A Good Life

What does a good life mean to you? Have you been able to live such a life?

Before I went to college, these questions meant nothing. After entering, they meant everything. As a freshman, I was fortunate to take a full year course in the history of western civilization. Early on we were introduced to culture of ancient Greece.

It was there, largely through the ideas of Socrates as described in the Dialogues of Plato, that I began to understand what the good life meant. Socrates claimed an unexamined life is not worth living, that a good life is one of relentless questioning and searching for the truth.

That is what a good life has always meant to me—teaching, doing research, writing. Of course, not everyone thinks that’s what a good life means.

When I asked a good friend what a good life meant to her, she replied working in an important job. Another said, it was being happy. A recent survey of millennials found that 80 percent said that their major life goal was to get rich. Another 50 percent of the same young adults said another major life goal was to become famous.

Robert Waldinger, who is now the fourth director of the 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, reports (Tedx Lecture November, 2015) that a good life is built on good relationships.

This remarkable study began in 1938 with a group of Harvard sophomores. A comparison group consisted of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s.

Throughout the course of the study, the men were interviewed at various intervals in their homes. Their medical conditions were tracked, their blood was drawn, more recently their brains were scanned, and the investigators talked with their children.

Waldinger says there were three three lessons learned from the study. First, social connections are “really good for us” and loneliness is toxic. Second, it’s not just the number of friends we have, but the quality of our close relationships that matters. Third, good relationships not only benefit our health, they also “protect our brains.”

In a way, these lessons have been known for ages. What I find striking in the study, however, is that nowhere is the importance of a “life of the mind” mentioned. Whatever every happened to the role of the examined life?

Can a life of reflections be built in the absence of good relationships? In so far as I know, this question is never discussed. I wouldn’t expect such a life to play much of a role for the comparison group of boys from poor Boston neighborhoods. But I surely would have expected it to be mentioned by some of the Harvard graduates, even though most are in their 90s now.

Maybe I overemphasize the importance of “a life of the mind.” Maybe I’m simply out of touch with contemporary culture. (That is definitely the case.) Maybe I am fortunate to have a close relationship to support the life I lead.

So I know that one can live an examined life, while at the same time having at least one good relationship. And I imagine that those who don’t have a close relationship can still carve out the same kind of life. In a word, perhaps close relationships are neither necessary or sufficient for a good life.


Dom said...


When I read your blog post, particularly the parts about the relationship between “a life of the mind” and relationships, it caused me to think about the following statements made in following Washington Post article that I recently read, so I thought I would send this along to you for your consideration.

Why smart people are better off with fewer friends - The Washington Post - March 18, 2016


• "more intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently."
• When smart people spend more time with their friends, it makes them less happy.
• that those with more intelligence and the capacity to use it ... are less likely to spend so much time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective,

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: Fascinating. Many thanks for the article, which I'll read carefully. The conclusions, as you state them, characterize my life, for sure. Not that I'm smart, but rather if am almost exclusively focused on the "work" I am doing, rather than socializing. And that has always characterized my life. Thanks again. Richard

Stefanie said...

Humans have been talking about what it means to have a good life since we could talk and probably even before then, it seems that no one has a definitive answer, not even Plato. I think Plato and others can provide guidance, but ultimately it is up to each individual to determine what the good life is for them personally. As for those Millennials who all want to be rich, they are young yet, most of them will probably have changed their minds by the time they are 40 :)

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie: In spite of all the talk, I still wish there was some kind of standard, some commonly agreed model of what a good life is. And I think we can find it in those rare individuals we call "wise" and who dispense wisdom. If the claim about millennials wanting to be rich is true, I am disappointed. You'd think they'd know enough to realize that means nothing in the end. Will they change their minds as they age? Yes, I suspect so. At the same time, I know millennials who when given the choice, turned away from a life that would pretty much have guaranteed them some degree of wealth. Richard

Dom said...

Let me see if I understand the millennials, based upon my reading of this blog article and the follow-up posted comments:

1. “A recent survey of millennials found that 80 percent said that their major life goal was to get rich…”, according to this blog post.

2. Millennials overwhelmingly favor Bernie Sanders. "Bernie Sanders' poll numbers high among millennials -- not surprising, as his platform addresses their concerns." http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/17/opinions/burns-millennials-bernie-sanders/

3. Bernie Sanders stands for the principle that: “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time”. https://berniesanders.com/issues/income-and-wealth-inequality/

4. So the millennials (A) want to get rich, which increases inequality, and (B) at the same time overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders, who is running on a platform that says that rich people are the cause of the resulting inequality, which he and millennials contend is the greatest moral issue of our time.

So help me out:

A. Do I misunderstand these facts?

B. Is there inconsistency in the opinions, hopes, aspirations of the millennials?

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: First I have no idea if the claim about the millennials is based on solid research. I've not read the report which makes that claim. But let us assume it is true. It doesn't necessarily follow that getting rich increases inequality. It could just as easily reduce the wealth of the very rich so that it is more evenly distributed among the population. It is also unclear what is meant by being rich. It need not imply being super rich or one of the 1%. However, it there is some inconsistency in the millennial views, it wouldn't be the first time that individuals held inconsistent beliefs. Go Bernie. Richard

Dom said...

Richard: You raise an interesting point with regard to individuals holding “inconsistent beliefs”.

A question that has always interested me is the extent to which the beliefs of individuals are based upon (X) emotion, and/or (Y) logic and reason. When I consider that topic among the questions that come to my mind are the following:

1. Direct causal relationship between formal education & beliefs based upon logic & reason – Is there any direct relationship between (X) the amount of formal education that we have, and (Y) the extent to which our beliefs are based upon logic and reason?

For example, when we, and the population, have more and more formal education do our beliefs become more and more logical and reasonable, so that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between formal education and the extent to which our beliefs are more and more based upon logic and reason?

2. Inverse relationship between formal education & beliefs based upon logic & reason – Or is there an inverse relationship between (X) the amount of formal education that we have, and (Y) the extent to which our beliefs are based upon logic and reason?

For example, as we, and the population, have more and more formal education (A) are our beliefs based more and more upon emotion, and less and less upon logic and reason, and (B) do we use our increased formal education as a tool to find and formulate more and better arguments to support our pre-existing emotionally determined comfortable beliefs and inclinations?

I have heard the following statement from time to time, and I wonder if such statement is supported by independent objective credible evidence:

The most important decisions that we make in life are based upon emotion, and the rest we base upon reason and logic?

When a person tries to answer the key question raised by your blog post “what does a good like mean?”, I wonder whether the “examined life” route to the answer to this question is, or should be, through emotion or through logic and reason.

Perhaps for some people the “examined life” route is an emotional one, while for others it is one through logic and reason.

What do you think?

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: You also raise an interesting question, but there is no evidence that I am aware of on the relationship between formal education and X and Y. There are some who propose two systems in the brain, the emotional and rational, as you suggest. But in the real world, where decisions are made, who can be sure one players a greater role than the other. Consider the case of buying a car: You want a fuel efficient car, one that has a good safety record and isn't too ostentatious. However, you end up buying the red, racy, twin carburetor model that is going to get you a lot of speeding tickets. And you also have a Ph.D. Sometimes we base our decisions on emotion, sometimes logic and probably most often on a combination of the two. Richard

Dom said...


Thank you for your quick reply. In your reply to my comment you state with respect to the role of emotion and logic in the decision process of an individual.

1. No evidence exists of relationship of education to decision-making approach.

In your comment you stated “…there is no evidence that I am aware of on the relationship between formal education and [beliefs based upon emotion versus logic and reason]”

I had hoped that there would be some independent objective credible evidence on the relationship between formal education and the extent to which the beliefs that people have are based upon emotion versus based upon logic and reason.

I expected that such research would have been something that some well-respected researchers within the academic community would have given a high priority to conducting.

I wonder how the public would react, particularly parents who pay college tuition, if the academic community stated to the public something to the effect that “There is no evidence that a college education causes college graduates to be any more likely to make decisions based upon reason and logic, rather than emotion, then non-graduates”?

I wonder if anyone is doing such research now?

2. Who can be sure of the role of emotion & reason/logic in decision-making.

In your comment you stated “…in the real world, where decisions are made, who can be sure one plays a greater role than the other.”

When it comes to making marital decisions – who to marry, for example, I suspect that the majority of people would probably candidly state that the selection of the particular person that they chose to marry was a decision made out of emotion more so than as a result of any rational, logical decision-making process. I suspect that there are other similar emotional decisions.

I would also suspect that the advertising and marketing industry has done exhaustive studies in determining whether the consuming public makes its decisions with regard to the purchase of each particular product or service based upon emotion or reason, and that a careful review of the content and form of advertisements would reveal what the industry believes to be the consumer decision-making process with regard to each type of product.

Therefore, given the circumstances, as I perceive them, I am surprised at the apparent lack of any independent credible objective evidence showing whether or not increases in formal education does, or does not, cause individuals to be more reasonable and logical in their decisions and in the adoption of their beliefs.

Linda said...

More fuel for the fire on the connection, or rather the disconnection, between being smart and being happy:
But, to your original post and question - No, I do not think you overemphasize the importance of the life of the mind. And if you are out of touch with contemporary culture, then count yourself fortunate beyond measure, because I see nothing in it to sustain a life of reflection.
When I was young, a good life had everything to do with the economics of getting by and getting ahead. Today, with raising a family and a building a career behind me, the life of the mind and intellectual pursuits give life a richness I would never have imagined. And I agree with your proposition - perhaps close relationships are neither necessary or sufficient for a good life - as you (and I as well) define a good life, although I think close, supportive relationships (supportive being the key), if one is lucky to have them, have other benefits.

This is a subject that I really think about a lot. Thank you for the discussion.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Many thanks for the Atlantic article. I've not read it. It's easy for me to live a life of the mind, as I have always had support and good fortune. Most are not so lucky and lucky I was and remain. I'm glad you now have a chance to pursue matters that you had to set aside for so long. And you have plenty of time left. Richard

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: I've not searched at all on the relationship between education and type (emotional and/or logical) of decision making. You might want to look into it yourself; it's an interesting question. And you are surely right about the role of emotion in marital choices. It is one of the reasons the divorce rate is so high. I note, however, that individuals are delaying marrying more and more these days. In these cases, perhaps the divorce rate is lower than it is for those who marry when they are younger. As for advertising, I'd be very careful in making too much of the research by advertisers. It is often poorly controlled and overemphasizes positive effects. It takes more than an advertisements to induce a behavioral change, let alone maintain it. The sources of behavior are much more complex than an ad or series of them. Richard

Stefanie said...

There is a reason all those "wise" individuals are rare and I bet if you got them all in a room they would disagree about quite a lot of things. I understand your desire for a standard, but a one-size-fits-all model never actually fits anyone.

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie: I don't think I said or implied a single standard for a good life. "Of course, not everyone thinks that’s what a good life means." Surely there are many ways to create a good life. A life of the mind is but one, one that has always been important to me. Richard