Character, Effectiveness, Fulfillment
I reflect quite often on what it means to live a “good life”. I suspect it predates my philosophy degree but I don’t trust my memory on such things. After years of doing this, I’ve decided there is no one way to view living. At best, my thoughts are a set of lenses and perspectives to think about. A way of turning life this way and that, to see it differently, to catch the light in other ways. No one view is the best way to see it, because life is bigger than that. Like many such notions, it won’t fit cleanly into any one conceptual frame. This time, I’m going to talk about the good life through the lenses of character, effectiveness and fulfillment.
Who you are matters. Part of living a good life is being a good person. While malevolent people might have good outcomes (the universe isn’t precisely fair about it), they tend to be more unhappy. As far back as the ancient greeks, the moral system focused on the cultivation of virtue. There are a number of such virtues that can be enumerated, but since this isn’t a thorough treatise on virtue theory in western civilization, I’m only going to mention a few.
Integrity - to be honest in your dealings with others and to follow-through on what you say. To speak truthfully and without deception. This doesn’t mean brutal honesty, or disregard for the feelings of others. You can be honest without being an ass. It does mean that your word should mean something, so make it matter.
Fairness - or as the greeks referred to it, justice. To not be purely self-centered, to not be biased, to treat people well and as worthwhile individuals. I’m in favor equality of opportunity but I know that the systems in play are not ideal. Whatever the circumstances, everyone should be afforded dignity on account of our shared humanity and the spark of transcendence that makes us human. Don’t take more than your work and contribution entitles you to (and that amount is probably less than you think). Share what you can but don’t be taken advantage of.
Courage - the willingness to confront our trials and do what is right in spite of our fears and the consequences that might result. Life is hard. It is unfair and unrelenting. We are all engaged in a losing battle against entropy. Even so, we must rise and stand and strive in spite of our fear and worry. Suffering is a fact of our finite and limited existence. We can walk upright into our uncertain future, or we can cower and be hauled there by the universe. The first strategy leads to growth, the second to misery.
We live in the world and by doing so we seek to change it. Hopefully for the better or at least to not make it worse. We don’t want to feel helpless or that our actions don’t matter. By cultivating the right combination of mindsets, we can do more and increase how effective we are in the world.
Curiosity - wanting to know how things work and fit together is required for both knowledge and creativity. These tools allow us to learn, grow and create, but it all starts with wonder. We have it as children, we must strive to not lose it along the way. Or to rediscover it if we have. Ask questions, find answers, reflect on them, then ask better questions.
Engagement - the ability to stay with something while enduring challenge as an opportunity to improve and get things done. In the short term we call it focus. Over the long term it is better called grit. On whatever time horizon, it means taking ownership, beginning a process and pursuing a goal. Staying with an aim, even when it fails. Especially when it fails.
Planning - time is all we really have so it’s best to organize and look ahead to see how best to spend it. We order ourselves and we order our actions in the world so that we can simplify the chaos and plot our path forward. Plans will change, but you must have them first. Take the time to look ahead and see where you’d like to be. Five years from now, or two, or six months. Work back from there, deconstruct what you need to do into smaller time horizons.
We’ve discussed our inner character and our actions in the world, here we discuss the interplay between the two. Executing on your plans, hopes and dreams can contribute to happiness as can being a virtuous person, but there are other aspects of life to consider. There will be things you can’t control and things you can. We can’t always be living in the future and forgetting the here and now.
Amor Fati - love of fate. There should be a word for this concept in English because it is powerful. Love your fate. Not just to endure or tolerate or accept it, but to love it. Be grateful for everything you have in life even if some (or most) of it is tragic. A step beyond gratitude is to love your fate. This love doesn’t mean we don’t attempt to change things, just that we minimize regret and understand that who we are is a function of where we’ve been. Practice gratitude, practice amor fati, for the good things and the bad.
Presence - to be where you are. Not just physically, but mentally. Here we get to important states like mindfulness and flow. Here we subdue the default mode network in our brain, set aside ego and focus only on what is immediate. Whether this is focusing on your breath during meditation or becoming so consumed with an activity that you lose all perception of time and self, the ability to be where you are without dwelling on the past or the future makes for a better day. With enough better days, you get a better life.
Connection - to help others and to be helped by them. Because we’re in this together and we need each other (perhaps more than any of us cares to admit). This isn’t social media or acquaintances at work. This is deep friendship, family and community. The places where you can be vulnerable and expect others to do the same in an environment of mutual support. Make the lives of those around you better and you will find your own life lifted as well.
As I said before, these are just a few incomplete reflections on how we might arrive at the good life. Incomplete because one does not get at living except by doing so. Even if there’s more to life than what I’ve listed here, these things matter. They interleave and interact in important ways. Character without effectiveness doesn’t accomplish much, while effectiveness without character accomplishes the wrong things. You can be effective and unfulfilled because you focused too much on your goals and plans and didn’t take the time to cultivate friendships or gratitude. It’s all an ongoing effort. A good life requires that we work on our character, effectiveness and fulfillment all along the way.