1.3.4: What is the Good Life?

What is the Good Life not?

For individuals, quality of life measurements are mostly harmful, and the feelings that define the Good Life defy description

‘If you wish to converse with me,’ said Voltaire, ‘define your terms.’[i] In our resources-into-good-life framework, we’ve already defined our exhaustible resources as money, time, and energy. The Good Life is what everyone is trying to turn those resources into.[1]

However, everyone aiming at the same thing does not mean everyone is more likely to hit it. In fact, it is because we mistakenly view having the same general goal – the Good Life – as there being the same specific best way to achieve it – the same system of objective goals – that we go so commonly awry.[2] It is not the Good Life at which you want to aim, but your Good Life.[3] Failure to look deep enough into our desires concerning the sort of life we want to lead is like charging into an essay in an exam without a plan: it is not lack of time, but our fear of running out of it that causes a shoddy solution. We may get the gist of everything down on the paper, but if it ends up being structured in any sort of meaningful way, we’ve got damn lucky.

Defining your Good Life is hard, especially when the lenses through which you’re examining it are misted up with misleading messages from society’s marketers and your own mischievous addictions.[4] This encourages us to delay the defining, swapping pondering a precise purpose for stitching together an all-purpose safety net instead, to protect us from demons that in most cases aren’t real.

There are plenty that scoff at the idea that happiness is a house so big you could have Black Sabbath round without disturbing the neighbours, a title that you can pretend to be embarrassed to use, and a private jet on standby, but no amount of scoffing hides the fact that these same people exhibit actions that while they flower less exuberantly, are firmly rooted in the same crap beliefs.

Whether you want to or not, you’re taking actions to some sort of end, so if you don’t specify those ends yourselves, something will be sucked in to fill the void. A common way people fool themselves is to think the void-filling borrowed objective goals that they’re too busy chasing to work out what their ‘true’ ones actually are, are practical temporary fixes, as opposed to the waste of life they are in reality.

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In many ways the Good Life defies definition because it is inherently personal. However, something being partially ineffable doesn’t mean it’s entirely inexplicable. Just because you can’t always put your finger on precisely what combination of sleep, food, company, and other assorted actions lead to feeling oddly productive, at ease, and as though you’re that bit closer to fulfilling your potential, or living like the best version of yourself, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a pretty good guess and try to engender such a state more often, all the while remembering that it is the engendering that is key.[5] As ass-kicking philosopher Bruce Lee reminds us: ‘The Good Life is a process, not a state of being’[ii]. Few outright argue that the Good Life is a destination to be arrived at, but everybody is so drawn towards the supposed security of a promised land and the lack of thinking this ‘arrival fallacy’[6] promises that they act like it’s true anyway, often at the highest possible cost.

Landing on a precise definition isn’t as important as the process of looking for one. Failing to think through to the bitter end what it is we’re all looking to achieve with our money, time, and energy – and continually revisiting and refreshing our conclusions – is the root of all money mistakes. Most people stop this process when it gets difficult. But it’s only after it gets difficult that anything moderately insightful emerges. Difficulty is a sign that you haven’t worked something out yet. Everything before that is just patting yourself on your back for remembering your own name.

It’s helpful, therefore, to think about what the Good Life isn’t. It isn’t happiness. Happiness is fleeting, ill-defined in itself, and it’s perfectly possible to be happy and unfulfilled to the extent that we’ll give up a smile in search of fulfilment even when we have no idea what fulfilment looks like nor if there’s much chance of finding it.[7] Furthermore, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noted, ‘Happiness and unhappiness [are] independent of each other […] just because a person is happy it does not mean he can't also be unhappy at the same time.’[iii]

Perhaps the most common modern interpretation of the Good Life is the concept of ‘life satisfaction’ – a sort-of catch-all term for an evaluation of one’s life as a whole, rather than current feelings. We’ve realised that happiness can be fickle, fleeting and stubbornly unscientific, so we’ve looked for something with a better basis for objective measurement. And as per the rules of modern life management, if it can’t be measured, it may as well not exist. However, my experiences navigating the mental mazes of millionaires has taught me that, for our purposes, ‘life satisfaction’ scores are bullshit.

Life satisfaction has its uses at scale, but for a given individual, especially when analysing one’s relationship with money, it’s irrelevant. Not only does it specifically ignore the very feelings that are a guide to one’s Good Life, but, as Daniel Kahneman points out, ‘life satisfaction is connected to a large degree to social yardsticks.’[iv] What this means is that when asked to evaluate how satisfied someone is with their life on the whole, people (especially in my experience ones for whom wealth feels an inescapable part of who they are) answer not how good their life feels (in the flourishing and fulfilment-of-potential sense we’ll come to in a minute), but instead answer ‘how could I not be?’ regardless of their actual feelings. Look a millionaire in the eye and ask them how satisfied they are with their lot and their body will always give a more honest answer than their words.[8] This is why income is a much stronger predictor of ‘life evaluation’ scores than it is of positive or negative feelings.[9]

If life doesn't feel good, it's not a Good Life, however much you may think you ought to feel good about it. If you can’t feel good with untold millions sloshing around, what on earth does that say about your life choices?

How do you define what defies definition?

You – and brain scanners – know when a life is being well-lived, and the actions that lead you there

Despite consistently looking like we’re lost, we do know the Good Life when we see it. Or rather feel it. We know what works, and what doesn’t, but we pay insufficient attention to the feelings that determine each. The trouble is we’re trapped in the limiting cage of our language, desperately going round in circles, repeatedly pawing at the same unillumined and unilluminating corners, like an anxious tiger in a shitty zoo that has yet to figure out how glass works.

To cut through this, we need another helping lexographical hand from the Greeks, and their concept of eudaimonia, which is basically Greek for being comfortable in your own skin.

Eudaimonia is more than happiness, or meaning. According to historian Anthony Gottlieb, ‘eudaimonia means “happiness” only in a very broad sense of the English word, for it implies successful, admirable living and all-round good fortune, as well as a contented state of mind.’[v] Others link it to concepts such as fulfilment of potential, or frequently finding oneself in the flow state. The definition doesn’t really matter. It’s like trying to define love or happiness or health. We are clear about what it’s not, but we only really know what it is when we are experiencing it.

What we’re focused on is a feeling of flourishing, of living a life that feels worthwhile, in whatever idiosyncratic form that takes. The word ‘eudaimonia’ is derived from the idea of ‘having a good guardian spirit’, which suggests living as you would were your better judgment sat on your shoulder. There is therefore a strong link to phronēsis – do the practically wise thing consistently and you live well, live up to your potential. For eudaimonia is not a fleeting emotion. It is something you do. Something you feel so deeply that it is part of who you are. It is a way of life.

Eudaimonia isn’t only a fancy word, a wishy-washy attempt to derive authority from some folk long since lost to Aegean depths. It’s a concept of lasting happiness. The type Matthieu Ricard has described as, ‘a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.’[vi] It’s vital to the processes of cultivating a better relationship with money and of making better financial decisions. Because the purposes of these processes is living a better life, and the pathways on which they work to do that are all in the brain. It’s time to transport eudaimonia from Ancient Greek academies to present-day cognitive-science labs.

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Eudaimonia changes your brain. In a really cool way. People judged to be high in ‘eudaimonic well-being’[10] tend to have brains better at the exact sort of higher-order thinking, including goal-setting, language, memory, and processing of emotional information that is key to taking the sort of better actions and making the sort of better decisions that we’ve been talking about.[vii]

Outside of psychedelic therapy, brains don’t tend to rewire themselves without a sustained series of actions. Specifically, choosing the right course of action over all the wrong ones. And as with diets that are based on denial being doomed to fail,[11] these actions need to come from a positive place. A place that reframes defensive ‘can’t’s into either empowering ‘can’s or identify-affirming ‘don’t’s. A place that sees stepping stones rather than obstacles and figures that if something important and daunting doesn’t instantly make sense, that’s probably to be expected, and there’s probably a tiny initial step that can be taken anyway, until without consciously trying, things start to flow.

As exemplified in the concept of ‘flow’, or the Daoist notion of ‘wu wei’,[12] once your brain is wired for the Good Life, the actual living of it (despite its quasi-elusive nature and the effort required to prepare the neural environment for it) happens effortlessly. Indeed, if the execution feels effortful, the benefits are likely to escape into the non-eudaimonic ether. Pressure to be present is an antidote to actually being so. This is why perspectival and participatory knowledge is so important. You cannot become such as you are if you’re looking for yourself in a textbook. Right actions are about existentially becoming, not mechanically doing.

Such a way of knowing may lead us to wisdom. But what are we being wise for? What does being wiser with money mean in practice?

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[1] Well, almost everyone. ‘There is one case and only one, when man may deliberately and consciously desire something that is downright harmful even stupid, even extremely stupid, and that is: to have the right to desire what is even extremely stupid and not to be duty bound to desire only what is intelligent.’ – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground

[2] See Rule #13: Beware the Arrival Fallacy (also Part 2, Section 3.1).

[3] See Rule #4: All Success is Subjective (also chapter Part 2, Chapter 4).

[4] See Trigger #4: Needs, wants, addictions (also Part 2, Section 3.2).

[5] Describing such a state, whether you call it being a ‘fully functioning person’ (a la Carl Rogers) or ‘self-actualised’ (a la Abraham Maslow) or being a goddamn rock star, isn’t in any case as helpful as explaining the actions that produce such states. It’s the difference between rabbiting on about building good habits being the key to achieving anything and everything with ease, and realising that habits emerge as a result of doing the things your environment makes easy.

[6] See Arrival Fallacy, Part 2, Section 3.1.

[7] Even if we follow Professor Paul Dolan’s take, in Happiness by Design, that happiness is about feeling both pleasure and purpose and that ‘life is less about trading off happiness now for happiness later (and vice versa) and more about trading off pleasure and purpose at different rates at different times’ we still don’t get much insight into what it is we should be doing with our cash.

[8] As rationalist website Clearerthinking.org puts it: ‘Another potential problem for the evaluative method is that people tend to make a comparative judgment when assessing their life satisfaction. Evidence suggests that we first judge what the norm of satisfaction is based on our social group, or the group we strive to be part of, then decide whether things like our career status, income or relationships either exceed this norm or fail to meet it.’

[9] See, for example, Ed Diener; Weiting Ng; James Harter; Raksha Arora, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 99 (1), Jul 2010, 52-61

[10] Assessed across six dimensions: self-discovery; perceived development of one's best potentials; a sense of purpose and meaning in life; investment of significant effort in pursuit of excellence; intense involvement in activities; and enjoyment of activities as personally expressive.

[11] Something we’ll return to in Part 2, Section 2.1.2.

[12] ‘According to the central text of Daoism, the Dao De Jing: “The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone”. This is the paradox of wu wei. It doesn’t meant not acting, it means ‘effortless action’ or ‘actionless action’. It means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency.’ – The School of Life, The Book of Life

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[i] Voltaire, quoted in Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

[ii] Bruce Lee, Striking Thoughts

[iii] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

[iv] Daniel Kahneman, interview with Haaretz https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-why-nobel-prize-winner-daniel-kahneman-gave-up-on-happiness-1.6528513

[v] Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason

[vi] Matthieu Ricard, Happiness

[vii] See Shirley H. Wang, The Wall Street Journal, for a summary: