Thursday, December 02, 2004

What is a "good life" and a "happy life"?


Have a serious question for you: what is a good life and what is a happy life and are they inevitably linked?

One challenge (which the postmodern skeptic would agree) is that we are bound in this time and place and so a definition may be pointless.

However, can one come up with a definition that is applicable to us here in modern Western society and to poorer parts of the world and to someone who lived in the distant past?

Anyway, more questions than answers?

I think living in the USA does provide benefits (and how) but also lots of distractions!

The question of a "good life," I think, is hard for us because the postmodern skeptical view of the world is so prevalent here in the USA. If "truth" is unknowable or relativistic than the notion of some objective good is hard to find. So people default to finding a "happy life."

But do American's really know what a "happy life" is?

I think we confuse "excitement" for happiness. We are a nation of "adrenaline junkies." Extreme sports and TV shows like Fear Factor and the confusion of activity for significance is a part of life here in the USA.

I think we also confuse "pleasure" for happiness. "Happy Hour" on a Friday evening is a time for eating and drinking and flirting. All things well and good but if that is the end all and be all of life then that would seem a poor life indeed. And then there is the whole "do it if it feels good" ethic. This is problematic without an anchor for what is good. Yet, the basis for advertising on TV, magazines, etc. is our pleasure. But the pleasure from getting what we claim to want fades and we look for more.

As humans, we do enjoy the adrenaline high? And if god made us than isn't that a good thing? God made us with such powerful sensory capacity that pleasure is wired into us? So I'm not going to run in the other direction and say pleasure is sinful.

So what is the linkage between our notions of good and our experience of happiness?

Now, if one doesn't believe in god then these good feelings are an accident of evolution and doing good is irrelevant as survival is the prime directive of evolution.

Yet, Michael Shermer, an ardent evolutionist and evangelistic atheist argues that happiness is the evolutionary method to support "good societal ethics." His reasoning is that individual ethical choices which may diminish self-preservation but enhances societal survival needs some method of being encouraged. Thus, he argues evolution selects for "goodness" by linking it to happiness in doing good.

Thus, in his naturalistic world view, goodness and happiness are linked. In his view, of course, goodness is the collection of values that help a society survive in the evolutionary sense.

As a theist, I believe goodness and happiness are linked as well but for different reasons.

I think the personal search for happiness should move us into the realm for the search for significance and to our search for the good because I think deep down God has wired us with a desire for the good?

How can one account for the exasperated feeling we get at seeing the triumph of evil?

We say, that isn't the way it is supposed to be! In our "soul" there is a faint echo of what is good and we still hear it and when we see evil we recoil against it because we still have a sense of what is good.

My personal experience tells me that when I do "good" or see "good" being done, the impact on my being is (1) emotional at that moment but (2) imprinted into my being and thus transformative. Experiencing the good leaves an impact and it not as transient an experience as excitement and pleasure. Experiencing the good, if you will, leaves me happy, at a place I want to be.

I believe it is God's nature to do good and thus God is happiest (does this sound strange?) when God does good. Hence, God's statement during the creation, and God saw that it was good. Is it too much to read into the text that God was happy with creation?

And then, of course, God is happy when creatures of free will (us) also do good. Thus, for God, goodness and happiness are linked. And to the extent we are made in God's image it is true for us as well.

What do you think?

I'm still working this out and would welcome your sage input.

For now, as a Christian, I define a good life as one that is in concert with what Jesus taught. I see "the good life" as putting into action the collective wisdom found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. I see "the happy life" as having a relationship with Jesus and the sense of satisfaction and serenity that comes from doing the good God desires and knowing the grace of forgiveness when I fall short of doing the good God desires.



Blogger Kari said...

Depends on the definitions of both "good" and "happy," I guess. I've pondered on that some in the past; I'll try to organize my thoughts and respond more throroughly.

For now, though, your post reminded me of the Robert Samuelson book, "The Good Life and its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement." The central question, as puts it: "Why is it that Americans, who by most objective standards have never had it so good, (longer lives, easier jobs, more money, more personal fulfillment, less discrimination) think the nation is going to hell in a handbasket?"

9:32 AM  

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