In pursuit of meaning – eudaimonia expanded
The pleasant life, or life of pleasure, is one motivated by hedonism – the desire to maximise the number of emotional and physical “highs”. This is the signature of modern consumer capitalism. Within constraints, it is possible to learn the skills necessary to foster the pleasant life, including techniques for amassing income, giving greater access to hedonistic pursuits. Although self-centered, for people committed to the pleasant life the focus of activity is always outwards – looking to the external world to provide sources of satisfaction. Status seeking through career success, for example, can be counted as a feature of the pleasant life because of its emphasis on external reward.
The second approach is the good life. It can be thought of as a life devoted to developing and refining one’s capabilities and thereby fulfilling one’s potential, an orientation adopted by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen in their work on development and wellbeing. Whereas the pleasant life borrows from the future in order to enjoy the present, the good life invests in the present in order to augment the future. Among the characteristics of the good life are purposeful engagement, positive self-regard, high-quality relationships, environmental mastery and continued personal growth.
Aristotle argued that each of us has a daemon, or spirit, and that the purpose of life is to discover and honour it, so the “good life” approach is close to the idea of eudaimonism. The contrast between the pleasant life and the good life reflects the ancient dispute between the Epicureans and the Stoics, and there is now a body of psychological research supporting the distinction. The former is an intensely subjective idea of wellbeing explored through notions of positive affect (or emotion). It is easily, but not very reliably, measured by surveys of subjective wellbeing.
The meaningful life, the third approach to living, is similar to the good life insofar as it may require the development of one’s “signature strengths”. But whereas the pursuit of the good life can be self-focused – the athlete or musician perfecting their skills through years of training and achieving “flow” – the meaningful life entails a commitment to something greater than oneself, a higher cause. Those committed to a meaningful life are not, in fact, committed to their own lives, but to social improvement, or to living in a register that transcends the personal.
For those who pursue the meaningful life, the boundary between the self and the other is permeable. The meaningful life corresponds to what the philosophers of the past understood to be the pursuit of virtue, or selfless moral principles.