I was listening to the MSNBC on the radio the other day when a feature came on entitled, 'The Good Life'. They proceeded to discuss a $14,000 dessert being offered in Sri Lanka that included, amongst other things, an aquamarine. No kidding. This is how MSNBC characterizes the good life. It struck me how in our culture we define the good life more in terms of the consumption of material goods than in relationship to any other quality.
Simply listen to the vast majority of contemporary music on the airwaves these days for confirmation. I have two teenagers in my house so I know all too well: Cristal champagne, expensive cars, first class jet airline seats, bling…the list goes on and on. This is what our kids are being taught: the good life is about having things, not about who you are as a human being. Where are these values coming from? I believe it is a trickle down effect from what they see being honored in our society.
So if the good life is about having things, how is it that so many people who have so many things have lives that lack so much satisfaction and meaning? I am not saying that having money is not a good thing, quite the contrary. We all need financial security. We need to know that we can provide for our families and be free of the pressure of struggling to make ends meet. We all want to live a comfortable life. But where is the point of no return?
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted" - (attributed to Albert Einstein)
The Worldwide Institute in its 2004 State of the World report explains:
Societies focused on well being involved more interaction with family, friends, and neighbors, a more direct experience of nature, and more attention to finding fulfillment and creative expression than in accumulating goods. They emphasize lifestyles that avoid abusing your own health, other people, or the natural world. In short, they yield a deeper sense of satisfaction with life than many people report experiencing today.
What provides for a satisfying life? In recent years, psychologists studying measures of life satisfaction have largely confirmed the old adage that money can't buy happiness-at least not for people who are already affluent. The disconnection between money and happiness in wealthy countries is perhaps most clearly illustrated when growth in income in industrial countries is plotted against levels of happiness. In the United States, for example, the average person's income more than doubled between 1957 and 2002, yet the share of people reporting themselves to be "very happy" over that period remained static.
So if growth in income has not made people happier than obviously they are not living the good life. In order to clarify what the good life is, I do an exercise with clients that involves seeing themselves at some distant point in the future where they are finally who they want to be, they have what they want to have and are deeply satisfied and happy. In other words, they have achieved the 'Good Life'.
Nearly one hundred percent of the time, without fail, clients do not have visions of extreme wealth. They really don't talk about wealth at all, at least not in terms of money or possessions. They do not talk about living in a house with every known convenience and luxury. They do talk about a home located in a beautiful setting, perhaps by the ocean or on a lake in the mountains. There is always talk about a place that gives them a feeling of peace and serenity…a place they were meant to be.
They never discuss possessions…ever. No talk of cars, televisions or fancy clothes. It just never comes up. They may mention that they are free to travel but certainly they do not say first class.
They describe themselves as a person who no longer fights feelings of depression, dissatisfaction or dissonance in their lives. They speak of a feeling of acceptance of what is. There is love in their lives although they don't necessarily mention a specific mate. Just love. There is discussion of deep wisdom accumulated over the years. There is also talk of being surrounded by the people who they hold dear.
Often, if they have children, they will say that they are happy that they have been able to help their kids but more often is the description of children who have grown into responsible, loving and fulfilled human beings. They describe with pride children who are contributors to the world. I hear about pets in the house and perhaps grandchildren. These are folks who have discovered what truly has meaning for them and what they really value.
"Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values."
Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982)
Values. What are the things to which you attach value? What is important to you? If you had to create a list of the top five things that you value, what would they be? Would it be money, possessions, power, stature and authority? Would it be love, family, integrity, freedom and compassion? Or a combination?
"Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value."
Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)
We have all heard the adage about what the epitaph on our tombstone will say or not say. Will it say that she had a powerful job, she flew first class, that she had a Mercedes-Benz and wore only couture? More often you will read on a tombstone that she was a loving Mother and Wife, a charitable person and an outstanding member of the community. Think about how you would like to be remembered? What would you like to hear people say about you at your funeral or memorial? Will it be on how much money you made or how much you consumed? Doubtful.
I remember the funeral of a very dear friend who died suddenly while he was still in his fifties. The Rabbi said that all we have in the end is our good name. Who we were, how we lived, how we loved, our empathy and compassion, service to the world we lived in and the legacy we left to our children and their children.
My own personal take on the good life, at least for me, involves the following: I want to be a person who possesses a deep appreciation for everything that I have: to be grateful. I want to be able to live without the fear of not being able to take care of my kids and myself and yes, I do want to live well. Living well for me is a lovely home in nature; it is being free to travel; it is having the ability to help my kids get a good start in their adult lives; it is having enough money to be able to take good care of myself and to also be charitable. I want to have a life that is filled with meaning, with a deep connection to the world around me.
What is your Good Life? Take the time now to give thought to the life that you want to live, the life that you would describe as the Good Life. Make certain that it is aligned with your values and your passions and to so you must connect with your values and passions. What are they? Think long and hard about what brings you real joy and fulfillment. Remember those times in your life when you were the happiest…what resonated for you in those moments? Consider how you want to be remembered, how you want to look in your children's eyes. What traits do you admire in others and how can you adopt some of those traits? What have been peak experiences in your life and what was it about those experiences that made them so special?
These are the kind of questions that beg our attention. These are the questions that will ultimately lead us to the Good Life. Not the $14,000 dessert but a life well lived. With meaning, love, comfort, joy and fulfillment.