What Is The Good Life?

The various meanings of "living well"

Lime Cocktail. Bill Boch/Creative RM/Getty Images

What is “the good life”?  This is one of the oldest philosophical questions.  It has been posed in different ways–How should one live?  What does it mean to “live well”?– but these are really just  the same question   After all, everyone wants to live well, and no-one wants “the bad life.”

But the question isn’t as simple as it sounds.  Philosophers specialize in unpacking hidden complexities, and the concept of the good life is one of those that needs quite a bit of unpacking.

  For what do phrases like “the good life,” or “living well,” mean.  They can be understood in at least three ways.

1.  The moral life

One basic way in which we use the word “good” is to express moral approval.  So when we say that someone is living well or that they have lived a good life, we may simply mean that they are a good person, someone who is courageous, honest, trustworthy, kind, selfless, generous, helpful, loyal, principled, and so on.  They possess and practice many of the most important virtues.  And they don’t spend all their time merely pursuing their own pleasure; they devote a certain amount of time to activities that benefit others, perhaps through their engagement with family and friends, or through their work, or through various voluntary activities.

This moral conception of the good life has had plenty of champions.  Socrates and Plato both gave absolute priority to being a virtuous person over all other supposedly good things such as pleasure, wealth, or power.

  In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates takes this position to an extreme.  He argues that it is much better to suffer wrong than to do it; that a good man who has his eyes gouged out and is tortured to death is more fortunate than a corrupt person who has uses wealth and power dishonorably. 

In his masterpiece, the Republic, Plato develops this argument in greater detail.

  The morally good person. he claims enjoys a sort of inner harmony, whereas the wicked person, no matter how rich and powerful he may be or how many pleasure he enjoys, is disharmonious, fundamentally at odds with himself and the world.  It is worth noting, though, that in both the Gorgias and the Republic, Plato bolsters his argument with an speculative account of an afterlife in which virtuous people are rewarded and wicked people are punished.

Many religions also conceive of the good life in moral terms as a life lived according to God’s laws.  A person who lives this way, obeying the commandments and performing the proper rituals, is pious.  And in most religions such piety will be rewarded.  Obviously, many people do not receive their reward in this life.  But devout believers are confident that their piety will not be in vain.  Christian martyrs went singing to their deaths confident that they would soon be in heaven.  Hindus expect that the law of karma will ensure that their good deeds and intentions will be rewarded, while evil actions and desires will be punished, either in this life or in future lives.

2.  The life of pleasure

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was one of the first to declare, bluntly, that what makes life worth living is that we can experience pleasure.

  Pleasure is enjoyable, it’s fun, it’s……well…..pleasant!  The view that pleasure is the good, or, to put I another way, that pleasure is what makes life worth living, is known as hedonism

Now, the word “hedonist,” when applied to a person, has slightly negative connotations.  It suggests that they are devoted to what some have called the “lower” pleasures such as sex, food, drink, and sensual indulgence in general.  Epicurus was thought by some of his contemporaries to be advocating and practicing this sort of lifestyle, and even today an “epicure” is someone who is especially appreciative  of food and drink.  In fact, though, this is a misrepresentation of Epicureanism.  Epicurus certainly praised all kinds of pleasures.  But he didn’t advocate that we lose ourselves in sensual debauchery for various reasons:

  • doing so will probably reduce our pleasures in the long run since over-indulgence tends to cause health problems and limit the range of pleasure we enjoy.
  • the so-called “higher” pleasures such as friendship and study are at least as important as “pleasures of the flesh. 
  • The good life has to be virtuous.  Although Epicurus disagreed with Plato about the value of pleasure, he fully agreed with him on this point.

Today, this hedonistic conception of the good life is arguably dominant in Western culture.  Even in everyday speech, if we say someone is “living the good life,” we probably mean that they enjoying lots of recreational pleasures: good food, good wine, skiing, scuba diving, lounging by the pool in the sun with a cocktail and a beautiful partner.

What is key to this hedonistic conception of the good life is that it emphasizes subjective experiences.  On this view, to describe a person as “happy” means that they “feel good,” and a happy life is one that contains many “feel good” experiences.

3.  The fulfilled life

If Socrates emphasizes virtue and Epicurus emphasizes pleasure, another great Greek thinker, Aristotle, views the good life in a more comprehensive way.  According to Aristotle, we all want to be happy.  We value many things because they are a means to other things: for instance, we value money because it enables us to buy things we want; we value leisure because it gives us time to pursue our interests.  But happiness is something we value not as a means to some other end but for its own sake.  It has intrinsic value rather than instrumental value.

So for Aristotle, the good life is the happy life.  But what does that mean?  Today, many people automatically think of happiness in subjectivist terms: to them, a person is happy if they are enjoying a positive state of mind, and their life is happy if this is true for them most of the time.  There is a problem with this way of thinking about happiness in this way, though.  Imagine a powerful sadist who spends much of his time gratifying cruel desires.

  Or imagine a pot smoking, beer guzzling couch potato who does nothing but sit around all day watching old TV shows and playing video games.  These people may have plenty of pleasurable subjective experiences.  But should we really describe them as “living well”?

Aristotle would certainly say no.  He agrees with Socrates that to live the good life one must be a morally good person.  And he agrees with Epicurus that a happy life will involve many and varied pleasurable experiences.  We can’t really say someone is living the good life if they are often miserable or constantly suffering.  But Aristotle’s idea of what it means to live well is objectivist rather than subjectivist.  It isn’t just a matter of how a person feels inside, although that does matter.  It’s also important that certain objective conditions be satisfied.  For instance:

  • Virtue: They must be morally virtuous.
  • Health: They should enjoy good health and a reasonably long life.
  • Prosperity: They should be comfortably off (for Aristotle this meant affluent enough so that they don’t need to work for a living doing something that they would not freely choose to do).
  • Friendship: They must have good friends. According to Aristotle human beings are innately social; so the good life can’t be that of a hermit, a recluse, or a misanthrope.
  • They should enjoy the respect of others.  Aristotle doesn’t think that fame or glory is necessary; in fact, a craving for fame can lead people astray, just as the desire for excessive wealth can.  But ideally, a person’s qualities and achievements will be recognized by others.
  • They need good luck.  This is an example of Aristotle’s common sense. Any life can be rendered unhappy by tragic loss or misfortune.
  • They must exercise their uniquely human abilities and capacities.  This is why the couch potato is not living well, even if they report that they are content.  Aristotle argues that what separates human beings from the other animals is reason.  So the good life is one in which a person cultivates and exercises their rational faculties by, for instance, engaging in scientific enquiry, philosophical discussion, artistic creation, or legislation.  Were he alive today he might well include some forms of technological innovation.

If, at the end of your life, you can check all these boxes, then you could reasonably claim to have lived well, to have achieved the good life.  Of course, the great majority of people today do not belong to the leisured class as Aristotle did.  They have to work for a living.  But it’s still true that we think the ideal circumstance is to be doing for a living what you would choose to do anyway.  So people who are able to pursue their calling are generally regarded as extremely fortunate.

4.  The meaningful life

A lot of recent research shows that people who have children are not necessarily happier than people who don’t have children.  Indeed, during the child raising years, and especially when the children have turned into teenagers, parents typically lower levels of happiness and higher levels of stress.  But even though having children may not make people happier, it does seem to give them the sense that their lives are more meaningful.

For many people, the well-being of their family, especially their children and grandchildren, is the main source of meaning in life.  This outlook goes back a very long way.  In ancient times, the definition of good fortune was to have lots of children who do well for themselves.   But obviously, there can be other sources of meaning in a person’s life.  They may, for instance, pursue a particular kind of work with great dedication: e.g. scientific research, artistic creation, or scholarship. They may devote themselves to a cause: e.g. fighting against racism; protecting the environment. Or they may be thoroughly immersed in and engaged with some particular community: e.g. a church; a soccer team; a school.

The finished life

The Greeks had a saying: Call no man happy until he’s dead.  There is wisdom in this.  In fact, one might want to amend it to: Call no man happy until he’s long dead.  For sometimes a person can appear to live a fine life, and be able to check all the boxes–virtue, prosperity, friendship, respect, meaning, etc.–yet eventually be revealed as something other than what we thought they were.  A good example of this Jimmy Saville, the British TV personality who was much admired in his lifetime but who, after he died, was exposed as a serial sexual predator. 

Cases like this bring out the great advantage of an objectivist rather than subjectivist notion of what it means to live well.  Jimmy Saville may have enjoyed his life.  But surely, we would not want to say that he lived the good life.  A truly good life is one that is both enviable and admirable in all or most of the ways outlined above.