Challenge. Change. Podcast
Everyone is in pursuit of a good life, but what exactly does “good” mean? Students in philosophy Professor Wes Demarco’s The Good Life, a First-Year Intensive course, spend an entire semester trying to determine if there’s a link between health, achievements, social involvement, ethical endeavors, and living a satisfactory life.
“In empirical psychology, there is wonderful work on self-deception in relation to positive affect. So, if the good life were about pleasure-pain ratio, why not just live in illusion? Why not blissful ignorance,” Demarco asks. “In my philosophical opinion, this is why we need to subject the idea of a pleasant life to critical examination.”
On this episode of Challenge. Change., Demarco discusses concepts of happiness, human nature, and quality of life, analyzing their importance on one’s journey to fulfillment.
Keep reading for a condensed and edited version of the conversation.
Q: How can we define a good life if almost everyone has a different perception of “good”?
A: One definition could rest on faculties or capacities, for example, having a healthy mind and body. You can’t live the good life if you’re being oppressed for who you are. It’s difficult — though not impossible — to live a good life if your basic needs are not being met. In the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, studies have found that if you’re solidly middle class, making money beyond that has very little positive contribution to your own subjective well-being. It’s not as if material things and money don’t matter. How they matter depends on your situation in life.
Some scholars argue that people can’t live a good life without living in harmony with the environment. Others insist that social, political, economic, and cultural engagement is necessary to feel fulfilled. It’s a lovely tangle of difficult questions.
Q: Is a good life the same as a happy life?
A: Happiness is not synonymous with a good life but overlaps with it considerably. I usually find that students approach this subject with a single happiness concept, which is a hedonic concept based on a ratio of pleasure to pain.
But pleasure need not be the focus of a good life — possibly meaning or depth, possibly freedom, possibly an ethical standard, possibly well-being understood as health. In class, we entertain various options and bump into all kinds of other important auxiliary questions, such as whether we share a common human nature.
Q: What do students think at the start of the semester? Do their opinions and theories change by the course’s conclusion?
A: Some students come in with a culturally standard understanding. Others come in with a success-oriented or achievement-oriented mindset. I’ve seen some students focused on money as a symbol of success, but it’s fairly rare at Clark. Some opinions change radically by the end of the semester. The course culminates with the question of whether we can live a good life without reconsidering the standards by which we assess whether we’re living a good life or not.
Q: What is the good life to you?
A: I feel the good life is found in small things. It’s in the intimacies of dialogue and in connection with friends. I make no bones about sharing my beliefs, opinions, and reasons with students, but I also don’t want to push them on anybody. I think most of us should be engaged. I think that’s an important part of having a “whole” human life that I would consider the good life. A whole life includes having a healthy mind and body, some political engagement, the practice of body cultivation or a sport, and involvement in the arts, either as a practitioner, maker, or appreciator.
I lean into the slogan, “Do no harm and try to do a little good.” Hang your self-esteem on that rather than success, appearance, or the various things on which we’re persuaded to hang our self-esteem on for reasons of our culture and socioeconomic condition.