What Is the Good Life?
What religion can tell us about a well-lived life.
Posted July 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Religious people tend to be happier and healthier.
- A major reason why is their attachment to a spiritual community and deeper sense of meaning.
- No matter what their religion, most people will benefit from pursuing a life of purpose rather than solely focusing on hedonistic pleasures.
When determining why religious people tend to be healthier, both mentally and physically, certain connections can be easily understood. The links between the community that is often provided by religious affiliation and better health are more and more well known. The work of psychologists like Susan Pinker has argued for the buffering influence of community and human contact and its connection with longevity. However, other vital contributions that are made to well-being by religion are often less clear.
Religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions provide overarching world views. These help us to orient in the many situations we may come up against in the course of their lives. These beliefs, which are often developed in childhood, are not necessarily front of mind or even conscious much of the time, but they have important implications for well-being and a well-lived life.
Pleasure versus purpose
Spiritual traditions have a great deal to say about what constitutes the “Good Life.” As we have mentioned before on this blog, spiritual traditions often have a very different approach to happiness than secular ones. Happiness, as with so many words, ends up a challenge to define. This is because ideas of happiness lead directly into a larger conception of our understanding of a well-lived life. This varies a great deal depending on your worldview. Is the Good Life one based on personal pleasure? Or is it a life spent in service to others?
Much of mainstream public discourse on the Good Life has largely been hijacked by commerce and travel companies. It is presented to us as someone lounging on the beach or playing golf. It is depicted as a life that is centered around the individual and their amusement. Essentially this is the hedonist worldview—that freedom from work and entangling relationships constitutes happiness. But does this really lead to the sense of a fulfilled life?
It turns out no, it doesn’t. In her ongoing work on meaning versus happiness, Emily Esfahani Smith argues that pillars of happiness are related to eudaimonia. This is a Greek term that refers to an overall sense of well-being rather than fleeting happiness. This way of approaching life encompasses ideas of meaning and purpose nor simply referring to changing emotional states.
Eudaimonia does not presuppose a life free of struggle and strain. Esfahani Smith makes an important point that while, for instance, having children may lead to stress, it is ultimately one of the key sources of meaning for many people. Standing up and fighting for a cause may be extremely inconvenient and often discouraging but provides for a sense of contributing to society and of meaning overall.
Research indicates what may at first appear to be counterintuitive to many who are constantly bombarded by ads for resort vacations and lotteries. If we look at occupations that show the most satisfaction, they consistently include those who work in “helping” professions, such as teaching and nursing. The feeling of making an important and meaningful contribution trumps salary in terms of career satisfaction.
Sociologist Émile Durkheim made this argument about the importance of meaning over a century ago. Durkheim, who was himself a mostly secular Jew, was concerned with the waning power of religion and its implications for society. He coined the term anomie to describe a person who had lost all sense of meaning and purpose in their life. Detached from religion, from relationships to others, anomic individuals were, he concluded, dangerous both to themselves and to those around them.
One of the key contributions of religious and spiritual traditions is precisely that they offer a sense of meaning and purpose. This outlook fosters resilience and a deeper feeling of satisfaction. It places all the events of human life within a larger pattern and the sense that each individual life is valuable. Religious people often frame experiences as meaningful, even when they are challenging. This other-oriented approach offers a very different interpretation of what we mean when we say "a Good Life."
Durkheim, Émile. De la Division du Travail Social (The Division of Labour in Society) (1893), and in Le Suicide (Suicide) (1897).
Esfahani Smith, Emily. TED talk, 2017. “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”
Esfahani Smith, Emily. “Meaning is Healthier than Happiness.” The Atlantic. August, 1, 2013.
Pinker, Susan. The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. (2015) Vintage Canada.