What makes a good life?
Long walks make for great conversations. What makes a good life was one of our discussions. My friend and I talked about a particular aspect of the good life which often occupies our minds: good work. That is, we think of the good life being the kind of life where we strive to do meaningful work that makes a contribution to others. We envision the kind of work that is energizing, engaging, satisfying, and fulfilling.
Our chat reminded me of social researcher and author Hugh Mackay’s recent book The Good Life. Here are some of his thoughts:
“The good life is a life lived for others.”
“A good life contributes to others’ wellbeing.”
“The whole idea of a good life will evaporate if we focus on ourselves and what we’re getting out of it. Self-absorption is not a recognised pathway to goodness.”
“The cardinal question is ‘Is this a good thing to do?’ not ‘Is this a good thing for my public image?’”
In relation to values: “Goodness is not a grand or mysterious concept. All we require are a few simple disciplines that, like compass settings, steer us in the right direction.”
Work, Love, Play and Service
A good life comprises more than just meaningful work. Chris Peterson, psychologist and one of the founders of Positive Psychology, wrote:
“What makes life worth living is not a psychological process. If someone participates in “work, love, play and service,” he or she has a full life. On the one hand, maybe most people have a full life. On the other hand, some qualifications may be in order if we want to zero in more exactly on the good life. Positive Psychologists would probably speak about good work, good love, good play and good service. Qualifications that move an activity from the typical to the notable include how well the activity is done; whether it is done with enthusiasm and joy; whether the activity is engaging; whether the activity has a larger meaning and purpose; and so on.”
Shaping a Good Life
The idea of a good life arises frequently in my client meetings. They ask questions to explore how to turn work, love, play, and service into good work, good love, good play, and good service. Of the many questions to prompt reflection here are just a few:
- What do I care about?
- What are my values, and how do they guide my life?
- Why am I here?
- What result do I want to create?
- Is what I do every day aligned with my intention and purpose?
- What role do I need to take on to live with purpose and to be constructive?
- What is called for in this context and situation?
- How can I align my actions with my purpose? Where do I need to adapt my actions?
- Why is it that I want to do what I do?
- Where can I find time to pause for reflection and to find clarity?
I will end here with this thought from the work of Peter Senge and his colleagues in their book Presence:
“When our work is informed by a larger intention [about what really matters], it’s infused with who we are and our purpose in being alive.”
What is your larger intention? What really matters to you? When are you alive?
MacKay, H. (2013). The Good Life: What Makes a Life Worth Living?. Macmillan Australia. (Special thanks to my friend Helen for this Christmas gift last year)
Peterson, C. (2013). Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Senge, P., Scharmer, C. O., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. S. (2004, 2008). Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Crown Business Reprint Edition.
Taken by Amanda Horne. Location: Great Ocean Walk, Victoria Australia, April 2014
(You might be interested to know that the sunset photo was taken from the toilet block at the Devil’s Kitchen campsite. Perhaps one of the best located toilet blocks in the world!)