Living a ‘good life’ requires some hard questions

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A willingness to ask tough questions about what defines a life well-lived is the key to well-being, argues Bernard Reginster.

Every January, millions of people set new goals in hopes of improving their lives. Driven to boost their health and happiness, they scour books and news articles full of meditation tips, exercise routines, and diet ideas.

For those who make New Year’s resolutions, doctors and psychologists have become the ultimate experts. But whither the philosopher—that rare breed of person who spends all day, every day, contemplating the meaning of life?

Reginster, a professor of philosophy at Brown University, believes in asking the hard questions: What is the mark of a life well-lived? What is the difference between a happy life and a good life? He argues that if people can’t answer these questions for themselves, they’re unlikely to find satisfaction in any of those scientist-approved New Year’s resolutions.

After all, how can someone find happiness in any new habit if they haven’t yet defined what “happiness” actually means to them?

“If you believe that what makes your life good is to experience as much pleasure as possible, and you want to know how to maximize pleasure, there’s no question that you will want to turn to research by empirical psychologists,” Reginster says.

“But that question comes downstream from the fundamental questions of whether a pleasant life is a good life, and what ‘good’ even means—and those are questions for philosophers,” he says.

Here, Reginster answers questions about his own background studying the philosophy of well-being, why psychological studies can miss the mark in identifying the key to happiness, and how philosophy could help people discover what’s most important in life:


How did you come to study topics like well-being and happiness?


My scholarly work is about ethical issues in 19th and 20th century philosophy. When people talk about 19th-century philosophy, they usually talk about the figures who made big strides in moral and political thought. But I discovered that in the 19th century, there had also been a fairly robust and substantial debate on the nature and character of happiness. In 2006, I wrote a book based in part on those philosophical debates. It was ostensibly about the meaning of life, but it was really focused on what defines a “good” life. That was probably my first step toward studying these topics.

Then, from 2011 to 2020, I founded and directed the Program for Ethical Inquiry at Brown. In the context of that program, I sponsored the development of new courses—and one of them was a course called Happiness in Psychology and Philosophy, which I taught in collaboration with Joachim Krueger, a professor in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences. In the course, we looked at the findings on happiness from recent psychological studies, and we looked at some of the most well-known philosophical theories on happiness. We also discussed how philosophers might react to the ways in which psychological researchers presuppose a certain definition of “happiness.”


January is famously a time when people look to improve their well-being through New Year’s resolutions. Many will look to psychologists for advice. Why is it important to examine well-being and happiness through the lens of philosophy, and not just through the lens of psychology?


Psychologists have learned a lot of things about how people can be happier through their research, and many psychologists now share those scientifically grounded techniques with the public: To be happy, try meditating more, try keeping a gratitude journal, try taking more walks in nature. Psychologists’ findings may be grounded in empirical science, but my worry is that there’s still a failure to ask a very foundational question, which is not empirical: When we’re talking about happiness and well-being, what exactly do we mean?

Another way to say this is: People want to find the recipe for well-being, but they cannot do that without first asking themselves a more fundamental question: What is it a recipe for?

Reading self-help books without understanding what you really want out of life is like searching for a recipe before you decide whether you want to make cake or beef Wellington.

So while it’s true that finding a good recipe for well-being requires the empirical inquiries of the psychologist, it’s only a good recipe if you start with a sound understanding of what well-being is.


How do philosophers define “happiness” and “well-being,” and how does that contrast with the way psychologists define these terms?


The psychologists who have recently begun to study happiness define it as subjective well-being—a psychological state that is presumed to be good for the person who is in it. For psychologists, happiness refers exclusively to a state of mind.

In some ways, that has been very useful for philosophers. We have realized that yes, there is maybe a type of well-being that is exclusively psychological, and maybe we should reserve the term “happiness” for that. But philosophers recognize that happiness is only one particular species of well-being. Philosophers see happiness as a “prudential good.” If something has prudential value, it is good for you, in the sense that it benefits you or makes you better off.

Treating happiness as an exclusively mental phenomenon, as psychologists tend to do, sidesteps the question of whether your well-being depends exclusively on what’s going on in your mind. And to philosophers, that’s an open question.

Suppose that a good friend betrays you, but you never find out about it. Did something bad happen to you? If you’re a psychologist, you would say, “No, it’s not bad for you, because it didn’t make a psychological difference.” But you might think that if your good friend betrays you, something bad has happened to you, which did damage to your well-being—even if you are not aware. That suggests your well-being could depend not just on what’s going on in your mind but also on what’s going on in the world.


What questions can people ask themselves to determine what “happiness” or “well-being” means for them? How can they begin to search for the correct recipe, so to speak?


Well, you cannot escape the fundamental question of what well-being is. What is it for your life to go well for you? Is it a matter of it being pleasant, or of getting you what you want? Is it exclusively a matter of what is going on in your mind, or is it also a matter of what is going on in the world outside of your mind?

Another question to ask: Is happiness the type of prudential good that matters most to you? Meaningfulness is another type of prudential good; another way in which your life can go well for you. Most people agree that it’s good for you to be happy and it’s good for you to have a meaningful life. But the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of meaningfulness can sometimes pull you in different directions. You can live a pleasant life, for example, which is good for you—but it may not necessarily be very meaningful. On the other hand, you can live a life that’s full of meaning but requires you to sacrifice happiness and subject yourself to great pain and discomfort. In my classes, I use the example of the artist Paul Gauguin. He pursued a life of meaning: He abandoned his comfortable bourgeois life to travel to Tahiti in search of a new pictorial language, and he succeeded. But he was so miserable that he attempted suicide not once, but twice.

Yet another question: Aside from prudential value, what else contributes to a good life? I suspect that when people set out to make New Year’s resolutions, they are motivated by an aspiration to make their lives better in a more comprehensive sense, and not just better for them. If you have a happy or meaningful life, that’s something that’s good for you—but it doesn’t necessarily benefit the world or anybody else. You can be happy while also living a morally atrocious life: The Mongol emperor Genghis Khan is said to have declared, “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth…” But you can live a morally good life that is bad for you. There was a Polish priest at Auschwitz named Maximilian Kolbe who offered to die in the place of a Jewish father of five. Did he live a good life? Well, in the moral sense, yes. But did his life go well for him? That is at least questionable.


Assuming that most people want all of these things—happiness and meaningfulness, but also to be a morally good person who helps others—why are the most popular New Year’s resolutions typically geared toward personal well-being and not toward making a positive impact on the world?


I can’t speculate on people’s intentions when they make their New Year’s resolutions. But I suspect that their resolutions are often shaped by the advice they find in books or articles they read about happiness, many of which draw on studies in so-called “positive psychology.”

These studies sometimes present themselves as offering answers to the generic question: What is a good life? However, they only offer advice about a particular aspect of this question. People may resolve to eat better, meditate more, take walks in nature, and spend more time with friends, for example, in part because this is the most salient information they have. It’s all good advice, but only if you wish to be happier in the psychological sense. It won’t necessarily make your life better in other ways—and psychologists don’t claim that it will.


Where might people turn instead for more holistic thinking on how to live a “good” life?


I don’t think you can escape the work philosophers do on this issue. I know philosophy is difficult to read, but these are difficult questions, aren’t they?

Philosophers have a lot to say about the connections between morality and well-being. The ancient Greeks, for example, thought that the reason to behave virtuously was because it was good for you. The modern conception of morality, by contrast, puts it at odds with well-being, in the sense that doing what morality requires does not necessarily benefit you. Morality and well-being may conflict, and then the question arises of how to adjudicate this conflict. But there are some interesting recent studies in empirical psychology that showed that practicing morally “good” behavior, like spending money on your friends rather than on yourself, actually does make you happier.

In the last two centuries, philosophers have also taken an interest in what it is for life to be “meaningful.”

Some say that your life is meaningful if it leaves a certain kind of mark on the world, if it makes a difference. Others claim that your life is meaningful if you produce objectively valuable achievements. Still others hold that your life is meaningful if you get to do what you love. Psychologists have begun to study this psychological conception of meaningfulness, and they have shown that the psychological markers of meaningfulness are different from, and sometimes incompatible with, the psychological markers of happiness. If happiness and meaningfulness can come into conflict—if you can’t always experience both things simultaneously—which would you choose to pursue?

Again, these sorts of questions are difficult. But look, I’m sorry to say, there are no shortcuts. If you’re really concerned about having a good life, then these are questions you’re going to have to ask.


That’s a tough thing to ask of people who are busy and stressed and just want that recipe. Have you ever become overwhelmed with these questions in your own life?


Absolutely. I wouldn’t be a philosopher if I had never asked myself these questions.

But if you feel overwhelmed by these questions, here is a thought to consider—this is taken from “The Apology of Socrates,” arguably the inaugural text of Western philosophy. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, and he was put on trial on penalty of death. In his speech defending himself, he famously says that only the examined life is a life worth living. He didn’t mean, “Oh, first you have to examine what makes a good life, find the recipe, and live well by following it.” No, what he meant was that the life worth living is the life spent asking and considering the hard questions.