Happiness. Wellbeing. Eudaimonia. Self-Actualization. Freedom. Contentment. The Good Life.
People and cultures the world over have tried to figure it out. Often, as individuals, our ideas about it are not solid. Sure, we all have some sense of what makes us happy. But most of us lack a solidly defined idea of what it means to live well.
From this lack stems the real issue: we have no compass with which to guide our lives towards happiness and wellbeing.
We all inherit a collection of views about what we’re “supposed to do” to make us happy. Our parents, popular media, religion, school, and plenty of other sources give us notions about the right way to live. As with any cultural conditioning, we tend to unconsciously absorb these notions without critically thinking about what they mean to us.
Instead of having a well-put-together vision, we go about our days with only vague and ambiguous ideas about what kind of life we want to be living.
A Human Model for the Good Life
We can’t ground ourselves and our actions in any kind of purpose if we aren’t clear on what that purpose is. That’s why we need to establish a model for the good life. To move in the right direction you need a map and a compass.
Ultimately we all need to draw up the details on that map for ourselves. There is no one kind of life which will work for everybody. What you like and what I like are different, so we need to do different things to achieve our own unique versions of the good life.
However, since we’re both human there will be some common ground. If we both eat shitty food all the time, never get enough sleep, and never exercise: then we’ll both feel bad. If we both do the opposite of all that, we’ll both feel good.
I’m going to share with you my model of the good life. It’s a human model, meaning that it’s built based on our most fundamental human needs. Its goal is to make those needs crystal clear and help us fulfill them in healthy, wholesome ways.
It also makes room for both our commonalities as people, as well as the differences between individuals. There’s some stuff we all need to do, and some areas where we’ll create our own personal way.
This model, this vision of the good life, works wonders for me. I find myself stoked on life and full of good energy when I follow it. I’m fully confident that you can take it and make it work for yourself.
We might have different ways of following the vision, but it will still be the same human vision, and lead us both to the same human flourishing we all look to experience…
The Feel-Good Perspective
Earlier I mentioned using a compass to guide yourself. Here’s your compass: feeling good!
If something makes you feel good in a wholesome way then you’re on the right track. Obviously there are things that feel good which are unhealthy, unwholesome, and will make you feel bad when repeated in the long-term. Like eating tasty junk food or smoking cigarettes. That’s why I emphasize the word wholesome.
I really feel like I shouldn’t have to explain the difference. You know the difference between feeling good from doing something wholesome and feeling good from partaking in vice. A runner’s high is different from a weed high. Feeling satisfied from a healthy meal is different from loving the taste of ice cream.
But just in case, here’s a nice way to think of it: wholesome actions will make your whole self feel good, whereas vice is virtually always limited to sensory pleasure.
Exercise leaves your physical-self feeling relieved of stress, your emotional-self full of pride that you did it, and your mental-self confident about your ability to do challenging things.
This is opposed to skipping your workout to sit on the couch: it only feels good physically from the comfort, and might make you feel negative emotionally and mentally.
Another quick way to tell the difference is to think about short-term and long-term. The good stuff will feel better and better if sustained in the long-term as a habit.
Unwholesome stuff eventually starts to feel bad when made into a habit. The negative effects may also be experienced shortly after the pleasure has passed, such as when you get a hangover from drinking.
With all that said, I’ll quickly mention that I don’t want to sound like you should only ever do wholesome things and never have fun with a little vice. I think it’s possible to make room for things that are “bad” for you but are enjoyable in small doses.
The most important thing is to watch your habits.
Do you like having a couple alcoholic beverages now and then? Cool. Do you love to lie in bed under the covers and watch cartoons? Me too! My favorite recently has been watching the streams on adultswim.com 🙂
If getting wasted is a habit, that’s bad. If getting up and moving your body isn’t a habit, that’s also bad.
The quickest way to the good life is establishing feel-good habits.
The stuff you do over and over again, every day, defines your life. Routine comes to mold your character. Small actions repeated over time build up to create something significant — for better or worse.
That’s why feel-good habits form the foundation of the good life.
Use your feelings as a compass to guide you toward the actions that make you feel best. Then work on making those actions part of your daily routine.
This model focuses on establishing positive habits, and does not put the spotlight on dropping bad habits.
That’s because habit psychology shows that bad habits are only truly gone when replaced with good habits. Attempting to just drop a bad habit without a replacement inevitably leads to relapse. Yes, unlearning bad habits is good. But you will be much more successful if you focus on creating the good, as opposed to fighting the bad.
This part is where things get juicy. All humans share a few core needs. We may fulfill these needs in different ways, but for our own happiness and wellbeing we’ve got to satisfy them somehow.
The field of positive psychology does research into what makes a human life go well. Its primary concerns are looking into what helps build happiness and what bolsters emotional resilience in the face of adversity.
After spending a lot of time studying this field, I’ve come to see a pattern. There are three things absolutely essential to human wellbeing: physical health, social connection, and a sense of fulfillment or meaning.
These seem to be our three most important needs. Different studies present them differently, or see them from different angles. But when you boil down the academics, these three essential categories emerge.
To live well you need to prioritize these. In today’s busy world you may not hit all three every day. That’s fine. But you should dedicate time for at least one every day, and definitely touch on all three in the course of a week.
You should fulfill each need in the way that best suits you. Use your feeling-compass to determine how you want to live out each one.
For example: maybe you’re an extrovert who needs lots of social stimulation, so you should go to parties to fulfill your need for social connection. Or if you’re like me you’d prefer to spend time outside with one or two good friends. The choice is yours and what is best depends on who you are.
Now, onto the needs! Here’s why each one is so essential to our wellbeing, and some suggestions on how to start living that good life:
It’s basically a given that being physically healthy will help you feel good.
We inhabit our bodies all day every day. The state of the body primes the state of the mind, in the same way the first layer of paint primes all the preceding layers. A body that’s taken care of well sets a good foundation for things like mental clarity, positive moods, and our ability to relax.
It’s easy to overlook how simple daily routines related to physical health can drastically improve our mood mentally and emotionally. We grow accustomed to our usual state of physical health, and take for granted how the body feels.
If I go two weeks with no exercise and no morning yoga, my body becomes sluggish and sore. But I adjust to feeling that way so quickly that I forget how different it is to regularly move my body in positive ways. I don’t remember how important those routines are to my everyday happiness until I start doing them again, and feel firsthand what it’s like when I take care of my body.
To simplify physical health, here are the three most important things in this category: eating, sleeping, and moving.
If you do those three things well, you will build physical health. You’ll get into shape; not just in a looking-good kind of way, but in a feeling-good way.
Ideally you can build some routines around these. That might take time, but it will be worth it. Work on one thing at a time so as not to overwhelm yourself.
I’m not an expert on diet, exercise, or sleep. But none of us need to be to know what’s healthy, or to establish some good habits. If you have something like a dietary condition or a serious injury, seek professional help. If not, pick one area of health you’d like to improve, and start working on that.
The importance of sleep is often overlooked, and when people try to get healthy sleep isn’t usually the focus. But good sleep hygiene is essential for wellbeing. We all need rest.
Do a little google research on sleep habits, like how you should avoid screens before sleeping and refrain from doing anything in your bed except sleeping. Put one new habit into practice tonight.
Make vegetables the largest portion of your meal. Get enough protein. Cook more often. Don’t eat too many shitty snacks or drink too much soda. Find a couple healthy foods you really enjoy.
You can slowly change your diet by trying one new healthy snack or ingredient per week. Today, find a way to eat a little better than you usually do.
Move your body in a way that’s fun for you, but also make sure you get balanced exercise. Maybe you like basketball, jogging, climbing trees, swimming, landscaping, or parkour. Go do it, and if you haven’t discovered the joy of physical activity, go try different things until you do.
Find something you like, and then find exercises you can do on off-days to help balance-out and recover from whatever movements you use the most during your preferred activity.
I love to skateboard. It’s good exercise, but it’s not balanced. Its cardio-heavy and shock-absorption-heavy. I do yoga every morning and strength-building workouts when I get home from work to balance out what skateboarding does to my body.
This can sound like a lot, but remember you don’t have to change everything all at once. Just keep in mind the importance of eating, sleeping, and moving. Try to slowly improve. Imagine how awesome you could feel a year from now if you established just one new good habit per month.
All humans need relationships.
We’ve managed to build a society where it’s theoretically possible to live totally alone. Some jobs allow you to work in solitude. The grocery store has a self-checkout system. Houses have running water. If you arranged things the right way, you could live most of your days without talking to anyone.
But for most of our evolutionary history, others were essential to our survival. We needed group cooperation to go along living. Back in the day, the loss of a relationship was a serious threat to your survival, and an extended period of aloneness meant certain death.
Because of this, our survival instincts are tied up with how we feel about the state of our relationships and how we are perceived by our group.
Social connection is the most important emotional need we have. We literally can feel like we’re going to die without it, because for most of our history that was in fact the case.
Today research abounds showing the importance of intimate relationships to happiness, longevity, and recovery from illness.
Intimate does not have to mean sexual or romantic. What’s most important is that you have close friends and a sense of belonging to a group.
You need people that let you be yourself. People you trust. People who will help you if you ask, and who you will be willing to help if they ask. People you can be comfortable around. This is what is meant by “intimate”.
Depending on who you are, you may feel the need for a large extended friend group, or you may be good with just one or two great ones. What everybody needs, though, is regular contact with these people.
Just seeing them on the weekends really isn’t enough. Life gets busy and finding time for friends can feel like a squeeze, but this is so important.
I live with roommates who are close friends, so recently it’s been easy for me. If you live with family then work on those relationships so you can come home to your tribe. If you live alone you’ve really got to make an effort to go see people or invite them to come see you.
I’m an introvert and I cherish my alone time. But on those occasions when I go an entire day or two without seeing anyone that I like, I start to feel down. I’m elated when I finally get to spend time with a homie!
If you go from under-filling this need to getting enough social contact, you’ll notice a drastic change in your mood.
Go chill with the people important to you! We all need it.
It’s important that we all experience senses of fulfillment in life.
In studies of happiness and longevity, two factors often show themselves: people with a relationship to religion or spirituality do well, and people who regularly experience “flow” do well.
I see this as pointing to two important categories within fulfillment: meaning and fun.
I don’t think we all need religion per se, but I do think we all need meaning. We need to participate in something we feel is bigger than ourselves. Maybe religion is your thing, or maybe it’s community service, or maybe it’s creating art for others to experience. Or maybe you like all three of those and more!
The point is that you need to participate in a larger cause, or have an important role to play in life, or create things of significance, or do whatever you feel is meaningful.
To live the good life we’ve all got to evoke a sense of meaning in ourselves. If you’re religious, then finding a community of like-minded people to hang with might be all you need. If you’re a nihilist, you better do art or something, because otherwise you’re going to be miserable :0
Now, what’s up with that thing I said about “flow”? If you want to learn more go google “flow state”, but here’s the quick version: flow is when you’re doing something that requires skill and you “get into the flow” of it. You kind of lose yourself in the activity, and achieve a state of pleasant focus as you do it.
Those who experience “flow” often are shown to be happier than those who don’t. That means they regularly do an activity that’s enjoyable for them but requires skill and focus.
To make it simpler, it means they regularly do something fun! In addition to the deeper, meaning-based fulfillment, it seems that a fun-based sense of fulfillment is also important.
Young humans, and plenty of other animals, learn through play. Fun is essential to our development. I don’t think we lose this need as we age; I think we forget to attend to it.
Outside of our careers, the things we get good at are usually the things we enjoy. It’s because learning is natural when it is fun. If you enjoy something and do it often enough, you will inevitably progress in skill. You’ll also be a lot happier.
If there’s something that’s meaningful and fun for you, then sweet! You can do that and hit a double whammy for fulfilling this need. But somehow, some way, you’ve got to do both.
Regularly include sources of meaning and fun in your life. Both are essential for feeling fulfilled as people.
A Simple Summary of the Feel-Good Life
If you made it this far, you’ve read a lot!
I’ll make this conclusion quick:
All humans have needs. If we do well filling enough of them, we’re living the good life. We find ourselves experiencing a substantive happiness: a sense of coupled joy and meaning.
Most fundamental to the good life are physical wellbeing, social connection, and fulfillment.
We should all strive to take care of our physical selves, take care of our relationships, and do what is fun and meaningful for us. To be able to do all three is a blessing to be deeply thankful for.
Follow your feelings to determine how to best address each of these core needs. Whether to eat broccoli or lettuce, hike mountains or hit the gym, go with friends to a party or to the park, do volunteer work or contemplate spirituality? You’ve got to experiment yourself, and figure out which best help you live out each human need.
However you do it, I know that a commitment to prioritize these will help you create a feel-good life like you’ve never experienced before 🙂