While on a silent meditation retreat in October, I spent some (non-sitting) time pondering what a “great life” consists of, if broken down to its most essential qualities. Obviously, different people have different values and therefore different aspirations for their lives. But I wanted to distill this down to the basics. I wanted to try to determine what the core components of such a life would be, such that a life without any one of them could not constitute what most would consider a “great” life. This was not simply an intellectual exercise; I wanted to essentially figure out what matters most and see if I could more closely align my own life accordingly.
First, a Definition
In his Questions of Value course, philosophy professor Patrick Grim has a lecture entitled “Lives to Envy, Lives to Admire”. He distinguishes between these two categories, explaining that some people’s lives are “enviable” from the outside for (what we imagine to be) the subjective experience of living them, while others may live “admirable” lives, lives that we admire from afar but wouldn’t necessarily wish to experience for ourselves due to their inherent hardship or high degree of unpleasantness.
By way of example, he cites Benjamin Franklin as a candidate for a life to envy: a life filled with accomplishments across a wide spectrum of fields, a well-rounded and likely enjoyable life filled with great impact and, we imagine, satisfaction. And he offers up Abraham Lincoln’s life as an example of one to admire: his also marked by great achievement, but with a seemingly far greater deal of personal struggles and suffering.
Of course, these two categories of hypothetical lives need not be mutually exclusive; a life can be both enviable and admirable. In fact he concludes, drawing upon the works of Plato and Aristotle, that a genuinely good life must have elements of both “the enviable” and “the admirable”. The question that arises in his lecture becomes one of establishing what constitutes a perfect balance between the two, so as to maximize the “goodness” of a life lived.
For the purposes of this modest blog post, I will define a “great life” as simply one that would be both desirable and admirable, a life most of us would quite willingly choose to live for its intrinsic satisfaction and positive effects. (I prefer the word “desirable” rather than “enviable”, as the latter word connotes the inducement of jealousy whereas the former focuses just on being appealing). Most of us wish to both enjoy our lives and feel they have been useful in contributing something of genuine value to others.
A Working Model
What I submit to you here is my working model of “Four Aspects of a Great Life”. By my own definition and estimation, a life missing any one of these key components would be incomplete. And, if I did my work properly, I would not have left out anything essential.
I am not suggesting that what I am offering up here is “capital-T Truth”. It is a working model, and is meant to provide food for thought and reflection. Perhaps it will be a catalyst for ongoing conversation, hopefully one leading to greater discernment rather than vicious arguments. 😉 I welcome any and all constructive feedback so that this model might be improved upon.
That said, here is what I came up with while strolling silently on the walking path at the Southern California Vipassana Center.
Four Aspects of a Great Life
Aspect #1: Health.
Feeling good and being well much more often than not is an essential part of a great life (think of the “desirable” part of the above definition). Without reasonable – if not good or excellent – health, the other aspects are rendered practically irrelevant. Obviously, one’s health is not a static condition, and for many or most of us it can become increasingly compromised as we age, so I am referring to the overall health and vitality experienced during one’s lifetime.
Of course, there are (overlapping) sub-categories to health, all of which are essential to one’s overall well-being. We’re talking about a functioning, physically healthy body with which one can experience enjoyment and accomplish things in the physical world. A healthy mind so that we can thoughtfully contemplate things (such as what’s involved in living a great life!), problem solve, make good decisions, and use our creativity. Emotional health, so that we can both honor our feelings and not be overwhelmed to the point of debilitation or self-sabotage by them (aka emotional self-regulation). And, finally, spiritual health, which I’ll broadly define as a sense of connection to something(s) outside of oneself, such as other beings, the natural world, a cause affecting other’s lives as well as one’s own, and a respect for the mystery of existence – in whatever shape or form that may take, religious or otherwise.
Since health is so essential to thriving, we must do that which we can to achieve, maintain, and/or improve it. We don’t have complete control over it (as if that weren’t obvious), and part of being healthy resides in acceptance of this fact. But a significant part of honoring our health is being proactive about it, and claiming agency when/where we have it, as best we can determine.
Aspect #2: Relationships.
We humans are social animals. No person flourishes without supportive relationships. In a practical sense, others provide us with love, care, companionship, nurturance, assistance, knowledge, other perspectives, and a host of other things. They give our lives meaning and, often, purpose. They allow us to cultivate qualities like empathy and compassion. Who are the people we are doing the things we do for? Is it really just ourselves? If it is, I would argue that this does not make for a great life, as self-interest (while, of course, necessary) is not in and of itself particularly “admirable”. And think about this: how satisfying is even a great personal achievement without someone with whom to share, at the very least, news of it?
Be it friends, life partners/spouses, co-workers, neighbors, family members, “adopted” family members, pets, even strangers – relationships with others are how we forge our way in the world and shape our identities. They give our lives definition; we only are the things we are – a friend, co-worker, family member, or anything else – in relation to others. Think about any role you might play, and ask yourself if you would still be that thing were it not for others who are either also that thing, are not that thing, or perhaps are on the receiving end of that thing (every musician needs a listener, every teacher a student, business owner a customer or client, teammate another teammate, etc.).
Seeing as how relationships are so fundamental, in terms of both our survival and our prospering, it is perhaps worth paying attention to the people and creatures that currently populate our lives and doing what we can to improve these connections. Relationships are not all “sunshine and roses”, of course – they can at times be challenging or even cause great suffering. In some cases, improving our relationship lives might mean withdrawing from or dropping certain connections altogether. It might mean solidifying some, working to improve others that we have neglected but are worth tending, seeking out new ones, or simply making a point of appreciating and nurturing the good ones we are currently fortunate enough to have.
Positive relationships (for our purposes, let’s define these as mutually supportive ones) are essential to our overall health, and so Aspect #2 dovetails nicely with Aspect #1. The two aspects also have some commonalities: they are both always in flux, and we do not have complete control over the state of either of them (others have to agree to be in relationship with us), but we can at least assume responsibility for our end of things.
I might also point out that our relationships with ourselves can be insidiously easy to overlook, and paying attention to our health is one key way to develop, or improve, this one. Along these same lines, it might also behoove us to cultivate our relationship with a higher power, however we understand that, or more generally with Life itself.
Aspect #3: Contribution.
A third key component to a great life, by my estimation, is some form(s) of contribution, of leaving the world a better place for your having been around. Contribution entails doing what you can to improve others’ lives (and is therefore inextricably tied to Aspect #2). Contributions great and small provide not only something of value to the recipients (the “admirable” piece), but also to the contributor (the “desirable” piece). To contribute is to feel that you are putting your life to some worthwhile use. The more you are employing your skills, talents, and abilities (whatever they may be) to the benefit of others, especially in the service of your own deeply held values, the better it feels. To make a positive difference is perhaps the most gratifying thing a person can experience. Therefore, a “great” life would be incomplete without this component.
Okay, so what if you lived a life where you had excellent health, were blessed with supportive relationships, and were both able and willing to genuinely contribute to improving the lives of others? Would this constitute a great life? It’d be pretty good, for sure. But in my view there would still be one key thing missing:
Aspect #4: Appreciation.
I first considered calling this category “enjoyment”, because if you haven’t enjoyed your life, how can it have been a great one? (It might be admirable, but not desirable.) Pleasure/fun/enjoyment seem necessary to any reasonable definition of a great life. Without these things, what’s the point?
But upon deeper reflection it seems to me that whereas enjoyment is fairly reflexive, appreciating things is actually a skill of sorts: something that can be deepened, cultivated, developed. The ability to enjoy things, to appreciate them, is more important even than the actual object(s) of enjoyment. After all, you can be granted every privilege or luxury available on earth and not necessarily enjoy them.
Speaking for myself, I find my ability to get a genuine kick out of things to be one of my saving graces. Imagine being blasé about anything and everything. What good are delicious foods, incredible art, exotic travels, natural beauty, and experience itself without the ability to appreciate them?
Appreciation, while it includes enjoyment, goes deeper. It incorporates things like wonder, awe, curiosity, and respect, and perhaps even some level of understanding (appreciating what went into the making or preparation of something, for example).
Most importantly, the word “appreciation” also means gratitude. If we simply take all of the blessings of our lives for granted, then we are missing something fundamental to a life well-lived. Gratitude is a felt acknowledgment. Within that acknowledgment is at least some understanding of the ways in which we are or have been fortunate and privileged, where we might just as easily have not been. It is a felt sense that our lives have been a gift, something to be treasured. If we don’t treasure our own life, in its complete mix and mess of things, then how can it be considered “great”?
So, there you have it – a great life (defined as one that is both desirable and admirable) must include a (preferably high) degree of health, positive/supportive/loving relationships, contribution to others, and appreciation (both in the “enjoyment” and “gratitude” senses of the word). A life without one or more of these components still might be desirable or admirable, but I believe all four elements are needed for it to be both.
Have I Missed Something?
These were the four aspects I came up with while away on retreat.
I now realize I might have included a fifth, seemingly unlikely, aspect. And that would be: (a certain degree of) hardship. How to quantify the amount? Just enough to appreciate having good health, good relationships, and the effort involved in making a real contribution. After all, if all of this came easily, would it really mean anything?
However, I think the above insight is actually already included within Aspect #4. A certain amount of difficulty and hardship is probably necessary in order to experience true appreciation. We have to know what illness is like to fully appreciate good health; what loneliness, rejection, and not being treated well are like to fully appreciate supportive relationships; and what sacrifice is like to fully appreciate the value of contribution.
So, I stand by my original four aspects. 😄
I have looked for potential holes in this model. One is this: that which is considered desirable or admirable might be seen as a subjective thing. Perhaps not everyone agrees on what things or qualities fall into these categories.
But the purpose of having a model like this, of course, is to reflect on how one might live an even better (i.e., both more desirable and more admirable) life. On the cusp of a brand new calendar year, and decade, it seems fitting to consider this question. And if this model is helpful in that regard (if only for getting you to consider in what ways it is flawed, and then modify it and act accordingly in your own life), then it has served its purpose!
Speaking for myself, I will look at these four aspects and ask myself in what ways I can be intentional about cultivating and improving my own health, relationships, contributions, and appreciation moving forward.
If you feel I have missed something important, or would suggest an improvement to this model, please let me know in the comments below.
Here’s wishing you a both desirable and admirable life in 2020 and beyond!