ‘a tendency to view the human race as a nuisance’. Russell also refers to mental fatigue which can come from overwork, which he claims rose with industrialisation.
Zest – Russel’s zest is what we’d possibly consider mindfulness now – appreciation of what we have and an understanding of how we feel in our present. He uses an example of a man sitting down to eat, who enjoys the flavours and only consumes enough to feel sated, as opposed to chowing down until he feels like exploding.
Affection – One of the simplest human interactions is given a complex makeover. Essentially, affection sought is likely never gained; rather, affection given as par for the course is the most powerful and appreciated. It also grants security and bravery for the receivers to face the world with.
Work – Basically, the polar opposite of boredom. Work, according to Russell, takes up a good portion of a person’s day and takes away choices which he refers to as ‘tiresome’. He also reflects that work improves the delight of holidays.
Find what fits
Philosophy is an eternal conversation that can be moulded and adapted to the individual. When investigating different approaches to living, it’s important to find one that speaks to you, your goals and ambitions. Good luck on the hunt!
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