How do you live a “good life”? It’s a question philosophers have pondered and pollsters still pose. Answers vary a lot, given differences in opinion and the breadth of the issue. What often comes to mind is a definition of happiness or what makes a life satisfying. For most people, the question entails both “self-directed” aspects of personal experience and “other-directed” elements of one’s place among others.[i] Definitions of the good life can refer to abundance (“luxury, pleasure, or comfort”) or insight (“simplicity, health and morality).”[ii] Other qualities include freedom or the idea of life as a journey. This chapter explores how people view and pursue the good life, and what obstacles may stand in their way.
Discussions of the good life date to the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, a word commonly translated as “happiness,” “flourishing,” or “well-being.”[iii] Aristotle cast eudaimonia as an aspirational state that individuals could achieve by demonstrating authenticity and virtue in the eyes of the divine. This differed somewhat from the more immediate state of pleasure and enjoyment known as hedonia. As later philosophers gave people more credit for self-determination, enlightenment era figures like René Descartes and Baruch Spinosa linked the good life to a reasoned control of human passions.[iv] Christian interpretations of the good life sometimes gave it a moral character in beliefs that humans were created in God’s image, which is “good” by definition. In this line of thinking, virtue and success in life go hand-in-hand.
Historical figures sometimes made lists to define the good life. Socrates said such a life should follow five principles: temperance, courage, piety, justice, and wisdom.[v] Gautama Buddha spoke of an eightfold path of understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.[vi] Almost all traditional good life lists had people conforming to widely held doctrines or belief systems, with the “self” cast as an element in a larger plan. In today’s more secular times most people see the good life as a matter of perspective. Unfortunately, this relativization has brought with it a certain emptiness. A simple online search for good life will provide you with a list of “bucket lists” of activities such as traveling or skydiving.
Odd as this sounds, the good life often gets defined by its opposite –– the absence of trouble or pain. Philosophical hedonism takes this approach in trying to minimize what gets in the way of happiness. Today’s field of positive psychology has much the same goal of “relieving misery and uprooting the disabling conditions of life.”[vii] And let’s face it, in these stressful times many people see themselves as inadequate or lacking, asking themselves “Could my life be better?” In her book The Morality of Happiness, Julia Annas reflects on this deficit-oriented view –– arguing that it is precisely this scarcity, lack, and the resulting unhappiness that drives human motivation. “Am I satisfied with my life as a whole, with the way it has developed and promises to continue?” [viii] Annas asks. “Most of us are dissatisfied with both our achievement and our promise, and it is only the dissatisfied who have the urge to live differently, and hence the need to find out ways of living differently.”[ix]
Sensible as it might seem, this widely held view can make people blame themselves for matters beyond their control. Fiercely competitive cultures like the U.S. create more losers than winners, so much so that eighteenth century observer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of “America’s daily battle” for life’s necessities.[x] Especially in recent years, U.S. public sentiment has alternated between self-recrimination and other-oriented anger. A decade of fiscal decline and political calamity has given the jitters to the most sober citizens, dividing many against their neighbors or even themselves. Searching for answers is no easy task in hyperbolic media saturated post-truth era in which most people get their news from comedy shows. One-click shopping promises everything faster and better in update culture churning out more of the same.
Today’s fast-paced life takes a toll on the good life –– and particularly on happiness –– because the sense of well-being is tied directly to one’s outlook toward the future. In her book The Promise of Happiness, Sarah Ahmed argued that happiness is all about anticipation. People think about happiness far more than they experience it, she explained, so that “happiness functions as a promise” linked to certain objects, situations, and social relationships. This anticipation can be so powerful in daily life that it can cause anxiety, especially when “true happiness” doesn’t match expectations. The result can be “an anxious narrative of self-doubt (why am I not made happy by this, what is wrong with me?).[xi]
Nervous about the future, individuals retreat into worlds of self-interest while fretting about others passing them by. In growing numbers Americans now hunger for products, advice, or services to fix things, whether via phone apps, media diversions, or the short-term pleasure of consumer purchases. Answering this demand has been an explosion of improvement products, exercise and diet regimes, self-help books, courses, apps, and meditation programs. Indeed, entire new categories of consumer culture have appeared to fill the needs of a society wanting something –– anything –– to help find the good life.
Legalized weed, CDB products, and all manner of intoxicants now constitute a booming industry. In this frenetic atmosphere, stressed-out consumers are getting fed up with ads making them feel worse about themselves.
Meanwhile the very language of advertising itself has changed. “Be Confident” (Estée Lauder), “Take Control” (AMX), “Steal the Show” (Max Factor). You’ve seen this new pitch. It’s a growing strategy called “empowerment marketing.” Media-savvy consumers want advertising that matches their evolving sensibilities -– telling them “Yes You Can” (Sprint) or “Be All the You Can Be” (U.S. Army). As explained by concept originator Jonathan Sachs, “Traditional marketing depends on creating anxiety in the customer in convincing her that she has a need that only the product or service sold can help her fill.”[xii] It’s based on inadequacy, and it’s often untrue. In contrast, “Empowerment marketing subverts traditional marketing techniques by recasting the consumer as the hero who has the power to effect change and use the product or service being sold to achieve success.” The key lies in telling a hitherto suppressed truth. Apple’s famous “1984” ad, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, and political slogans like “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again” are well-known examples.
Consumer empowerment may promise a better life, but it also has troubling implications –– the notion of “personal fulfillment” as a sponsored aspect of the human psyche. These schemes can be especially pernicious for anyone feeling pushed around in daily life. Many such ads are pitched directly at women, suggesting that a fresh perspective or a little more confidence can turn things around. Such feel good approaches can make a person feel better, but don’t always get at the root of the problem. Writing in her book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, Sarah Banet-Weiser said that this puts all the pressure on the individual and fails to address matters of structural disadvantage.[xiii] As Banet-Weiser wrote, populist feminism encourages readers to think to themselves “I’m confident, I have power, but I’m not actually going to go and try to appeal to the state to change wage discrimination or racism.”[xiv]
Ads like this upend the way we think about advertising. The question isn’t so much whether something “bad” is promoted or sold, but whether “good” qualities are turned into products. This is a form of seductive conditioning that draws consumers into purchasing by making them believe that they are in control. Here again, the process feeds on consumers feeling badly about themselves. Otherwise, why would anyone be drawn to empowerment? It is a form of traditional marketing that reaches into new territory while still conforming to familiar inadequacies (missed potential, imperfect appearances, loneliness, for example), and along the way implies prejudice or outright disfavor toward anyone without what is being sold. And if the product is out of reach, you’re in double trouble.
This opening chapter will explore different versions of the good life from a critical perspective. Discussion begins with a look at the “self” –– exploring why so many people now seek transformation. From this we’ll turn to the concept of happiness and explore how its meaning has changed over time to include attributes of wellness, prosperity, and self-knowledge. This will lead to consideration of life coaching, advice services, and commercial therapy programs now available to help people find what they want out of life. Demand for such assistance has intensified in today’s high-pressure, fast paced world, especially as economic and political uncertainty have raised levels of anxiety and stress to record levels. Not that everybody experiences these difficulties equally. Disparities in income, education, and employment opportunities build on bias and discrimination to advantage some groups and disadvantage others. All of this has dampened public appetites for one-size-fits-all programs of social betterment, while raising questions of what is possible in a society that wants to be fair and just.
[i] George Guignon, The Good Life (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999) p, vii.
[ii] “The good life,” Oxford Dictionaries (Jan. 22, 2023) https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/the-good-life (accessed Jan. 22, 2023).
[iii] “Virtue Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Dec. 8, 2016) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/#EudaVirtEthi (accessed Jan. 27, 2023).
[iv] “Spinoza’s Psychological Theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2020) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza-psychological/ (accessed Jan. 23, 2023).
[v] See John Kekes, Moral Wisdom and Good Lives, (Ithaca: Cornel, 1997) p. 32.
[vi] John Allan, “The Eight-Fold Path,” buddha.net (n.d.) (accessed Jan. 27, 2023).
[vii] Martin P. Seligman, Flourish (A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being) (New York: Atria, 2012) p.1.
[viii] Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (London and New York: Oxford, 1995) p. 27.
[ix] The Morality of Happiness, pp. 289.
[x] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II trans. Henry Reeve (1835) Project Guttenberg (2013) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/816/816-h/816-h.htm#link2HCH0025 (accessed Jan. 23, 2023).
[xi] Sarah Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke, 2010) p. 36.
[xii] Jonathan Sachs, “Empowerment Marketing: Advertising to Humans as More than Just Selfish Machines,” Fast Company (May 21, 2012) https://www.fastcompany.com/1679785/empowerment-marketing-advertising-to-humans-as-more-than-just-selfish-machines (accessed Jan. 21, 2023).
[xiii] Sarah Banet-Weiser, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Durham: Duke, 2018).
[xiv] Rebecca Jennings, “Why Feminist Advertising Doesn’t Always Make Us Feel Better,” Vox (Nov. 5, 2018) https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/11/5/18056004/feminist-advertising-empowered-sarah-banet-weiser (accessed Jan. 22, 2023).