What Is the Good Life?
In the Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancé, Inez. Gil, who is struggling to complete his first novel, falls in love with the city, and fantasizes about moving there, a prospect Inez, who can hardly wait to get back to Southern California, considers just silly romantic nonsense.
Although Inez’s dismissal of Gil’s dream is a symptom of deeper problems in their relationship, she has a point. Because it’s not even contemporary Paris that Gil adores — not the Paris of the 21st century — rather, he has fallen in love with a dream: Paris of the 1920s, the Paris of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and the whole Lost Generation of Americans who made the City of Lights their home after World War I.
In fact, so powerfully does Gil long for this time that one night, to his surprise and consternation, he is magically transported back to that world: he is picked up at midnight by Scott and Zelda and taken in a limousine to a party, where he meets such luminaries as Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and of course, Hemingway himself. At first, understandably, he can’t believe what is happening, but eventually, he comes to accept that it’s real, and is thrilled by his good fortune.
The next night, he invites Inez to accompany him, but she tires and goes home before the magical limousine appears. When it does, at midnight, Gil goes off alone into the past, and Hemingway takes him to the salon of Gertrude Stein, who to Gil’s delight, agrees to read and critique his novel. He meets Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, and most significantly, makes the acquaintance of a beautiful young woman, Adriana, Picasso’s muse and lover. We come to know that her relationship with the famous artist is tumultuous and certain to end badly, soon. But for Gil, it is love at first sight; he can’t get her out of his mind, even when he returns, in the morning, to his contemporary life.
Gil makes up excuses to Inez so he can keep going back to the past. And what transpires is that he comes to see his life there, back in the 1920s, as his “real” life. So desperately has he wanted to live a life that wasn’t his own, a life that he has glamorized as more beautiful, more poetic, more meaningful than the one he has made for himself, that, soon, he has fully embraced that world, so much so that he wants to stay there always.
He begins an affair with Adriana, who, as predicted, has been dumped by Picasso. They share their hopes and dreams, Gil revealing his belief that Paris of the 1920s is the perfect world, the time and place where art, culture, and society reached their apex. Adriana, by contrast, contends that it was Paris of La Belle Epoque, the time of Impressionism and Art Nouveau, when the city was at its apogee.
And indeed, so fervent is her desire for that lost time, that one night, as she and Gil stroll along, a horse-drawn carriage appears and transports them back to a café in Montmartre, circa 1870, where they meet the famous painters Claude Monet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Unfortunately for Gil, Adriana decides to remain back in her idealized Paris; she bids Gil adieu and he returns to the present, once and for all.
Although he is saddened by the break-up, he arrives at a new and profound understanding of himself and his life. He realizes that in his desire to escape the present and flee to an image of a world he believed to be better than his own, he was reaching for something ephemeral and ultimately, unreal. He was imagining himself to be someone he wasn’t, trying desperately to fit into a place that, in the end, he didn’t belong. In short, he was being inauthentic, or to put it another way, he was striving for a version of the good life that wasn’t really his own.
Back in the present, he decides to stay in Paris after all, break off his engagement with Inez (with whom he realizes he has little in common), and pursue his true passion of novel-writing, even if it turns out to be less profitable than being a Hollywood hack.
As the film ends, we see Gil striking up an acquaintance with an attractive woman he has met briefly in an antiquities shop during his time in contemporary Paris. We don’t know how their relationship will unfold — and neither does Gil — but we get a sense that whatever happens to our hero, it will spring from the true core of his character, and an authentic expression of who he really is.
Over the years, we’ve met many people who are in the same place as Gil was during his sojourn into the past. They seem like they’re not really living their real lives. They’re reaching for a vision of a lost world, one they’re trying to grasp by adopting a lifestyle that isn’t their own. It’s as if by embracing someone else’s conception of how life should be led, they’ll discover for themselves the life they want. But as a result, they never quite feel fully at home with themselves. They feel dull — and dulled. They feel trapped, insulated. They “go through the motions” of living, but there’s no life in their lives.
We hear their dissatisfaction expressed in a several different ways:
• “I’m so busy these days. I don’t know how to have fun any more.”
• Or, “I wish my life was different, like a character in a movie or on TV.”
• Or, “It’s just the same thing day after day. I never do anything that’s fun.”
That’s not quite true. Many of these people have lots of fun. They’ve got their garages filled with all kinds of fun stuff: golf clubs, jet skis, mountain bikes, you name it. In fact, for many of them, “fun” has become an addiction. But as with most addictive substances, people build up a tolerance to it. So despite all the “fun” people have, they’re still not happy.
What’s really missing is a sense of joy. People find that they no longer feel authentic joy in living, despite all the fun stuff they have or do. And this is the case whether they’re male or female, young or old, rich or poor, or at any stage of life.
What’s happened to people is that they’ve lost a delicate, but critical, component of aliveness and well-being: they’ve lost their uniqueness, their authenticity. It happens to many of us as we grow up and make our way in the world. We fit in. We see how other people survive and adopt their strategies to preserve our jobs, our incomes, and our relationships. Swept along by the myriad demands of day-to-day living, we stop making choices of our own. Or even realizing that we have choices to make.
We lose the wonderful weird edges that define us. We cover up the eccentricities that make us unique. Alfred Adler, the great 20th century psychologist and educator, considered these eccentricities a vital part of a happy and fulfilling lifestyle. Ironically, the very term he coined — “lifestyle” — has come to imply something almost entirely opposite to eccentricity. These days it suggests a pre-configured package formatted for easy consumption. “Lifestyle” now refers to things that we buy; someone else’s idea of what we need to be happy. But is anyone really satisfied with these mass-marketed ideas of happiness? Is anyone really nourished by a life that isn’t authentic?
Why Do We Feel So Bad?
Everywhere we look, we see people pursuing happiness, as if it’s something they could capture and cage. But pinning happiness down only destroys it. It’s too wild for that — it needs room to roam. You have to give it time, let it wander, let it surprise you. You have to discover what it means to you authentically, rather than trying to adopt a version of it from someone else.
Dave was reminded of this when, upon Richard’s recommendation, he went to see Midnight In Paris.
That was me, as a young man. I lived that experience, just like Gil. Right after my wife, Jennifer, and I were married, we sold everything we owned and moved to Paris, in hopes of finding something. But the search was doomed, because what I was looking for was something that didn’t come from within. Rather, it was an image of a life — or of a lifestyle, really — that I thought would make me happy. But I didn’t realize that as long as it was someone else’s image, that would never be so.
The lifestyle I lusted after was that of the Henry-Miller-meets-Jim-Morrison expatriate poet/writer, eking out a living on the fringes of society. I wanted an alternative lifestyle, but I didn’t want to have to invent my own alternatives.
When we got to Paris, I bought into the whole “tortured artist” scene. I dressed only in black, and even took up smoking cigarettes to complete the picture. I refused to do anything that might contrast with this image, even things that might possibly have been fun. So, for instance, in no way would I consider visiting the Eiffel Tower. That was only for tourists, for the bourgeoisie, for simple-minded Americans (I pretended I wasn’t one) looking for enjoyment. I did my best to sustain this attitude in spite of the dreary time I was having in one of the greatest cities in the world. In fact, I might have been fairly miserable the entire time that Jen and I lived over there, were it not for one moment when my dark veneer of self-importance sustained a major — and truly enlightening — crack.
I was sitting in a café, nursing a glass of Bordeaux, affecting a pose of resigned world-weariness. I observed the passersby outside on the street going through the pointless motions of human life, and my heart was filled with deep existential despair. A small dog appeared, and while I watched, deposited a large turd on the sidewalk just in front of the cafe entrance. It seemed to me to be the perfect metaphor for the filth and degradation of everyday existence.
I ordered another glass of wine and resolved to sit and watch until someone stepped into the mess, feeling that this would sum up perfectly how we move through our days — blithely wandering along until, all of a sudden, and for no reason at all, we are soiled with foul and noxious excrement.
The show turned out to be quite amusing — and exciting as hell. Person after person would almost step into it, but at the last second, either notice and move aside or luckily, just miss it. It was like watching a daredevil high wire act at the circus. I started to have a great time. I was smiling, laughing out loud. I even stopped smoking.
The patron of the cafe, who had always seemed to me to be this forbidding character, came over to me, lured by my good humor. We got into a great conversation about philosophy and American baseball. He introduced me to his wife, who, after remarking that I was too thin, went away and returned with a bowl of the most delicious potato stew I have ever tasted. The patron broke out a special bottle of wine that we shared with great conviviality. I talked to more people that evening than I had in the entire five previous months, and somewhere along the line, forgot all about my artistic angst.
I ended up closing down the cafe, and after bidding a fond adieu to my new friends, stepped merrily out the door … and right into the pile of dog-doo. The joke was on me — literally.
That was the loudest I laughed all night. In that moment I came to the full realization that I didn’t have to be someone I thought I should be; instead, I could allow myself to be the person I really was. The goal wasn’t to adopt an image drawn from my impression of someone else; rather, it was to let my own authentic self emerge from real-life experiences. For the first time since I had arrived in Paris, I finally felt like myself. And from that day on, for the rest of our time there, I resolved to live my own life, not someone else’s.
A Simple Formula for What’s Not So Simple
To put it simply, the formula for the good life is:
Living in the place you belong,
with the people you love,
doing the right work,
What does this mean? Above all, it means, as mentioned above, an integration. A sense of harmony among the various components in one’s life. It means that, for example, the place where you live provides adequate opportunities for you to do the kind of work you want to do. That your work gives you time to be with the people you really love. And that your deepest friendships contribute to the sense of community you feel in the place where you live and work.
The thread that holds the good life together is purpose. Defining your sense of purpose — your thread — enables you to continually travel in the direction of your vision of the good life. It helps you keep focusing on where you want to go and discovering new roads to get there.
In seminars and workshops Richard often uses a poem by the poet William Stafford to illustrate this idea. The poem, called “The Way It Is,” introduces the notion of a thread that we follow, that goes among things that change in our lives but that doesn’t itself change. We will meet challenges, joys, and tragedies along the way, but the thread runs through it all — and we never let go of that thread.
We understand the good life, therefore, as a journey, held together by a common thread. It’s not something we achieve once and hold onto forever. It keeps changing throughout our lives. The balance among place, love, and work is always shifting. At some stages, we’ll be especially focused on work issues. At others we’ll be more concerned with developing a sense of place, putting down roots, creating a home for ourselves. And most of us know what it’s like to have love as our number one concern — maybe all too well.
When we’re clear about our purpose, though, it’s easier to establish and maintain the necessary sense of balance. Purpose is what keeps us from getting too far sidetracked by issues related to place, love, or work. It provides perspective and a thread to galvanize our choices. And something to reach for as we start letting go.
It’s a difficult truth — the good life requires personal courage. No one else can define it for you. The blessing of this is that there’s never anyone stopping you from making the effort. The curse is that there’s no one stopping you but yourself.
It takes some serious unpacking — letting go — to move forward on the trip.
To unpack is to awaken; to see something different; to ask new questions. It is an expression of an urge to create, to live whole.
Time and time again, the world’s greatest artists, musicians, sculptors, inventors, scientists, explorers, writers and so forth have testified to the “unpacking” dimension of this creative process. “Regular folks” have, too.
The late Linda Jadwin, a former corporate executive with a major technology firm in the Midwest, said:
When I was a young girl I learned how to swim in a swamp. I was drawn to the mysterious odors and strange textures of its murky depths. I can still remember how it felt to paddle through the cool water while slippery, slimy fish eggs slid around my back and tall grass gashed my arms and legs. There was life and death there in that swamp — birth and decay. The red-winged blackbirds perched on the cattails watched me with apparent disdain. Dragonflies dived and buzzed at my head. Tadpoles and minnows tickled me as they swam about. The mud and goo that oozed between my toes was like heaven itself. I loved it there, immersed in the juice and slime of it, stinking to high heaven. That was the good life to me.
At 50, Linda still felt the need to swim in that swamp.
I’ve proven I can function well in the world. Now it’s time to return to the swamp. I want more experiences like that, that make my hair stand on end.
From 50, I can see time better — past and future — and can get in touch with the small speck I am and feel both the importance and unimportance of my life.
I don’t know who I want to “be” next. I feel like I’m on a path. I made a big shift last year. I thought through what I’d do if I got downsized or fired. I asked every possible question of myself and others. It freed me up and gave me a sense of peace. I feel I can accept anything that comes along now — meet it and even greet it.
When I turned 50, I had no idea I’d get so much pleasure out of my own imagination — my own private world. That’s been the greatest joy of my life. I always thought the good life was attached to achievements or adventure. But now I realize that the good life is being in the swamp, feeling everything deeply.
Great breakthroughs result from a single moment in which a person lets go of their usual assumptions and looks at things from a new point of view.
Creating the good life is a similar process. Life can never be adequately discussed or conceptualized, but only created — by living in our own questions, by continually unpacking and repacking our bags.
D. T. Suzuki, an author of books and essays on Zen Buddhism, said, “I’m an artist at living, and my work of art is my life.”
People who are “artists at living” are bold enough to question the status quo — to accept that someone else’s truth could be a lie for them. They are also willing to recognize when their own truths have become a dead end, in which case they demonstrate the courage to let go. They accept what they can from an experience and move on.
People do not always make breakthroughs because they refused to quit. Sometimes they make them because they know when to quit. When they realize that enough is enough, that old patterns aren’t serving them, that it’s time to repack their bags.
The Biggest of the Big Questions
We have defined the good life as “Living in the place I belong, with the people I love, doing the right work, on purpose.” As we see it, place, relationships, work, and purpose are the cornerstones of a well-lived life. Although we have tried to present this as clearly and creatively as possible, there’s really nothing all that groundbreaking about our definition. Philosophers, artists, theologians, and other thoughtful people have wondered and written about the good life for centuries — and, for the most part, their answers are not all that different from our own.
Among the best-known historical discussions of the good life is found in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. In this classic work, written around 330 B.C., Aristotle wonders about the biggest of the “big” philosophical questions: “What is the meaning of life?” He reasons that, since everything everyone does is ultimately aimed at happiness, that the meaning of life — the reason we are all here — is happiness. Of course, if this is the case, we still have to define what happiness really is.
Aristotle rejects the usual definitions of happiness: pleasure, honor, and wealth. The life of pleasure isn’t authentically happy for a couple of reasons. First, if all we strive for is sensual pleasure then we’re really no better than beasts. Humans clearly have greater potential for meaningful lives; a life of pure pleasure is unworthy of what’s best about us. Second, as we all know, the single-minded pursuit of pleasure is self-defeating. Overindulgence in the sensual pleasures always leads to hangovers of one sort or another; we end up feeling worse — and less happy — than we did before we started seeking pleasure.
The pursuit of honor doesn’t yield authentic happiness for Aristotle, primarily because honor is so dependent upon what other people think of us. If we think that being famous will make us happy, we’re constantly going to be at the mercy of other people’s opinions. And this is undoubtedly a recipe for unhappiness, if not downright disaster.
Finally, wealth can’t be the definition of happiness for an obvious reason: no one (or at least no reasonable person) seeks wealth for its own sake. The only reason we want to be rich is so that we can be free to do certain things. Therefore, argues Aristotle, money can’t be synonymous with happiness because, unlike happiness, it’s not something we aspire to as an end in itself.
From this, Aristotle comes to a different conception of happiness, which is best defined using the original Greek term, eudaimonia. Eudaimonia, for Aristotle, isn’t something we attain; rather, happiness, or the good life, is an activity. As Aristotle conceives of it, eudaimonia is activity of the soul in accordance with human beings’ special virtue, rational activity. Ultimately, then, happiness is going to be the ongoing activity of exercising moral and intellectual virtue. In other words, happiness is going to be doing what we are meant to do, in the best way possible.
So, after all, this isn’t very different from the way we’ve defined the good life in this book. Like Aristotle, we agree that the good life isn’t something you get; it’s something you do. It involves living, relating, and working on purpose. It isn’t about what we have or what people think of us; it’s about how we live our lives.
We also agree with Aristotle (and many other well-known thinkers throughout history) that real happiness comes from setting our own lives within a larger context. While it’s certainly the case that our happiness flows from the fulfillment of our individual interests and desires, it’s equally obvious that there’s something more; something bigger than our particular perspective on things. There are, of course, innumerably different modes of living, all of them viable in themselves. But at the same time, it’s clear that every life, however it is lived, needs to have certain elements for an individual’s satisfaction and happiness. A life lived without connection to this larger context is missing something deeper, and ultimately, something essential to real happiness.
The connection between an individual’s vision of one’s own good life and the good life in general is difficult to make, but we strongly believe that it needs to be done.
Testing Our Edges
Unfortunately, very few of us have anything in our development that provides us with the knowledge and skills to unpack and repack our bags. The self-awareness required to know what to pack and the discipline needed to realize what to leave behind typically come totally as a result of trial and error, or what can be called “testing our edges.”
People like Linda Jadwin, with the courage to “test their edges,” eventually break through to greater aliveness and fulfillment. People who “stay packed” out of fear or unwillingness to let go gain only a false sense of security. By covering up, wearing masks, and shutting down, they eventually experience a kind of death: the death of self-respect.
To succeed in the 21st century we must learn to unpack and repack our bags — often. To do this, we must ask the right questions.
These questions are trail markers on our journey. They may not always point us in the right direction, but if we ask them and seek their answers with energy and creativity, they will help keep us moving forward.
With that in mind, you are encouraged to turn now to the Repacking Journal and complete The Good Life Inventory. It only takes a few moments, and will help clarify what the good life is for you.
Postcards and Repacking Partners
Below is the first of several Postcard Exercises you will find in this book.
These exercises are designed to remind you that life is a journey, and that it’s important to include others in it, to let them know where you are and how things are going on the way.
Postcards are an especially quick and easy way to correspond with friends, family, and colleagues. Writing a postcard is a lot more personal than just firing off an email. And usually it’s much more effective in communicating something you really feel. Reaching out to make contact is what matters. It’s not necessarily WHAT you say, but simply THAT you say it.
It’s about getting the conversation going.
Conversation lies at the very foundation of all Western culture. Our religious and philosophical traditions are rooted in dialogue. Ironically, though, one of the most common complaints we hear about contemporary society is that no one talks any more.
Friends, clients, business associates all echo the same refrain. No one has time for a real heart-to-heart. We have dozens and dozens of “friends” on Facebook, but hardly any real friends to whom we can authentically reveal ourselves. And when we do get together to talk, it’s about things: work, sports, fashion, TV. Anything to keep the conversation light and lively and away from what’s really going on. Meanwhile, what we really want to talk about is life — our lives — in depth.
Nietzsche wrote about marriage as “a long conversation.” Many marriages quickly descend into short-tempered comments or, just as often, total silence.
The same goes for many work relationships. The two most courageous conversations most people have with anyone at their work are their initial interview and their exit interview. In between, they’re too busy hurrying through the day.
Meanwhile, people really want to talk. They need to. It’s a human instinct as powerful as hunger or thirst; we all need to tell our story and have it be heard.
That’s why this book puts such an emphasis on conversation. The exercises and activities around unpacking and repacking are intended to be done with a partner, or partners, and to stimulate discussion about the issues in question. Consider them a map for your conversations, but don’t hesitate to stray off the beaten path if that’s where they take you.
This isn’t to say that you can’t do the exercises on your own. Going through the process of completing them will definitely make a difference. But if you can get a dialogue going with someone else, someone who can reflect back to you what you’ve expressed, you’ll learn more about yourself than you would otherwise. And probably have more fun doing it, as well.
So we really encourage you to SEND the postcards you write. Use them to get a conversation going with your postcard penpal.
Choose your postcard penpal — a person we call your Repacking Partner — based on the subject of the postcard you’re sending. This means you might have a number of different Repacking Partners. That’s okay. But it’s also okay if you only have one.
The main thing about postcards is that they are concise. Each postcard is meant to be a quick note, a “snapshot” of where you are. Don’t agonize over a long, involved letter that you’ll never get around to finishing. Focus instead on a simple, straightforward message that opens the door to further conversation.
The postcards can be a catalyst for longer talks — like the ones you have when you’ve sent a postcard to someone, and then visit them after your trip and see the postcard on their refrigerator. It reminds you of the experience, and gives you a chance to fill in the details, and get a real conversation going about what happened and how you felt about it. Postcards sure beat the standard email exchanges we usually have.
What Is the Good Life?
First, think about the following:
• Are you living your own vision of the good life, or somebody else’s?
my own someone else’s a combination
• Are you facing the Two Deadly Fears? (see chapter 6)
• Are you having more or less fun than you did a year ago?
more less about the same
Now, create the Postcard.
• Pick a person in your life who sees you for who you are. Someone who cares about you as you, not as they wish you were. Choose a postcard. Write a brief message on the card with your responses to the questions: “Are you living your own authentic vision of the good life? Why or why not?”
• Send the card to this Repacking Partner. Wait for them to respond; or if you don’t hear from them in about a week or so, call up and see what they think.