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The 7+1 Best Things About Being Alive

The 7+1 top things that make life worth living.

[Article updated on 6 September 2017]

People who read my books by their covers tend to think of me as a dark pessimist. To shake off this unwarranted image, I have come up with a list of what I consider to be the 7+1 best things about being alive. So here goes.

1. Consciousness. Consciousness is, in the words of William Blake, 'To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity for an hour.' But at a deeper level, consciousness is also the freedom to make choices that transcend our existence. For the 20th century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, inauthentic people may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices, but they cannot pretend to themselves that they are not themselves, that is, conscious human beings who actually have little to do with their pragmatic concerns, social roles, and value systems. In persisting with these, inauthentic people pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices, but to do so is in itself to make a choice, namely, that of pretending not to have the freedom of making choices. Man, Sartre concludes, is condemned to be free.

2. Wisdom and self-knowledge. The idea of authenticity goes back all the way to antiquity. In Plato’s Greater Alcibiades, Socrates asks a young Alcibiades how one is to go about gaining self-knowledge. Socrates holds that, if one were to say to the eye, ‘See yourself,’ the eye should look into a mirror and see itself. Since the pupil of the eye is just like a mirror, the eye could see itself by looking into another eye. Similarly, the soul can see itself by looking into the soul, and particularly into that part of the soul which has the most to do with wisdom and which is therefore most akin to the divine. Self-knowledge, Socrates concludes, is, in fact, no other than wisdom; unless Alcibiades finds wisdom, he will never be able to know his own good and evil, nor that of others, nor the affairs of states. If Alcibiades were to become a statesman without first having found wisdom, he would fall into error and be miserable, and make everybody else miserable too. What is more, he who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom; since that which is better is also more becoming, slavery is more becoming to such a person. Socrates’ conclusions may seem abhorrent to modern sensitivities, but it does stand to reason that the person who unconsciously defines himself according to the likes and expectations of others and, by extension, of the society in which he happens to have been born, also condemns himself to by far the most dishonorable kind of slavery: the slavery of the mind.

3. Reason and contemplation. Plato’s pupil Aristotle holds that it is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can best understand its essence. For example, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’. Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique capacity to reason. Thus, the Supreme Good for human beings is to lead a life that enables them to exercise and to develop their reason, and that is in accordance with rational principles. Aristotle acknowledges that our good or bad fortune can play a part in determining our happiness, but he contends that, by living our life to the full according to our essential nature as human beings, we are bound to become happy regardless of our good or bad fortune. For this reason, happiness is more a question of behavior and of habit— of ‘excellence’ and of ‘virtue’—than of luck. A person who cultivates reason and who lives according to rational principles is able to bear his misfortunes with equanimity, and thus can never be said to be truly unhappy.

4. Pleasure. Not long after Aristotle died, Epicurus of Samos founded a school of philosophy that convened in his garden in Athens and dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason. According to Epicurus, reason teaches that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misread as a call for rampant hedonism rather than the absence of pain and tranquillity of mind that Epicurus actually intended. According to Epicurus, not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people have difficulties with. To help them a bit, Epicurus proceeds to distinguish between two different types of pleasure, ‘moving pleasures’ and ‘static pleasures’. Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating a meal when hungry. Static pleasures on the other hand involve the state of having had a desire satisfied, for example, feeling sated after having eaten the meal. Static pleasures are better than moving pleasure because they free us from the pain of need or want. Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains, and argues that fear and anxiety are the greatest obstructions to happiness.

5. Tranquillity. According to Epicurus, to attain a state of perfect tranquillity or ataraxia, a person needs to avoid anxiety, which he can do by learning to trust in the future. Epicurus taught that there are three types of desire, (1) natural and necessary desires such as those for food and shelter which are difficult to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, (2) natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and accommodation, and (3) vain desires such as those for fame, power, and wealth which are inculcated by society and which are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. The first should be satisfied, the second can be satisfied but should not be depended upon, and the third should be entirely eliminated. By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, a person can minimize the pain and anxiety of harboring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring himself as close as possible to ataraxia. Given the prime importance that he attaches to the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desires, and peace of mind, Epicurus is far more of a ‘tranquillist’ than a hedonist. ‘If thou wilt make a man happy,’ he says, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires’.

6. Friendship and intimacy. Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus give an important place to friendship in the good life. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue that is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.’ According to Aristotle, for a person to be friends with another ‘it is necessary that they bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other, without this escaping their notice.’ Aristotle leaves room for the idea that relationships based on advantage alone or pleasure alone can give rise to friendships, but he believes that such relationships have a smaller claim to be called friendships than those that are based partly or wholly on virtue. ‘Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, not coincidentally.’ Friendships that are based partly or wholly on virtue are desirable not only because they are associated with a high degree of mutual benefit, but also because they are associated with companionship, dependability, and trust. More important still, to be in such a friendship and to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. ‘As for the pleasure of sex,’ Aristotle tells us with a whiff of disdain, ‘no one could have any thoughts while enjoying that.’

7. Laughter. Humour presupposes that a person is able to see the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an anxiety-provoking emotion, event, or situation; to put it into its proper context; and to reveal it to others in the benign and gratifying form of a joke. In short, humour is an exercise in good judgement. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies; the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death; and incongruity, absurdity, and meaninglessness. These are all deeply human concerns and challenges: just as no one has ever seen a laughing dog, so no one has ever heard about a laughing god. All this is not to deny that humour cannot serve functions other than ego defence, for example, relaxation, pleasure, courting, bonding, problem solving, truth revealing—but merely to say that ego defence is one of the functions of humour and quite possibly its central and defining function.

+1. Forgiveness. The person who lives well according to the principles outlined above is in a position of strength and so able and ready to forgive others for their unhappy trespasses. As Alexander Pope put it, 'To err is human; to forgive, divine.'

That's it from me. If you can think of anything else, feel free to comment and enter the discussion.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.

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