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

Question: What questions can people ask themselves to determine what “happiness” or “well-being” means to them? How can they start looking for the right recipe, so to speak?

Well, you can’t escape the fundamental question of what well-being is. What is it for you that makes your life go well? Is it a matter of having fun or getting what you want? Is it just about what’s going on inside your mind, or is it also about what’s going on outside your mind?

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

Another question: besides economic value, what else contributes to a good life? I suspect that people who want to make New Year’s resolutions are motivated by the desire to make their lives better in a broader sense, not just better for them. If you have a happy or meaningful life, that is something that is good for you — but it doesn’t necessarily benefit the world or anyone else. You can be happy and live a morally horrific life at the same time: Mongol emperor Genghis Khan is said to have declared: “The greatest happiness is to defeat your enemies, to drive them before you, to rob them of their wealth…” live a morally good life that is bad for you. There was a Polish priest in 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 a moral sense, yes. But did his life go well for him? That is questionable to say the least.

Q: Assuming most people want all of these things — happiness and meaningfulness, as well as being a morally good person who helps others — why are the most popular New Year’s resolutions typically focused on personal well-being and not 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 New Year’s resolutions are often shaped by the advice they find in books or articles they read about happiness, many of which are based on studies in so-called “positive psychology.” These studies sometimes masquerade as answers to the generic question: what is a good life? However, they only provide advice on a certain aspect of this question. For example, people may decide to eat better, meditate more, take nature walks, and spend more time with friends, in part because this is the most salient information they have. It’s all good advice, but only if you want to be happier in a psychological sense. It doesn’t necessarily make your life better in other ways – and psychologists don’t claim it will.

Question: Where can people go instead for more holistic thinking about how to live a ‘good’ life?

I don’t think you can escape the work that philosophers do in this field. I know philosophy is hard to read, but these are hard questions, aren’t they?

Philosophers have much to say about the links between morality and well-being. For example, the ancient Greeks thought that the reason to be virtuous was because it was good for you. The modern conception of morality, on the other hand, is at odds with well-being, in that doing what morality requires does not necessarily benefit you. Morality and well-being can come into conflict with each other, and then the question arises of how to settle this conflict. But there are some interesting recent studies in empirical psychology that have shown that practicing morally “good” behaviors, such as spending money on your friends instead of yourself, actually makes you happier.

In the past two centuries, philosophers have also taken an interest in what it means for life to be ‘meaningful’. Some say your life is meaningful if it leaves a certain kind of mark on the world, if it makes a difference. Others argue that your life is meaningful if you make objectively valuable achievements. Still others believe that your life is meaningful if you can do what you love. Psychologists have begun to study this psychological conception of meaningfulness, and they have shown that the psychological markers of meaningfulness differ from, and are sometimes incompatible with, the psychological markers of happiness. If happiness and purpose can conflict – if you can’t always experience both things at the same time – what would you pursue?

Again, these kinds of questions are tricky. But look, I’m sorry to say, there are no shortcuts. If you’re really concerned about living a good life, these are questions you need to ask.

Q: That’s a hard question to ask of people who are busy and stressed and just want that recipe. Have you ever been overwhelmed by these questions in your own life?

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

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by these questions, here’s a thought to ponder: It’s taken from “The Apology of Socrates,” perhaps the inaugural text of Western philosophy. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, and he was tried under penalty of death. In his speech defending himself, he famously said that only the life examined is a life worth living. He didn’t mean, “Oh, first you have to research 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.

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

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