What Makes a Good Life?

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly
Every way we turn we hear about leaning in. Our culture of performance has created an environment of forced positivity, which in turn is generating fatigue and exhaustion. In Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (translatable as The Fatigue Society or The Tiredness Society) German philosopher Byung-Chul Han says “we are inundated by not-so-subtle messages of what we can do.”*

Han quotes the example of the “Yes We Can” slogan from the Obama campaign. “Yes We Can” exudes positivity by suggesting that all we need to do is try harder and that there may be no limits to what we could achieve. The same applies to the Nike “Just Do It” slogan and the thousands of self-help books published each year, which reinforce the imperative of positive thinking and positive actions.

Here is the crux of Han's thesis. “Yes We Can” sounds like an empowering slogan, indicating our freedom and limitless potential. But according to Han, this is an illusory freedom because the message enclosed within “Yes We Can” is “Yes We Should.”

Instead of living in a Disziplinargesellschaft (disciplinary society) of the past where our behavior was clearly regulated by societal prohibitions and commandments, we now live in a Leistungsgesellschaft (achievement society) in which we voluntarily succumb to the pressure of achieving. The Leistungsgesellschaft is no less restrictive than the Disziplinargesellschaft.

We are no longer subject to exogenous prohibitions but we have internalized the mandates of achievement, always striving to do more. We have become slaves to the culture of positivity, subjugated by the imperative “Yes We Should.” Instead of carefully contemplating whether or not to pursue a goal, the mere knowledge that we could achieve it forces us to strive towards that goal. Buying into the “Yes We Can” culture chains us to a life of self-exploitation and we are blinded by passion and determination until we collapse.

Han uses the sad German alliteration “Erschöpfung, Ermüdung und Erstickung” (exhaustion, fatigue, and suffocation) to describe the impact that an excess of positivity has once we forgo our ability to say “No!” to the demands of the achievement society. We keep on going until our minds and bodies shut down and this is why we live in a continuous state of exhaustion and fatigue.

Han does not view multitasking as a sign of progress. Multitasking is an indicator of regression because it results in a broad but rather superficial state of attention and thus prevents true contemplation

There is little recognition for the value of contemplation and thus hardly any space for thinking in the modern work environment. Yet, says Cal Newport in his newly released book Deep Work: the Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World “focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is becoming more valuable in our economy at the same time that it’s becoming more rare.”

In the book he explains why so many organizations continue to encourage behaviors that discourage deep work (e.g., open office plans, constant connectivity, mandatory social media use) and provides counter points for adopting a different approach. Newport says deep work is “a super power in the new economy, as it allows you to learn hard things quickly and produce output at high levels of quality and quantity.”

Our societal pressure to always show a positive outlook also contributes to not focusing enough on problems as we often don't even acknowledge there is a problem in the first place. Yet recognizing and facing problems helps us process emotions and contributes to our well being.

The ancient Greeks had a term for it — catharsis or cleansing / purification — and provided regular opportunities for people to come together and process pity and fear through art so there could be renewal and restoration. When we talk about passion we include human emotion and at some point we should acknowledge its full effects of generating both love as well as fear.

When we ask what is the meaning of life? We often wonder about happiness and recognize health as an important factor. However, if we drill down often the answer to happiness includes wealth, fame, and recognition as requisites.

The way we spend our days makes up our lives

Where should we invest our energy and time? How do we decide what makes a good life? Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger set to find out. As the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction.

Watching entire lives unfold provides good data for understanding what makes a difference to a happy existence. It turns out that it is not fame, wealth, or popularity that matter; in the end it comes down to three things:

1. social connections are really good for us — loneliness kills

It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they're lonely.

2. it's the quality of your close relationships that matters

It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

Once we had followed our men all the way into their 80s, we wanted to look back at them at midlife and to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn't. And when we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn't their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.

3. good relationships don't just protect our bodies, they protect our brains

It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people's memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can't count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And those good relationships, they don't have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn't take a toll on their memories.

Over time, relationships make a big difference to the quality of our lives, and yet we hardly focus on developing them. In the busyness of our daily commitments we may go weeks, months, even years out of touch with family, friends, and community.

Connections happen in real life, there is tremendous value in ecosystems — participating in them and building opportunities for people to come together. We should embrace the role of art and narrative in helping us process emotions, understand that there are often more than two doors we can chose from once we see a problem.

“The good life is built with good relationships,” says Waldinger. It may not always be all roses, but as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince “it is the time you spend on your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Watch the full video of his talk below.



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