The Good Life(s)

Beyond feelings of joy, beyond simply being content, there is another idea about happiness. As we all are biological beings living in the reality of this world, (can) think deeply, and live in cultures and societies wanting us to think in certain ways (more than others), there is also the concept of a good life. In that, morality and (other) rational judgment come into the picture, along with values and ideas of what we, as individuals and members of society, do and should want from our life and for humanity. In this, we stand between the idea that a life has inherent value if it is lived well, "a skillful performance of living," and the idea that a good life is one that has positive impact on other people and the world (Dworkin 1999: 240f.). Whatever it is, it is more than just endorphins being released in the brain. Happiness is not just an experience, and not just a memory, it is also to be grounded in reality. Otherwise, we would be getting the world of The Matrix – and there is a reason we celebrate those breaking out of it as heroes, rather than siding with those (well, the one) content to return to the illusory (though to him, experienced-as-real) state of contentment.

The good life, being moral, being culturally shaped, suffers from one problem: With all the different influences pulling it this way and that, it is impossible to define a good life for all. Is it “the good life” that is hedonistic or spiritual, atheistic or god-fearing – and which god, for that matter? There is a good approach, however, and one strongly paralleling “sustainability living” and a good life.

The writers of the American Declaration of Independence followed an acute understanding of what motivated human beings when they argued for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Their statement brings happiness close to being a right, which would imply an obligation e.g. for the state to bring it about. Yet, it is only considered a right that you can pursue happiness, not that you must attain it. This is well stated, for we tend to think that what something like this means to us individually must be what it also means to others, and therefore to want it to be supported by and for everyone. The road to hell, as the saying goes, is plastered with the best of intentions – just like those: thinking that there is a well-defined ideal to be realized makes it all the more likely that whatever means will be justified by, and hence employed for, that great end. Most ideologies that resulted in the deaths of thousands or millions had a foundation in such grand ideas. Having the freedom to pursue happiness, however, is quite another matter. To make this possible, there ought to be less of an ideology, and more latitude; a social contract in which the freedom in this pursuit is limited only insofar as one person’s liberties should, for the sake of justice and fairness, not reduce another person’s rights and liberty.

Incidentally, this is in keeping with a definition of sustainability as an attempt and approach to expand rather than diminish possibilities: All too often, the calls for sustainability or environmental conservation peddle fear, remind of responsibility, and talk of obligation. Ultimately, however, trying to live in a balance, within limits that must not be exceeded, is self-serving, too. After all, it is done not only for the chances of contemporary and future others, but also for one’s own chances for a good life. Since we do not know what the future will bring, and as the ways of life that are fitting (for the person, into his/her culture and society, as well as into the local and global environment) need to be different, we need diversity, latitude, yet again.

In the interaction between person and world, there is an additional aspect of a good life we might consider: a good life is not just lived for yourself, but within the world, with it – and recognizable as flourishing of the person. The idea is promising, for (although there may be some concern when people – women, not least – develop outside the bounds of social norms) we tend to recognize the use of a person’s full potential, a contribution that person is making to the betterment of the world, a “skillful performance of living” as part of a happy life, and we would not consider a serial murderer’s “blooming” a part of a good life – even (and especially) if it made that person feel happy. Giving others the permission to go about their own pursuit is a tough enough challenge, though, if you consider how many groups want everybody to live the way they themselves see fit. Still, only the notion of a good life – or maybe, given the admonition for diversity, for good lives – will suffice if we are really committed to the pursuit of happiness.

So, how do we go about finding happiness? Or should we not?

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