Happiness and the Good Life

Happiness and a good life require the ethic of creativism: truth, love and creative action. Humility, acceptance of suffering, and commitment to virtue are also needed.

Letting go the self

There is a Tibetan saying that “Humility is like a vessel placed at ground level, ready to receive the rain of qualities.” If we are serious in our search for meaning, we will take this to heart. Religions around the world have taught us different types of humility, or surrender of self, which can serve us well. One of these, of primary importance, is listening. Listening means initially silence and respect for other people’s points of view; and as we know from modern communication theory, there are numerous techniques we can employ when we practise the humble art of listening. Buddhism has taught us the related art of mindfulness, which is the discipline of bringing our full attention, intellect, emotion and values to the matter in hand, without being judgemental. In so many ways, as Mahatma Gandhi said, we find ourselves by losing ourselves.

Choosing the way of goodness

How we live is a fundamental choice that requires some self-awareness. Our default position is that we want to live well, but this can mean various things. Wellbeing or happiness exists only in relation to a predetermined standard, which derives from our overall view of life. There are various possibilities, for example a life of pleasure, virtue, intensity, minimal suffering or just going with the flow. Promoting happiness has become a modern industry which is somewhat misguided, for it neglects certain fundamentals. We have a natural bent for pursuing happiness through self-improvement and realising our potential; but at some point this requires that we embrace virtue, for without virtue it is inconceivable that we could become what psychologist Carl Rogers called a “fully functioning person.” So we come to the link between virtue and happiness which the ancient Greek philosophers understood when they spoke of “eudaimonia” or “human flourishing.” When we choose the way of goodness we align ourselves with the ongoing creativity of the Universe as a whole. Being good is not easy and does not remove pain from our lives, but it injects a deeper happiness which helps anaesthetise that pain. Having made this choice, we then need to hold to it with discipline and integrity, for as Christian writer Parker Palmer observes, trouble enters when our life becomes divided.

Finding our own truth and living by it

The life of goodness begins with finding truth – our own truth – and living by it. Truth in a personal sense encompasses many virtues: honesty, diligence, modesty, fairness and so on. It is not something that exists in isolation from us, for we ourselves embody truth and constantly, every minute of every day, create new truth. In somewhat of a contradiction, it is an absolute but its establishment may require the subtle arts of deliberation and compromise; and while most often it means a head-on engagement with life and people, there are times when withdrawal, even mystic contemplation, may be the better route. Frustratingly, our view of truth can be deceptive, according to the path we take to find it. We have to recognise too that the pursuit of truth sometimes requires great courage and perseverance: as the poet-philosopher Mark Nepo observes, not battlefield or burning building courage but the determined day by day effort to simply live better.

Finding love, making love

As relational beings, we inevitably find goodness in life through our relationships, whether with people or animals or other forms of life. The way of love means endless giving; in the memorable words of theologian John Shelby Spong, “loving wastefully.” As with truth, love defined broadly can mean many things: kindness, compassion, respect and so on. Sometimes our efforts in the name of love may lead us into error, and invariably it seems we lose part of our self, but we gain as well. Love is relentlessly active not passive; so for example, we do not simply live in peace; we actively seek, where we can, to make peace. Love is a very rich concept with many inspiring and instructive variations around the world: the African concept of “ubuntu” (kindness) for example, and the “ahimsa” (refusal to harm) practised by the Indian religions. Finally, when love and truth combine, creative action inevitably follows, and the ultimate goodness which is God becomes manifest. This is the essence of the ethic of creativism.

When things go wrong

Life can all too easily overwhelm us, but much of the pain we feel comes from within. We cannot totally avoid evil and suffering but we can minimise their impact and use them to good advantage. The Buddhist prescription of non-attachment is a wise approach, for non-attachment is a counter to desire which is a distortion of truth. Evil and suffering are so all-pervasive that we need a suite of responses: not only non-attachment but also acceptance, appreciation and commitment. Acceptance is best learned from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus – accepting the things that are beyond our control and concerning ourselves only over things that are within our control. Appreciation is the habit of a resolutely positive outlook: constantly on the watch for the good things in life and the good things in bad situations. Thus, to invoke the yin-yang principle, a bad situation is an opportunity for good, and that good will assuredly come, though how or when we may be unable to see. Commitment, the third response to suffering, is the determination to seek positive change. This commitment does not remove pain but it justifies it: Jesus on the cross is just one of a myriad of examples. We can also learn from the Hindu and Buddhist realisation that all suffering is connected and that alleviation of one person’s misery is a blessing for all.

And now, for a poet’s perspective, read A Leaf in Full Flood

Our natural rebelliousness comes to the fore when we are told that being good is the best way to live. We’re prepared to follow the rules in the main, but we feel a need to break out every so often and be naughty. This is simply a reflection of our human nature which is invariably divided. What can we do?

Firstly, we need to remember that whenever we slide, we are doing ourselves a disservice, for while being good all the time is not necessarily fun, it is ultimately the most deeply satisfying way to live. We have no choice but to accept that we are imperfect and that our weaknesses have bad consequences, but we can at least appreciate the good things that happen and re-commit to doing better. Endlessly, this is what life is all about.

Suggested further reading

Mackay, Hugh. 2013. The Good Life. Sydney: Pan Macmillan.

O’Toole, James. 2005. How to Live the Good Life: How to Apply the Wisdom of Aristotle to the Pursuit of Happiness in Midlife and Beyond. London: Rodale International.

Palmer, Parker J. 2004. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, Carl. 1961. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. London: Constable.

Sprinkel, Olivia. 2010. "The Creativist Manifesto: Consumer or Creativist?" Change This. http://changethis.com/manifesto/show/66.03.CreativistManifesto

White, Nicholas P. trans. 1983. Handbook of Epictetus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.