How Can We (or Should We) Set Priorities on Key Aspects of Living?

Setting priorities can mean sacrificing something fundamental to your happiness

Posted Aug 25, 2010

In my last blog, titled, “Have a Life Problem? Ask a Philosopher,” I invited my readers to tell me their life problems and said that I would do my best to respond.  Again, if you have a problem of living for which you’d like a philosophical perspective, let me know about it by posting a comment to this blog or by emailing me at

In the following request for philosophical insight, a very astute 18-year-old raises a life problem that can strike a chord with any of us:


Submitted by Anonymous on August 24, 2010 - 7:03am.

I believe that addressing the philosophical aspects of the decisions we make is very important. I have a philosophical problem and that is, how to live one’s life to maximize happiness. I am 18 right now and I would like to know what you believe we need to consider when deciding how to prioritize the various aspects of our lives – I receive so many mixed messages on a daily basis about what is and what isn’t important from people who obviously don’t have a grip on their own lives or from those who have very strongly biased opinions (i.e., my parents – who are not happy themselves as professionals without any friends but preach that dedicating 80% of your life to education/career is the key to happiness). Specifically, some of the key issues that I find difficult to sort out are – how much to focus on one’s career, how realistic is to focus on our passions as opposed to a stable and financially secure job, how important is it to invest time into being healthy (ex. should I be cutting out sugar even though I enjoy it oh so very much?), how important is it to be beautiful (this can take up a lot of one’s time and energy but can have significant returns), how much should I focus on maintaining good relationships with friends (i.e, trusting others, investing time and emotional energy) and finally, whether finding a partner in life should be a priority (movies, music and hormones tell us to – but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me). I am posing this question to see what your perspective is on the relative significance of the social, academic, career and physical aspects of our lives.

Dear Anonymous,

The eloquent manner in which you have raised one of the most difficult questions of human existence is commendable, especially at your early stage of life.  Your awareness of the importance of, and desire to gain insight into the philosophical aspects of life decisions should serve you well.

First, we should be careful not to assume that priority-setting as you have defined it—the rank ordering of social, academic, career and physical aspects of living—is something that can be performed in a mathematical or quasi-mathematical fashion.  Here one should be reminded of Aristotle, who informs us that in matters of practical reasoning there can be only general principles but not formulas.     

To attain happiness, Aristotle admonished us to seek the “mean” between the extremes of excess and deficiency in making life decisions.  This involves neither over-doing nor under-doing things. He said, however, that this mean is not subject to mathematical calculation because it is relative to our individual situations and therefore may be different for different people.  Thus a very large person would need to eat more than a much smaller person, so the mean of eating (and thus the virtue of temperance in food intake) would vary with the size of the person.  Similarly, people work at different speeds, have different skills and talents, and stamina for handling work- loads; so what is too much work for one person may not be for another.

Still, working so much of your life that you haven’t the time to take exercise or even to eat, would be an extreme and thus not constitute the relative mean.  Living reclusively without friends; locking yourself away in a library and avoiding human contact would similarly not yield relative means because these activities would foreclose other meaningful aspects of living.

Accordingly, it is difficult to place priorities on the social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of living because they are all necessary conditions.  The question is not so much which has a higher value but rather how to balance all of them.  Dysfunctional life-styles arise when one or more of these aspects of living is neglected or ignored.  Such is the case of one who prioritizes work to the exclusion of finding time for social outlets; one who seeks bodily pleasures to the neglect of the intellectual; and one who prioritizes intellectual pursuits to the exclusion of finding time to forge meaningful personal relationships and, as a result, ends up going through divorce after divorce.

On this Aristotelian model, happy people must be able to multitask.  This means that they are able to make time for recreation, work on their bodies (yes including their physical appearance), exercise their minds, maintain a social life, and forge and maintain meaningful relations with significant others. 

As for the distinction you draw between focusing on passions versus one’s job, this would be a false dichotomy according to this model; for reason and passion work together.  It is possible to be passionate about what one does for a living and indeed this is what you should try to attain.  You need to make enough money to provide for your basic needs but this should not short circuit your ability to cultivate and exercise your talents and to find emotional satisfaction.  Thus the passionate side of life is important and so is the rational side and you should seek equilibrium.  This again does not lend itself to a formula but you should be able to tell when you have gone too far in one or the other direction.

You should avoid bandwagon thinking (“Because others are doing such and such, or prioritize or value such and such, so should I.”)  This is indeed a formula, however one that invariably leads to regrets.  Here you should be reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s admonition to be authentic and follow your own lights. This means that you are responsible for your own life.  What you do with it is your choice and not the fulfillment of some pre-established plan.  Nor should it be what you are “expected” by others to do.  It is your choice, and your life, and you are responsible for it. 

I would suggest taking what both Aristotle and Sartre say seriously.  Be careful not to go to extremes in what you do.  Seek equilibrium between the social, academic, career, and physical aspects of your life (as you have described them) rather than rank ordering them.  Rank ordering or prioritizing portends that something fundamental to your happiness will eventually be neglected or sacrificed. And, in the process of deciding what to make of your life, be true to yourself.


Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.