What makes a good life?

Apr 29 2021|Written by Slimane Akalië|good life

Michael Phelps talked about his struggles with anxiety after becoming an Olympic champion: "I hit a very low point of my life where I didn't want to be alive anymore", the question that everybody would ask is how a successful, talented and driven athlete can have such feeling. You know, the human mind is wired to find short-cuts in order to optimize the use of energy. It's understandable because our ancestors weren't dominating other animals, but in our modern world, the situation had changed a little bit, at the same time our minds did not change that much. Most of the time we are not in a real survival state because we succeded to dominate the world and adapt to many changes throughout the years.

One of the instincts that our brain had developed to optimize energy-consuming is the tendency to simplify life into quick answers, that's why articles like "10 steps to become rich", "5 books that will change your life" or "The one secret to happiness" go viral. We try always to find simple answers to very complicated questions (which is stupid by the way), and when it comes to having a good life, our emotional and physical state can really miss with our head. So, if we can't put food on the table, we will think "Money is everything", but if we are rich and our marriage suffers, we would think "You know, money is not everything actually, but having a good family is really the answer", at the same time you could do a medical check to discover how bad your health has become and that you have to go through a surgery, now again you will say to yourself "Man, health is everything", and then you may discover that you don't have enough money to pay for the surgery, now again you would think "Money is everything" and it never ends.

When we search for X in "X is everything", most of the time we will change our minds because it's a complicated formula. But what if we approach the question in another way, instead of trying to find "the key to a good life" why not trying to define what is a good life, the quick answer would be being happy, but this answer is really confusing, how you can distinguish between joy and happiness?. Most of the time you can't, and if we are driven by happiness, we will take some micro-decisions based on short-cuts to get more joy until finding that our source of joy is not enough anymore, and we know that novelty is an important trigger of dopamine (one of the famous chemicals that present joy) that's why we like to travel, meeting new people, reading new books and scrolling through the Instagram feed. Here in our situation either we search for another source of joy or we increase the quantity or the consumption frequency, in the extreme we call this an addiction.

Now, those short-cuts are defined by our past experiences (that's why childhood and adolescence are the most critical stages in our life), if you get credit for doing good at school you will keep working to keep getting that nice feeling, if you get rewarded for playing a nice soccer game, you will keep playing, if you tried to smoke with a beautiful girl for the first time, you will probably keep smoking. And the short-cuts to joy can be destructive even if the culture allows them because the perspective is very important. When we seek happiness as a purpose of life, we will try to get more joy, most of the time we will be disappointed because joy and happiness are two different things, I think that's what happened to Phelps but I'm glad he overcame it.

But is there a way to live a good life without following the happiness/joy path all the time? I believe there is, but a path does not mean one secret, one way, one tool (remember it's a complicated question) but instead, there are multiple parts we should focus on:

1- Health: the most common excuse for not taking care of our health is not having time which is right some times, of course, you won't have time for the gym if you don't have any source of income, but just be honest with yourself and question your beliefs.

2- Wealth: most people in our modern world work on this part very hard, the problem with wealth is linking it 100% with the good life, we can understand this in Maslow pyramid, 4 levels of the pyramid can be fulfilled using a big amount of money (level 1: Physiological needs, level 2: Safety needs, level 4: Esteem needs and level 5: Self-actualization needs) but this is problematic because the one fundamental rule of Maslow pyramid is "You can't move to the level n of needs before satisfying the level n-1" and here level 3 of needs is missing (Love and belonging) some people try to hack it but it just doesn't work, you can buy a big house with money but you can't buy a real family, a real wife or some real friends. Similarly, money is a very powerful tool, it's like water if you don't drink any water at all, you will die, but having just water doesn't mean you will live for a long period of time.

3- Social life: I don't really think that we can live a good life without having people around us, either people with the same beliefs or people who love us without any conditions. By the way, time and experiences can build strong relationships, keep them whatever it takes.

4- Spirituality: this part is underestimated even in Moroccan society, we think of religion as something linked to our parents and because the nature of a child is to question everything, you may have asked questions like "why we pray 5 times per day?", "God created us, but who created God?" and in most cases, your parents couldn't answer. This is why we find big contradictions in our society because people with unanswered questions tend to follow the cultural behavior, you can see this in prayer vs fasting in Ramadan, at some point in Moroccan history, Moroccan people accepted that it is normal to not pray but we didn't accept yet to eat publicly in Ramadan, it's not the case in Tunisia for example. But forget about Morocco and Islam, I think the human being needs an infinite source of real hope because if you don't believe in an afterlife for example, mathematically you have 120 years at max to live that's 6258 weeks and 43800 days, so there will be no limits because you will die anyway.

5- Impact: Even with the former 4 pillars for a good life, you can feel that something is missing, you may ask yourself what's the purpose of my life anyway?, even if you believe in the religion you may ask, why God put me on this planet?. Although your religion can give you a basic answer for these questions, I believe every person should find out why he is here, the answer may change throughout the years, pain and joy can play a huge role in this change, hence emotional control is a very important and hard skill to master in this journey. I respect the idea of "doing what you love" and "follow your passion" but I partially disagree with it because of the same discussion for happiness/joy and sometimes you don't know what is your passion, so trying to find your passion before starting to work is a waste of time. Furthermore, the meaning of passion is confusing, in his book "Mastery", Robert Greene talked about the concept of "following your tendencies", and he gave the examples of Darwin and Da Vinci, in the same book he showed the importance of diligence and hard work. The same thing with the story of Polgár sisters, there was hard work and a strong tendency, which lead to defeating the legendary Garry Kasparov by the beautiful Judit Polgár. So I think you should test for a long time as much as you can and be disciplined in the journey which is easy said than done that's why "love" and "pain" can bring a serious problem for young people, the emotional control takes years to develop, so instead of doing what you love, try to do what you believe, it's gonna be tough sometimes, but that pain is necessary.

At the end, I think we should work on every pillar on a regular basis considering our current situation, some parts have to be tackled on a daily basis, others on a weekly basis and some on a monthly basis, remember your life is like a unique puzzle your job is to figure out how to solve it. It's not always positive and good, sometimes it will suck and that's fine, just stay in the game.

I appreciate that you spent your precious time reading my crazy words, this is not guidelines or advice (I'm not allowed to give advice anyway), it's my point of view on a very complicated topic, I know that time and experiences can destroy any point of view. I hope that this article gave you some practical insights to find your answers, thanks again.