What is the good life? How does one achieve happiness?
How did we come to conceive of the good life and happiness in this way?
Contemporary audiences may find it strange to find out that the good life and happiness are ancient philosophical issues. For Aristotle, the chief aim of a human life is happiness, but not as a result of material excess or being able-bodied; rather, happiness is the result of virtue and virtuous practices. One might say that happiness comes by virtuousness while virtuousness comes by practicing actions of virtue; virtue is habitual. The assumption here, is that living virtuously places persons in right relationship to things, and the right relationship brings harmony or happiness.
Attempts at the good life did not stop with Aristotle. Take, for example, the early Christian monastics and ascetics. These achieve the good life -- happiness -- through holy habits that orient one's life toward an appropriate telos (end, purpose, goal), namely, God. (There are also the attempts by the contemporary group called the "New Monastics." Their version of monasticism includes living communally in poverty and giving to the poor.)
There are also non-religious approaches to the good life. Many are aware of Henry David Thoreau's transcendentalist work, Walden (Concord Library). His is a fascinating experiment. Thoreau attempted to live a life of near solitude, self-reliance, and simplicity in a cabin near Walden pond. Thoreau's experiment is not only a moral one, but it is one of self-discovery. Here, the good life transcends materialism and yet is tied closely to nature. (Similar to Walden is the book The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living by Scott and Helen Nearing. It is a "proto-back to the land" life and writing experiment. Ultimately, the good life is envisioned, by the Nearing's, as a life of simplicity.)
In our day of pluralism, competing theories and attempts at the good life abound. How does one live well? Is virtue the means by which we attain happiness? Toward what telos must we orient our life to achieve the good life: God, material wealth, health, closeness to nature, simplicity, or community? Can we achieve the good life as individuals or must we be join a habit-forming community like, say, like the Amish, or a local church community?
Currently, this one question drives my research is: how do we conceive of the good life in light of ecological degradation? At this point, my thinking is somewhat Aristotelian. I believe that the good life comes by virtuous practices (this needs unpacking), but I also believe that virtuous practices must come via a community of virtue. So we must look at what kinds of communities can truly lead individuals and the corporate body to flourish, along with the non-human world. And is the formation of virtuous communities the job of the State (I think I am more Augustinian in my answer to this question), ecclesial communities, or counter-cultural movements to form virtuous communities?
If a life of virtue has some connection to forming "right' relationships with things, then the virtuous life or the good life must be conceived in light of human relations (communities) and non-human relations (nature).
Anyway, I wonder....what does it mean to live the good life?