Hugh Mackay, psychologist, social researcher and writer, blogs about the basis of his wonderful new book The Good Life.
What comes to mind when someone says ‘the good life’? Comfort and prosperity? A chance to cash in your chips, retire to the coast and put your feet up? A life enriched by the love of your family and friends? A life where dreams come true?
How about a life lived for others, a life devoted to serving the neediest members of society, or a life of self-sacrifice? Those are equally valid ways of interpreting ‘good’ – giving it a moral spin rather than an economic or emotional one.
Given our society’s current obsession with feel-good definitions of happiness, and the damage we’re inflicting on our kids by teaching them that self-esteem is their most precious possession, it’s not surprising that our minds tend to leap to self-serving interpretations of ‘good’. This, after all, is the Age of Me – an ugly blip in our cultural history where competition usually gets more marks than co-operation, and self-interest is rated more highly than self-sacrifice. Look after Number One! – that’s the slogan we like to chant. Winners are grinners! and ‘loser’ the ultimate insult.
But that’s not the whole Story of Us. In a civil society, where most people are quite interested in upping the goodness quotient in their lives, we can learn to tame (not slay, just tame) the savage beast of self-interest. Yes, we humans can be ruthlessly competitive, aggressive and violent, but we have nobler impulses as well: we’re also the kind of people who fight off a shark to save a mate; jump off a river bank to rescue a stranger; return a wallet full of cash, anonymously; help a frail person cross a busy street; defend the victims of prejudice; volunteer to take refugees into our homes.
Deep within us, we know the survival of our communities – the survival of the species itself – depends on paying more attention to that insistent message that comes to us from every religious and moral tradition of East and West: treat other people the way you’d like to be treated. (Some people find the so-called Golden Rule makes more sense in the negative: never treat others in ways you would not like to be treated.)
If we fall for the idea that the good life is only about having a good time, or ‘doing well’, or even being ‘happy’ (in the superficial emotional sense), our moral compass is bound to wobble. As I say at the end of the book: ‘No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.’
Hugh Mackay is a prolific and well-known social researcher, writer and commentator in Australia. A newspaper columnist for over 25 years, he is now an honorary professor of social science at the University of Wollongong, the author of nine books in the field of social psychology and philosophy and five novels.