Most of us have no idea of what to do with our lives. Even after school. We expect our careers to lead us down the road to happiness. Even after we get paychecks. We’ve seen the slick advertisements that promise that money can buy happiness — if we have enough of it. Even after we fall in love. Movies and novels assure us that love and infatuation always lead to happiness and a good life.
Growing up can be a painful experience, but not all choose to grow up. Many of us get old and bitter because the absolute truth is that nothing in life is guaranteed. We pin our hopes on elusive, fleeting and shallow things.
Life hits us alongside the head, and all of the psychobabble that we read on social media goes out the window —usually after we have plunked down our hard-earned cash and walk away not only poorer but even more confused.
The pursuit of happiness may be fleeting, but it’s pleasurable, and it’s something to gird us against what feels like a bleak world — war, COVID-19, inflation and the other terrors that surround us today. No wonder many of us make pleasure our goal in life. So we take everything we can while we can.
So, what does make a good life? Greek philosophers offered two answers: hedonia and eudaimonia.
We all know the earmarks of a hedonistic life — free from pain and full of pleasure. It leads to a constant need to be entertained and distracted from the unpleasant realities of our situation.
Conversely, a eudaemonic life is virtuous and purposeful, full of meaning. A recent book suggests another component that is closely related to eudaemonia — psychological richness.
Psychological richness would define a good life as interesting, challenging and surprising — even if those events weren’t planned. The things that make us psychologically rich can require us to make sacrifices and spend time in painful situations.
Often the crack in our protected world that’s created by adversity is just what is needed to let the light in.
To be clear: Happiness is a wonderful emotion that brings a smile to our face and joy to our heart. It is, however, a fleeting emotion that cannot be sustained for long periods. So instead, choose to live a good life that produces meaning and fulfillment.
The decision to live a good life requires a strong mind. Are you mentally tough? Take this evidence-based, free Mental Toughness Assessment.
A good life is more important than happiness. Here are four reasons why.
1. Fewer regrets
The career we choose in our 20s often begins to feel a little lifeless when we’re in our 30s. It’s common to enter a career because it’s lucrative and convenient, with little connection to what actually interests us.
In short, it becomes a job. As the years go by, we begin to feel bored, insecure, stressed and even depressed. There is a discrepancy between our dreams and reality.
We begin to notice books, gurus and coaches that promise a guiding beacon toward happiness. But here’s the secret: We all have an inner compass that is much more reliable. It comes from looking for and finding the individual purpose of our lives.
The self-help industry can provide insight, but that is all. It can’t think for us, and it doesn’t know how we’re wired because all our life experiences are unique. And with our uniqueness comes a purpose. When we tap into our internal guidance system, we learn to listen to our own voice and conscience.
No one knows our calling better than we do. We know what skills we need, which ones we have and which ones we need to develop. This knowledge helps us make choices that lead to fewer regrets.
How to make it work for you: Don’t try to bypass the hard work needed to discover your life’s calling or imagine that it will magically drop into your lap. It takes continual introspection and effort. Psychologists believe that we are born with unique gifts. When we’re engaged in activities that activate those talents, they produce a visceral reaction that corresponds to the way our brain is hardwired.
2. Noble sacrifices
If you’ve spent most of your life in the pursuit of entertainment and happiness, you’ll fall flat on your face when something painful rears its ugly head. You don’t know how to make the hard choices because you’ve avoided the unpleasant stuff.
But guess what? Life is filled with obstacles and difficulties. Since you’ve not learned how to deal with the reality of life, you often respond with anxiety and stress.
We can fool ourselves into thinking the best way to enjoy life is to avoid pain, suffering and sacrifices. After all, isn’t life all about loving everything we do? And if we don’t, we discard it and replace it with something else. This may be true if you live on social media, but those who live in the real world crave something with more heft and meaning.
If something is important enough to us, we will endure the pain to make it happen. These are the fundamental questions:
- What struggles are worth the fight?
- What pain will we invite into our life as we move toward a life of purpose?
Life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional.
Most of us can look back and pinpoint those life-changing moments when we endured the struggle to overcome a problem. We understand firsthand that success comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of complacency.
The unexpected, even the tragic, can have transformative power and lead us into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.
How to make it work for you: What do you value so much that you’re willing to make the sacrifice for it happen? Good values are based on reality and involve things you can control. This drive lets you forget about the temporary discomfort that will be replaced by a sense of joy and fulfillment.
3. Significant relationships
Look at the people around you. Are they obsessed with pleasure, money, possessions or power? They are shallow people. Once you’ve identified them, give them a wide berth because they will walk all over you as they try to win the game of life. But, unfortunately, these are the same people who become old and bitter as they age.
The Grant study is a 75-year study that followed 268 Harvard-educated men. The most straightforward message from the Grant study is those good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Social connections are good for us, while the experience of loneliness is toxic. The study also found that it is the quality of our close relationships that matter:
“And when we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
It turns out that those with higher levels of well-being surround themselves with people who value relationships and not material possessions.
How to make it work for you: You’re stuck with family, so be picky when choosing your friends. These are people who will support you and on whom you can count. Scrap screen time, and replace it with face-to-face conversations with people. Do something new with family or friends. Reach out to someone you’ve not spoken to in years.
4. Clear sense of direction
If you had a year to live, what would you do?
This is an uncomfortable question because thinking about death freaks most of us out. However, death is the only thing that can give us perspective on life. The act of contemplating how we want our life to end forces us to focus on our priorities.
After all, who wants an obituary that can’t name a single contribution to society?
When people feel they have no sense of direction and no purpose in their lives, they don’t know what’s important to them. A good life requires that our values guide our priorities and actions. Good values remind us that there are bigger, better and bolder things in this world than ourselves.
A good life is not about some outstanding achievement; it’s about how well we spend our limited time on earth. Discovering our purpose in life is a full-contact sport. It doesn’t happen if we stand on the sidelines. The credit goes to the person in the arena who is willing to put in the hard work to discover what makes them tick.
The enemy of a good life is complacency. Early in my career as an FBI agent, I learned that while obstacles will challenge you, its complacency that will kill you. To live a good and happy life, we need to move forward with a clear sense of direction.
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
How to make it work for you: You don’t know your purpose in life? Chances are good you won’t discover it by sitting on your butt and watching TV. It’s impossible to know how you feel about an activity until you do it. Do something different and volunteer at an animal rescue facility, help people in crisis or learn a new hobby.
They may not sound like ways to save the world, but your job is to find out what you can do with your time that is meaningful and leads to a good life.