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Pursuing the Reasonably Good Life

Pursuing a reasonably good life in a complicated world is good enough.

Key points

  • Even while being fed a stream of doom and gloom in the news, there are good reasons to be more hopeful than most of are.
  • Consider that about 200 years ago, about 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Now, less than 9% does.
  • Skillfully using reason and flexibility are critical in the pursuit of the good life during a complicated time.
Source: metamorworks/iStock

The world isn't as bad as we may think.

Sometimes it feels as if we are living in a very, very mad world. We have been dealing with a global pandemic, climate change, intense political sectarianism, rising racial tensions, fires, floods, mass shootings, electronic surveillance, and the loss of privacy, and the list goes on and on. Despite the constant news stream of doom and gloom, there are good reasons to be more hopeful than most of us are.

By about every metric that counts, the world has gotten better and not worse over the past several hundred years. For instance, about 200 years ago, about 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Now, less than 9% does. COVID-19 has killed over 4 million people globally in the past 18 months, which is indeed a tragedy. However, about a century ago, the 1918 Pandemic virus killed about 50 million people worldwide, and that was with a quarter of the population that we have now. So, that would be the equivalent of about 200 million people today.

Much Room for Improvement

Let's avoid a dualistic, either/or debate about human progress. We can agree that humans have made tremendous progress and that there is still much room for improvement. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in Enlightenment Now, much of what we would call progress (e.g., humans living longer, happier, and healthier lives) is due to enlightened reason, science, and humanism. Evolution has given us these big brains and when we utilize them for good and work together, we can accomplish amazing things.

Navigating a Complicated World

While we have made progress, the reality is that we are not making as much as we could or should. Too often, political polarization and cognitive biases hinder our progress on very complicated issues such as climate change, vaccinations, privacy, personal freedom, health care, homelessness, and so on. This isn't a problem of the right or left. Rather, it is a shared problem of the right and left. The many human biases that distort our perceptions, judgment, and behavior affect liberals and conservatives equally. There's no need to finger point to determine who is more to blame. In fact, when we do so, that's part of the problem.

Our world is changing at a breakneck pace. We have almost 8 billion people on the planet. We have some extremely complicated societal problems to tackle. These aren't going away. To improve at the societal level, perhaps it would be helpful to step back a little bit (or a lot) to gain a more grounding perspective. An ultimate question that we should ask ourselves is: Why are we here in the first place?

A Purpose of Life

I don't know what the purpose of life is. But let's simplify this question a bit and instead ask what a purpose of life is. I will offer not one but two defensible answers: One purpose of life is to be happy. By happy, I mean life satisfaction rather than more ephemeral pleasures such as sex, drugs, and rock and roll. While such pleasures certainly have their place in life, focusing solely on fleeting pleasures can lead to a lot of unhappiness.

We can see that much of our lives are dedicated to pursuing happiness in one way or another. Concurrently, most of us prefer to avoid suffering whenever possible unless it serves some greater happiness in the long run (e.g., studying hard in school, training for a marathon). From an evolutionary standpoint, happiness is the payoff for meeting our survival needs well. Thus, a "good life" could be considered one filled with deep-rooted happiness.

The second purpose of life is to change, learn, grow, and improve. Our evolution is based upon adaptation. We adapt to the conditions of our environments so that we can survive, mate, and raise our offspring. Adaptation is what helped us to survive and thrive in the first place. Adaptation inherently requires change, and change is inherent to the universe.

"The world is maintained by change." –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

"Change is not permanent, but change is." —Rush "Tom Sawyer"

On an individual level, our survival depends upon our change, learning, and growth. The better we can learn and grow, the more likely we will survive. Once again, happiness is often the payoff as we learn, adapt, survive, and thrive. As we learn, we often experience happiness as the dopamine reward system is involved in the learning process. Good feelings are produced as we learn to encourage and reinforce the learning process. A case can be made that we exist because of learning and growth and that we exist to learn and grow.

We Need to Be Flexible

We cannot learn and grow unless we are flexible. When we become rigid, we cannot grow, learn, adapt, improve, thrive, and be happy. This happens on a societal level with political polarization and various forms of extremism, but rigidity or "stuckness" also occurs individually. Various mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, occur when one perceives themselves, the world, the future, or the past in overly negative ways. Flexibility is the key that unlocks us from the prison of rigidity.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” –Heraclitus

One of the great challenges of the era in which we live is that our world is changing much more rapidly than our biological evolution, especially concerning how fast technology evolves. Look at the proliferation of fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories as a case in point. Again, this is a problem for both the right and left. It's a human problem because we simply did not evolve to take in and sort through the massive amounts of information that now inundate us. As our world is changing more rapidly than ever, we need to up our flexibility game to navigate the many challenges that we face.

Pursuing the Reasonably Good Life

“Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.” —Lao-tzu, The Tao Te Ching

“Hold on loosely. But don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.” —.38 Special, “Hold on Loosely”

Some of life's challenges are indeed quite daunting. While we have made progress in so many areas, we often get in our own way. Sometimes the challenge of finding ways to work together is greater than the problems we are trying to solve! If you are fed up with the angry, hateful, and extremist, unproductive rhetoric coming from both sides, you might be thinking to yourself, "There has got to be a better way." I'm with you.

We need to pursue change and growth skillfully through using reason and equanimity. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. That's why I'm an advocate for pursuing what I call "the reasonably good life." We use our reason to pursue the good life in this complicated world, and we also use this reason to accept Voltaire's wisdom that "The perfect is the enemy of the good." A reasonably good life is a good enough life.

For more, see my YouTube channel and podcast on The Reasonably Good Life.

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