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What Makes a Good Life? Thumbnail

What Makes a Good Life?

You have a steady job that pays the bills and puts your abilities to good use. You have loving relationships with your spouse, your children, extended family, and close friends.  Your house provides enough space and security.  Your golf league gives you a chance to unwind and to make the occasional birdie.  Your volunteer work improves your community.

The specific details might vary, but most people would consider this scenario the basis for a pretty good life.  Yet many of us who do check these boxes often feel like there's something missing. 

A fascinating new study published by Affective Science asked nearly 4,000 people from 9 countries (including the U.S.) what kind of life they wanted.  The results suggest that there's an important dimension to improving Return on Life that many of us may be overlooking.  Many of us may understand that we want a happy life that is full of meaning, but perhaps there is more to what we truly consider a good life.

1. A happy life

Researchers in the Affective Science study began by asking participants to write down a simple statement that described their vision of an ideal life.  Then, participants were instructed to rank 15 terms according to how closely they applied to that ideal vision. 

The first five terms characterized happiness: 

  1. Stable
  2. Comfortable
  3. Simple
  4. Happy
  5. Pleasant 

The study says that those who say they have a happy life usually have material wealth and relational wealth.  (This does not mean that the more money one has, the happier they are of course. There is a certain level of material wealth – along with relational wealth --- that could help one lead a happy life.)  If these words describe your life, it sounds like your basic emotional and physical needs are met.  You feel good about where you are, and you most likely have the tools and long-term perspective necessary to make plans for where you want to go. 

 And, perhaps most importantly, with this groundwork in place, you can start building on other aspects of your life that will be more rewarding.

2. A meaningful life

The next group of words were meant to correlate with the sense of meaning people wanted in their lives:

  •  Meaningful
  • Fulfilling
  • Virtuous
  • Sense of purpose
  • Involves devotion

It's here that people who are truly intentional about their lives move past their own needs and start thinking about the bigger picture.  Countless studies have drawn strong connections between doing good, happiness, and even longevity.  People with the highest levels of job satisfaction are often less focused on their income level than they are on how their work makes life better for other people.

Meaning can become increasingly important to us as we age out of the workforce.  Folks who kept their noses to the grindstone, doing work they didn't necessarily love to support their families, often struggle filling their days in retirement.  On the other hand, retirees who did make meaning an important part of their working lives often turn to volunteer work, part-times jobs, or mentorship as a means to perpetuate that important sense of purpose.  (This is not to suggest that change isn’t possible.  Indeed, retirement may be the catalyst for a renewal of the mind and a renewal of purpose.)

3. A psychologically rich life 

Not surprisingly, words under the "happy" and "meaningful" categories rated the highest among respondents.  But there was a third group of words that completed the picture of a good life for most people. 

  • Eventful
  • Dramatic
  • Interesting
  • Full of surprise
  • Psychologically rich

Why does the initial jolt of happiness after a big-ticket purchase wear off so quickly?  Why do so many people change careers, move across the country, or enroll in continuing education classes?

Because if our lives are so "perfect" that we aren't challenged or surprised, we get bored.  We need our curiosity to be stimulated.  We need problems that we can only solve by rewiring how we think.  We need obstacles to overcome.  We need to try new things and make mistakes.  We need opportunities to learn and grow.  In short, we also need a life full of variety, novelty, and interest as well as a life that is happy and meaningful.  (This is not to suggest that contentment isn’t an admirable quality. Indeed, a lack of contentment and a lack of gratitude with our lives may lead us down a path that may not be the most fruitful.)

The study indicated that the perspective-changing events can be especially psychologically rich. This makes me wonder whether we should strive to volunteer outside of our community or outside of our typical comfort zone.  Also, this leads credence to my belief that I feel I understand my place in the world a bit more if I traveled outside of the Southeast U.S. (which I have seen quite a bit of) and visited international spots, states out West, or even Texas (!). 

Your Unique Mix 

Finding the right mix of happiness, meaning, and psychological richness is an ongoing process. You might find that the emphasis you place on each shifts as you progress through various transitions, and particularly as you near retirement.   Moreover, in retirement we will go through seasons where we scramble the mix a bit, making each dimension that more meaningful as we drift back towards that dimension.  

Where do you rank in terms of a happy life? ...a meaningful life? …a psychologically rich life