Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful


I read with great interest a new article “Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful.” It describes recent psychological research whose basic thesis is that a good life isn’t necessarily a happy or meaningful life but is best understood as a psychologically rich life. (PRL) They define happy and meaningful lives as follows:

According to Aristotlean theory, the first kind of life would be classified as “hedonic”—one based on pleasure, comfort, stability, and strong social relationships. The second is “eudaimonic,” primarily concerned with the sense of purpose and fulfillment one gets by contributing to the greater good.

While I appreciate the author’s attempt to approach the question of meaning from a
scientific perspective, especially one that focuses on psychology, I don’t believe the authors have a good understanding of  “Aristotle on the Good Life.”

First, Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia is typically translated as “a good life” or
“well-being” or “living well. Thus he has described a good life, not a meaningful one.
Although he might have believed the two were coextensive, he never discussed this as far as I know.

Second, the authors state the PRL life is one of “interesting experiences in which novelty and/or complexity are accompanied by profound changes in perspective.” But Aristotle
included aesthetic experience, acquiring skill, displaying honor, and manifesting courage among the elements of a good life. All of these are examples of how the good life involves activities he thought were self-transformative or self-actualizing. In fact, his whole ethics is one of self-actualization.

Third, Aristotle does not explicitly focus on purpose or the greater good as far as I know. (I am relying on my memory of an in-depth study of Aristotle’s ethics over the years; if I’m mistaken perhaps a reader can let me know so I can correct my mistake.) He certainly thinks we will be fulfilled by living a good life but we do so when we actualize our potential. Consider, for example, Aristotle’s claim that contemplation is the highest good for human beings. That is a straightforward endorsement of psychological richness.

However, I am more sympathetic to some of their other claims such as their emphasis on how people open to experiences, who are politically liberal and embrace change are more likely to lead PRL. I’m also sympathetic to their suggestion that PRL may be led even if our lives are challenging. As I wrote years ago:

… a meaningful life isn’t necessarily devoid of all obstacles for many meaningful projects—developing our talents, educating our minds, raising our children—involve difficulty and disappointment. I’m not implying that suffering is good or desirable simply that it often accompanies our attempt to live meaningfully.

For example, I found great meaning in earning a Ph.D. It was one of the hardest things I ever did and yet doing so was so psychologically rich.

And I like to imagine a world where we could all lead PRL. 
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3 thoughts on “Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful

  1. Aristotle said that contemplation is the highest good for human beings—however, moderns would say otherwise. Some might praise Aristotle albeit secretly peg him for an ancient contemplative navel-gazer despite his wide-ranging knowledge. “All very well and good,”
    they might think, “but what’s it to do with us today?”
    Because there is some snobbishness involved in rejecting modernity—Aristotle was a brilliant man, yet his was a nasty short brutish world of slavery and serfdom. Personally, I agree with Aristotle regarding contemplation; but, really: doesn’t it make me out of step and time in the 21st century? Doesn’t it always return back to nature v nurture? To change or not to change?
    To contemplate, or, as we are now doing, to change the world drastically? Aristotle was interested in science, but would he approve of Modern science? Or would he think that we today are overdoing it? Killing a mosquito with a sledgehammer?
    ———
    At any rate, as long as we are killer apes, we will never find happiness. And, though a layman, increasingly I think Mars will have to be colonized someday. Can’t back that up: but am convinced of it. Will just have to contemplate it.

  2. I agree with what you wrote, such as : ” Thus he has described a good life, not a meaningful one.”.

    Quite frankly, I find most psychologists and even psychiatrists to be rather intellectually weak. They have these neat little theories that seem to be constructed to accommodate their views.

    I remember reading a book by Irvin Yalom, purportedly about Schopenhauer. It was probably one of the most trivial and useless books I have ever read. These people also seem to speak only to simpletons and generally to people who never learned anything. Simplistic theories like CBT and the like. I don’t think things are so simple. The author of the article you mention, should stick to what he does best, and leave Aristotle to the philosophers. Besides, other philosophers have written about “happiness” more extensively than Aristotle did, so the author should have a good look at these before venturing on teaching others about the subject. Thanks for your article.

  3. One could plausibly say that happiness is about the pursuit of happiness, not the attainment.

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