Four Approaches to the Life Well-Led
I see four approaches to living the life well-led: pursue happiness, serve God, serve society, and pursue balance. Here are pros and cons of each:
Pursue happiness. Obviously, choosing what makes you happy leads to an enjoyable life. It may make you better adjusted and energized and able to do more good things for those around you. And you can define happiness broadly. You might be “happy” eating, having sex, and watching Woody Allen movies, but that might not comprise a life optimally led. So you might include, for example, the contentment that comes from being productive, from doing good—whether as a good accounts payable clerk, cancer researcher, or school volunteer to provide badly needed enrichment for intellectually gifted kids.
The limitation of the pursue-happiness approach to the life well-led is that you’re less likely to do worthy but unpleasant tasks, for example, diving into icy waters to save a drowning person or be a Mother Teresa, willing to—to save lives--endure the stench of feces in the Calcutta streets and having her ankles constantly bitten by scorpions. Of course, there are more common examples: I know a top hand surgeon who, because he’s been doing that for three decades, would find it much more fun to play the clarinet a lot but recognizes that his time on earth would have made a bigger difference by choosing to spend evenings and weekends seeing patients than playing Benny Goodman tunes.
Serve God. Outside of the Bay Area, religion is big, often the prime guiding force behind people’s lives. And it’s easy to understand why. Most people need rules. Religion provides them. Most people need fear and reward to motivate them to follow rules. Religion provides them: heaven and hell. Most people need support in life’s tough times: The belief in a loving God provides that. And, net, people who follow religions’ rules do live a life that leads to more world good than those who don’t. In the absence of religion, many of these people would live less contributory lives.
A downside of religion is that it’s too black-and-white: there’s only one way. For example, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal.’ It doesn’t allow one even to consider stealing a drug from a rich pharmacist to save your spouse’s life. Sure, individuals can see what they want in religion: Some say the Bible condemns homosexuality. Others say the Bible endorses it. Some say that the Koran encourages peaceful behavior, others that it demands jihad against the infidels. But net, a God-centric approach to living the life well-led suffers from a narrow definition of acceptable behavior.
Another weakness of the “serve-God approach is that it urges passivity. For example, the New Testament stresses surrender to God, that the meek shall inherit the earth, and to trust God above reason.
Serve society. This is the utilitarian approach: Ongoing, you decide which activity is most likely to make the biggest difference to his or her sphere or influence, For example, a ditchdigger can decide whether, during a break, to have a cigarette or to teach a novice how to dig a ditch more easily. It would seem that the person who ongoing, makes decisions based on what’s best for the world, will have left the world better than the person whose guiding principle was pursuing happiness or serving God.
A downside of the serve-society approach to life is that it leads to a less pleasurable existence. This approach doesn’t give any brownie points to fun. Sure, adherents to the serve-society model may deviate from it and watch that Woody Allen movie but when life is done, such people go to the grave experiencing less pleasure than do others.
And for some people, focusing so much on doing good for others could lead to burnout, rendering them to be unable to do good for anyone. However, at least among the people I know, you’re unlikely to burn out even from a lifetime of long work weeks as long as you’re working on something of value, are good at what you do, and have a measure of control over your work tasks. I’ll be 64 in June, been working 60+ hours a week for my entire life, and feel as energized as ever.
Strive for balance. Many people believe their best shot at the ideal life is to work moderately and play moderately, serve yourself, serve God, serve society. Or as many of our parents say, “Moderation in all things.”
The downside of that is that it assumes that all those goals are of equal value. Can one say that a week on the beach is as valuable as a week mentoring Mensa kids?
Now it’s your turn. In light of the above (and anything else,) do you want to write a few words summarizing the approach you’d like to guide your life?
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