Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Good Life II

Last spring, when I was called away from drafting my novel, Soul Weather, so I could revise my manuscript on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, I promised to write a post about how questions about the good life find their way into novels.  I was finding that question posed by the characters in my own novel as well as seeing the question resonate through the novels I was reading.  That was April; it's now the end of January.  I'm back thinking about Soul Weather but not writing yet.  Instead I'm reading current nonfiction about trolling, about relationships in the 21st century, about economics, about the effects of social media on millennials.  I have yet to settle down and read through The Globe and Mail for the time period of my novel.  I'm reading contemporary novels to see what they have to say about the novel at this historical moment--which,  you must admit, is pretty singular.  I'm also reading through the notebooks I have been keeping for nearly ten years both to see what kinds of good ideas I had and to jettison the bad ones. But ideas about the good life keep returning.

As far as I know, Aristotle was the first person to think systematically about the good life.  A major part of his thinking was to distinguish between goods that were a means to an end and goods that had no practical use that he called goods of the soul.  Love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment are some of these.  They won't keep you warm or buy you food, but something is missing from a life without them.  Aristotle thought is not all that different from that of psychologists who collect hard data on happiness and well-being.  Whether we're motivated by hedonia or eudaimonia--feeling good as opposed to doing good, as Veronika Huta so efficiently put it, will determine how happy we will be--how much of a sense of well-being we'll experience.  (I'm a bit nervous about the word "happy.")  I've written here as often as you would read about the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation--a distinction that is quite robust in the research.  (Thank you, Katherine Arbuthnott.)

Donald Trump is my poster boy for extrinsic motivation:  he seeks outward signs of his success that can easily be read by anyone else:  power, money, attractiveness (or an attractive partner).  So is he happy?  Clearly not.  Mother Teresa and Jack Layton are good examples of intrinsic motivation.  Within themselves they found the passion and the skills that translated into good in the world.  In a classic study, researchers gave graduating students a questionnaire that would reveal whether their motivation was intrinsic or extrinsic and then asked them where they wanted to be in three years.  In the three-year follow-up, most students had achieved what they'd hoped, but only those with intrinsic motivation--the teachers, the artists, the social workers--were happy with their progress.  There isn't enough stuff, money, or power to make someone devoted to extrinsic motivation happy.  On the other hand, the pleasure of creating something new, the discovery of a new idea or a new way of teaching, the nudge you can make to improve someone else's life are very satisfying.  I should also say that these kinds of motivation can be seen on a continuum, with intrinsic and extrinsic on opposite ends.  If I write a poem I'm proud of, do I want to share  it with someone else and for that person to admire it?  Yes, I do:  I'm not poetry's Mother Teresa

Why have ideas about the good life migrated from philosophy to the novel?  As I've been thinking about both my characters and this blog, I have come to realize that the good life is idiosyncratic and individual, and probably changes for each of us as we move through our lives.  I can tell you what I think the good life is:  it's a life with a purpose you have embraced, whether that purpose has befallen you or been chosen by you.  It's a life of kindness, generosity, gratitude, hope:  of rich and often intimate relationships with others, relationships built on how well you know them and how that knowledge plays a part in how you care for them.  It's a life questing for the balance between what Jane Austen thought of as "duty to self" and "duty to others"--one of the most difficult balancing acts humans undertake.  It's a life with a voice, a life that expresses its meaning to those who matter.  It's a life which has making or creating as part of the daily or yearly round:  making a meal, a garden, a sweater, a poem, a Christmas decoration, a painting, a quilt.  Otherwise, we lack agency; we are simply consumers of someone else's idea of a good life, and we lose the pleasure inherent in creating something that wasn't there before.

In all likelihood, if you are a reader of this blog, none of those ideas about the good life will seem questionable or absurd.  But they won't seem quite right to you either.  That's because they're not yours.  And in some ways, they are only the latest incarnation of my ideas of the good life.  I don't think gratitude always played the enormous role it now does in my sense of well-being:  it took my cat Twig and his terrifying illness, along with the daily ritual of telling him I was grateful we'd had one more day together, to move gratitude from a peripheral quality of the good life to one that is front and center for me. 

Only something as various and particular as art can give us insight how people like us or unlike us have solved--for the moment--the problem of a good life.  Our intimate contact with myriad characters, all questing for meaningful and ethical responses in an often unethical world, can help us with our own quest.

Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People illuminates some of these ideas about "the good life," particularly how fragile it is and how quickly it can change from intrinsic to extrinsic. George Woodbury is heir to a sizable fortune, but has chosen to teach science in a rather elite school instead of following in his father's footsteps.  He finds immense pleasure in helping students understand the mysteries of the universe in his physics classes.  He is the town hero, having tackled a man with a gun who clearly meant to wreck some havoc at the school where he teaches and where his youngest daughter goes, but that status isn't something he takes seriously.  Joan is an emergency room nurse; you have to want to help people and believed in your carefully-honed craft--all intrinsic qualities--to serve in that capacity. Their gay son is a lawyer in a loving relationship and his choice is fully respected by his family.  Their daughter is in her last year of high school:  she's beautiful and smart and has a wonderful boyfriend.  She's so successful that she doesn't even need to think about it, but can focus on her studies, her sports, her relationship with Jimmy. 

But what happens to this ordinary extraordinary family when dad is accused of sexual assault during a school field trip?  (I promise; no spoiler alert needed, except to say that there's a plot twist that reveals how fine a writer and how nuanced a thinker Whittall is.)  What happens to a family and its members who have pursued the intrinsic ideal of the good life when their lives are suddenly subject to intense scrutiny and venom?  Interestingly, they are forced to shift their emphasis toward extrinsic markers of the good life.  Whittall's novel points to the ripples that radiate from such questioning and abrupt shift.  It isn't simply that the characters undergo a kind of dissolution that starts from within;  the community makes those family members into pariahs.  We may think that our idea of the good life is an integral part of us, created solely by us, but Whittall's novel suggests that social approval or censure can have a profound effect on our definition.

Cats undoubtedly have intrinsic motivation.  Freud once said that happiness was easy:  work to do and someone to love.  They clearly love one another:  you can see that Lyra's white paws are around Tuck's neck.  And their work--oh how hard it is!--is to cuddle with us and make us laugh.

Next week:  the good life in War and Peace, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Kate Atkinson's God in Ruins, and Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.


  1. Sometimes people think the "good life" is too elusive for them, that they will never find it. This thinking comes from having a misunderstanding of just that the good life really is about. So often people are trying to live a life they THINK they are supposed to live. A life often dictated by Madison Avenue. Instead, we each have to define the "good life" for ourselves. Only when we know what we value, individually, as the good life can it ever be attained.

    Richard Yadon

  2. Oh how I enjoy your thoughtful and intelligent posts! -Kate