Monday, January 14, 2008

Why the good life question?

I sometimes use the "What is the good life?" as the focal point of a whole course. "What's so important about the good life question?", I hear you ask. After all, it's not a question you hear discussed on TV everyday, or in the pub, or - anywhere at all, actually. So here are my three good reasons to give the pub or TV a miss for once and think about this question

1. It can give you a direction is life. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested,

"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable”.
Once you formulate your answer to the question, you will be better able to resist the winds of chance and peer pressure face dragging you off course.

2. It's the big question
Once you know what the good life is, other questions - such as "should I be in a relationship?" , "should I work more or enjoy myself more?" and "Should I have children" fall into place. As management guru Stephen Covey said,
"Many people climb the ladder of success only to find the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall."


3. You can improve your answer
In week 1 on my course I ask people to come up with a provisional answer to the question "What is the good life". Over 10 weeks, they then learn both philosophical methods and ideas of philosophers about the good life and refine their definition. The improvement in definitions is often startling.

I hope that's reason enough to think about the good life question. What would your answer be?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

New Year's Rules for Happiness

Regular readers may recall that in general I am not in favour of New Years Resolutions
(See last year's article New Years Resolutions? You must be nuts ...)
However, today's Times features a really interesting piece by none other than the Chief Rabbi,
Jonathan Sacks, entitled Count your blessings and begin to change your life
The apparent contradiction is resolved because Sacks isnt so much recommending unrealistic
resolutions as pretty
wise-looking rules for living well. You can read Sacks's whole article online, but here's a list of his 10 recommendations.(the bits in brackets are my gloss on what he says)

1. Give thank (be grateful, count your blessings)
2. Praise (other people)
3. Spend time with your family. (quality time)
4. Discover meaning. (purposes and main goals)
5. Live your values. (by developing habits, using rituals)
6. Forgive. (good for those who have upset you , better still for you)
7. Keep learning. (not just for the young)
8. Learn to listen. (really listen)
9. Create moments of silence in the soul. (if only for five minutes, prayer and meditation are two possible sources)
10. Transform suffering. (don't let yourself be a victim, look for what you can now do you wouldnt have done before

I can't say how many of these ideas are inspired by Sacks's religion.
Sacks attempts to make the connection with religion in the final paragraph of his article, where he says that "the great religions are our richest treasuries of wisdom when it comes to the question of how best to live a life." I can say that many of them are endorsed by recent positive psychology research on happiness. It looks like a good list of wise rules for living to me. I wouldn't argue with any of them, but here are 5 more wise rules for living I would add.
11. Socialise, and make friends a priority (a few good friends may be better than many not so good friends)
12. Find and enjoy meaningful work (a portfolio career may be the answer for some)
13. Look after your body - diet with regards to health as well as weight and exercise in whatever way you enjoy.
14. Use your strengths and manage your weaknesses (positive psychology tends to emphasize the first bit more)
15. Be aware of negative emotions rather than avoid them, and either use CBT-type techniques to reduce them or discover the existential messages in them and take appropriate action.

I'd be interested if other readers would like to suggest other wise rules for a happy and meaningful life, or comment on the link between religion and wisdom suggested by the Chief Rabbi.