Updated: Mar 14
In these times of geopolitical uncertainty, it is always best to ponder how one can improve their own existence. This week on Social Musings by Austin, I recap a philosophy course I just completed.
What does it mean to live a good life?
I just spent seven weeks studying this question in a new philosophy mini-course from Wesleyan University titled “Living a Good Life,” which investigated both ancient Eastern and Western philosophy as well as the more recent field of positive psychology’s views on the topic.
I spent the vast majority of my life following the "typical" life path that had been set out for me by society - go to school, work hard, climb the corporate ladder, get married, buy a home, etc.
I thought that if I had money, career success and prestige, then I would be happy. I suspect many of us have this belief system ingrained in us from a very early age.
Yet still I was searching for meaning, and I felt incomplete and unfulfilled, which is why I made the decision to quit my finance career and join the Creator Economy where I can express myself authentically.
Many have yearned for a better life, and some might think that living a good life means experiencing maximum pleasure or happiness.
As a finance major in college I learned that economists may be inclined to believe that a hypothetical person who behaves in exact accordance with their rational self-interest (or in other words a preference maximizer, one who aims for the greatest economic reward for the self - a term coined homo economicus) leads the best life.
More recently I have turned to philosophy for answers.
Ancient philosophers believed that achieving hedonistic objectives in life simply isn’t enough. Achieving pleasure or attaining wealth may bring shorter-lived happiness; however, reaching our desires is really only a means to an end.
What is the ultimate end?
The “final end” is always the good life, one filled with purpose and meaning, ultimately leading to fulfillment, a transcendent human state which Aristotle termed eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia is more than happiness; it is a complete and self-sufficient activity of the human soul and can only be attained with deliberate intent and action.
Furthermore, it is only by exercising a virtuous life in practice that eudaimonia can be achieved.
What is a virtuous life?
Below is a visual representation of the list of human virtues:
Source: Wesleyan course on “Living a Good Life”
Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, calls living the good life “a certain sort of activity of the soul according to virtue,” and that “virtue is…twofold, of thought AND character.”
Training to lead a virtuous life and making this deliberate practice a habit (or ethos), is similar to training to be an Olympic athlete or a concert pianist, and truly finding pleasure in the practice of these virtues is key.
Source: Wesleyan course on “Living a Good Life”
It is through this spiritual cultivation that: “we become just people by doing just actions, temperate people by doing temperate actions and courageous people by doing courageous ones.” - Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Does one’s personal situation factor into living a good life?
Achieving eudaimonia requires the right goals, determination and possibly privilege.
To this point Aristotle believes that these virtuous or “noble” actions which lead to happiness require important resources such as “friends, wealth and political power.”
He continues by saying:
“Happiness does seem to need some prosperity to be added. This is what leads some to identify good luck with happiness and others to identify virtue with happiness.”
Aristotle also believed that your upbringing and circumstances have a significant influence on your ability to live a good life, a belief that also presents itself in third wave positive psychology, an academic thought process which is still evolving.
To learn more on third wave positive psychology please see the reference materials at the bottom of this article.
In fact, many of the new ideas in positive psychology accommodate the fact that many individuals do not come from the privilege of being a wealthy, American, middle-aged male; therefore, actionable theories for the modern world need to accommodate individuals from all contexts.
Taken all together, achieving fulfillment is not only an individualistic exercise but also requires civic engagement to create a society that fosters eudaimonia for ALL people.
It is clear that attending to sociopolitical concerns is vital when pursuing a good life.
At the end of the day, leading a just and virtuous life within the construct of a society which affords these privileges appears to be the ideal.
I am grateful to the four teachers of this course, as many of the ideas I review in this article are theirs. The professors are Dr. Stephen Horst, Dr. Stephen Angle, Dr. Jennifer D’Andrea and Dr. Tushar Irani.
In case you missed it, this month on the Social Musings by Austin podcast I re-enact my popular story of My First Day on Wall Street.
My First Day on Wall Street chronicles the treacherous interview process required to obtain a prestigious investment banking internship and then follows me on my first day of work when I receive an impossible assignment which must be finished over a weekend by Monday morning.
It is only after experiencing a nervous breakdown that I somehow manage to complete my task and end up having a successful career on Wall Street.
You can find this compelling story of resilience on Apple Podcasts here.
At Social Musings by Austin I want to entertain, inspire and help you achieve fulfillment in your life, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on living a good life in the comments below.
Let me know how you plan to put some of the aforementioned beliefs on living a good life into practice in your day to day. I hope they have great results for you.
Until next time Social Musers!
Regarding third wave positive psychology, we read the following academic paper in the course:
"Third wave positive psychology: broadening towards complexity by Lomas et al (2020)"
And I provide the abstract of the paper here:
The development of academic fields is often described through the metaphor of ‘waves.’ Following the instantiation of positive psychology (the first wave), scholarship emerged looking critically at the notions of positive and negative, becoming known as its second wave. More recently, we discern an equally significant evolution, namely scholarship that in various ways goes beyond the individual and embraces greater complexity. This includes going beyond the individual person as the primary focus of enquiry to look more deeply at the groups and systems in which people are embedded. It also involves becoming more interdisciplinary and multicultural, and embracing a wider range of methodologies. We submit that these interrelated ripples constitute a form of epistemological ‘broadening’ that merit the label of an incoming ‘third wave.’ This paper identifies the key dynamics of this wave, allowing appreciation not only of the field’s leading edge, but also its developmental potential into the future.