Countless authors have opined on how to live the life well-led but their approaches seem to distill to just four: pursue happiness, serve God, serve society/the universe, and pursue balance. Here are pros and cons of each:
Pursue happiness. Obviously, making choices based on what makes you happy leads to an enjoyable life. And you can define happiness more contributorily than just eating, having sex and watching comedies. Your definition of happiness might, for example, include the contentment that comes from being productive, whether as accounts payable clerk, cancer researcher, a friend, or school volunteer.
A limitation of the pursue-happiness approach to life is that you’re less likely to do worthy but unpleasant tasks, for example, diving into icy waters to save a drowning person or be a Mother Teresa who, to save lives, worked amid Calcutta’s sewage stench, her ankles ever bitten by scorpions. Of course, there are more common examples. I know a top hand surgeon who, because he’s been doing that for decades, would find it more fun to play guitar gigs on evenings and weekends but recognizes he’ll make a bigger difference spending that time seeing patients than playing Grateful Dead songs.
Serve God. For many people, religion is their prime driver. And it’s easy to understand why:
A downside of religion is that it’s too black-and-white: There’s only one way. For example, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal," no exceptions—in many denominations, a poor person who steals a drug from a corporation to save a spouse’s life is deemed destined to burn in hell for eternity. Sure, individuals can perceive what they want in religion: Some claim the Bible condemns homosexuality; others insist the Bible endorses it. Some say the Koran encourages peaceful behavior, others that it demands jihad against the infidels. But net, a God-centric approach to life suffers from a narrow definition of acceptable behavior.
Another weakness of the serve-God approach is that it urges passivity. For example, the New Testament urges surrender to God, to trust God above reason: “Be not wise in your own eyes. God shall supply all your need.” (Philippians 4:19;) “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:1: )“If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
Serve society/the universe. This is the utilitarian approach: Ongoing, you decide which activity will most likely make the biggest difference. In the extremis, you could rate each of your life’s hours on how contributory it was: from -100 (making progress toward developing a mutated smallpox virus so communicable, deadly, and incurable that it would cause Armageddon) to +100: (working toward being a Messiah that would inspire everyone in the world to use their greatest powers to abet humankind as much possible.)
The serve-society approach has value even if your sphere of influence is small. For example, a ditch digger can decide whether, during a break, to have a cigarette or to teach a novice how to dig a ditch more easily. In turn, that novice will not only dig more efficiently but be equipped to teach others. The ditch digger has also, without preaching, shown the novice the value of giving, which makes that novice more likely to give to others. And those others, in turn, are more likely to give to others in this generation and in generations to come. So even a ditch digger’s impact can be significant enough to be worth the effort.
An even loftier variation on the serve-society approach is to serve a universal/cosmic good. For example, some people believe efforts to equate resources among people is a cosmic justice. Others believe that furthering meritocracy is more just.
But whether serving society or the universe, you can enhance your utility by focusing on what few others can or will do. For example, I champion the intellectually gifted at a time when government and non-profits focus on redistributing to “the least among us.” That way, I feel I make a bigger difference than if I focused on popular causes I believe in such as abortion rights, where my efforts would add a mere grain of sand onto a beach.
A downside of the serve-society/the universe approach to life is that it leads to a less pleasurable existence. That approach gives no brownie points to fun. Sure, adherents to the serve-society model may sometimes deviate from it and watch that silly sitcom but when life is done, devoted serve-society people die having experienced less pleasure than do others.
And for some people, focusing so much on doing good for others could lead to burnout and, ironically, to doing less good than if they were moderate. However, based on the people I’ve known, you’re unlikely to burn out even from a lifetime of long workweeks as long as you’re working on something of value, are good at it, and have a measure of control over your work tasks. I’ll be 64 in June, have been working 60+ hours a week for my entire life, and feel as energized as ever.
Another downside of the utilitarian approach is that an individual can do only so much. With seven billion people on the planet, your likelihood of making a big difference is small. Nevertheless, it strikes me that a life aimed at even minor contribution is better than rationalizing that you should pursue a pleasure-centric life because your potential for impact, in the largest scheme of things, is modest.
Strive for balance. Many people believe their best shot at the ideal life is to work moderately and play moderately, dividing your time among serving yourself, God, and society. Or as many of our parents say, “Moderation in all things.”
The downside of that is that it assumes all those goals are of equal value. Can one say that a week on the beach is as valuable as a week mentoring high-potential kids?
Now it’s your turn. In light of the above (and anything else,) do you want to write a word, sentence, and/or paragraph summarizing how you plan to live the life well-led?
Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to his articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of Nemko's seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.