|The Good Life is a Meaningful Life
Everyone without exception yearns for a good life, but people have very different ideas about what makes life worth living.
It matters a great deal what kind of good life one is pursuing. How many have wasted their lives in pursuing the illusive happiness? How many have sold their souls in exchange for power and fame? The highway to success is littered with countless casualties!
Be careful what you dream and pursue, because your dream may turn out to be a nightmare. How can one lead the good life without being ruined by its pursuit? This is a million dollar question that merits serious considerations.
In the 1980s, I did a major research project on people’s conception of the ideal good life, if money were not an issue. I employed the implicit theory method, which solicited open-ended answers rather than asking participants to respond to the researchers’ rating scales. The details are reported in Wong (1989).
My research findings may surprise many you.
Sources of the Good Life
The main finding was that the good life is a meaningful life. The answers were nearly identical whether I enquired about the good life or the meaningful life. This finding suggests that ultimately it is personal meaning rather than acquisition that defines the kind of good life people yearn for.
The thousands of responses from the participants can be classified into eight broad categories, representing the major sources of the good life.
- Happiness – A pleasurable, comfortable and happy life, the kind of life viewed by most people as the good life.
- Achievement – An achieving life of have done something significant with one’s life. It is also an engaged life in pursing and attaining worthy life goals.
- Intimacy – A life of loving relationships with family and close friends.
- Relationship – Being part of a community and well regarded by others. This larger web of connectivity is just as important as intimate relationships in satisfying one’s inner void.
- Self-acceptance – Being able to confront and accept one’s own limitations and weaknesses. From an existential perspective, self-acceptance also entails acknowledging one’s own vulnerabilities and finiteness as inevitable aspects of the human condition.
- Self-transcendence – Being altruistic and living for someone/something greater than oneself. The capacity for self-transcendence also enables people to experience the transcendental and spiritual realm.
- Religion/spirituality – A life devoted to serving and glorifying God or a higher power. Those without theistic beliefs may develop their own myths or spiritual beliefs.
- Fair treatment – Being treated fairly by life or living in a society that recognizes the importance of justice and equal opportunities.
These categories of a truly meaningful life have been shown to be significantly related to all sorts of mental health measures; they also map well with research findings on happiness and character strengths.
These findings suggest that mental health depends on a healthy dosage of all the above eight psychological, social and spiritual nutrients. One important implication from this picture of the good life is that these 8 components need to work together to enhance well-being and prevent the evil of self-indulgence.
Leading a Harmonious, Balanced Life
A surprising finding is that lay people seem to have a more comprehensive and balanced view of the good life than the expert views advocated by psychologists, such as B. F. Skinner’s (2005) utopia based on positive reinforcement or Martin Seligman’s (2002) emphasis on an engaged life as the good life.
The picture that has emerged from my research is one of balance and harmony. For example, the ambition to achieve a major life goal needs to be balanced by acceptance of one’s limitations; this will help one avoid setting unrealistic goals and reduce the negative impact of failure.
Similarly, hedonic pursuits need to be balanced by altruism and serving something bigger than oneself, which is essential for a meaningful life.
The present findings also suggest the need for a balance between getting ahead and getting along; individual concerns and social justice; and between self-serving and serving God.
Psychological problems are likely to occur when life loses balance and harmony. One needs maturity and practical wisdom in order to negotiate between various demands and maintain inner harmony.
One of the functions of meaning-centered counselling and therapy (MCCT) is to identify and adjust the imbalances through the use of Personal Meaning Profile (available on www.meaning.ca and www.drpaulwong.com).
Is the Good Life Possible in Bad Times
One of the limitations of my implicit theory research on the good life is that the findings are based on the explicit assumptions that times are good and people are free from economic worries and external constraints to pursue their most cherished dreams. But reality can be very harsh and it is impossible to go through life without stresses and problems.
A common problem in research on happiness and meaning is that those who live a privileged life, especially those researchers in elite universities, are insulated from those who live and die in pain and fear. It is understandable that their conceptions of the good life often fail to reflect the experience of suffering people.
My research with people from all walks of life has exposed me to the richness and wisdoms of common sense. My experience of working with suffering people has also taught me precious lessons on how to live a good life when times are bad -- when marital problems, illness, poverty, oppression, and violence makes one’s life miserable.
All the available evidences from research and life experiences have shown that in the noxious world of tragedy and pain, only meaning and spirituality offer fresh grounds for hope and joy. Therefore, meaning-therapy explores the healing potentials of self-acceptance, self-transcendence and religion/spirituality to help clients survive and flourish in adversities. For those interested in meaning-centered counselling and therapy (MCCT), please visit www.meaning.ca for announcements of dates and locations for MCCT workshops.
In the next issue of Positive Newsletter, I will explore further the theme of how to live the good life when things go terribly wrong.
Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Skinner, B. F. (2005). Walden two. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Wong, P. T. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the personal meaning profile. In The human quest for meaning (pp. 111-140). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.