THE GOOD LIFE: What makes a life worth living? (Guest Blogger – Hugh Mackay)

by |April 7, 2013

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.’

Click here to buy The Good Life from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

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.

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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  • Ella

    April 27, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Teaching our kids that self-esteem is the most valuable possession they have, is damaging to them? Are you absolutely kidding me? Sure, I’d rather have a child who was self-deprecating and self-denying to the point of not caring about their own well-being at all. Where do you think depression in our society comes from??

    • Richard

      April 29, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Ella, in the context of the above I don’t think Hugh is saying that self-esteem in children is unimportant, only that it is perhaps not THE most important thing.

    • H

      October 9, 2013 at 4:26 pm

      Hugh’s point is that they’ve GOT self-esteem AND they’re depressed. So what next?

  • bob brown

    May 3, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Focussing overly on self-esteem leaves children vulnerable and makes them less resilient. We’re all special but we’re not so special. Way to go Hugh, finally an answer to the positive psychology movement that has become cult like.

  • Rosalie

    May 28, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    I think Ella has completely missed the point. Therein lies the argument Hugh is putting forward. Take the blinkers of Ella and bring your children into the real world.

  • Sophia

    May 29, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    I think we need to come to the realisation that self esteem is influence greatly by cultural impact…in Australia, I think, “kindness” and “self control” are less factored into children’s self esteem in this country compared with the many other places I have had the privilege to interact in. I think Mr Mackay is making the point that self esteem (partnered with self control) should be measured by the “quiet” positive impact we have on others rather than “loud” me-ism of attention seeking and need for acknowledgement. We need to remember, the responsibility that comes with self love (and thus self esteem) is passing that humanitarian-love on to others, rather than becoming self obsessed (me-ism). We can’t ignore the formulae: for every “action” there’s a “re-action” and if the “re-actions” are detrimental to society we need to re-investigate the “actions”! Younger and younger children are becoming brutal murderers! AND adults devoid of self control are become dangerous drunkards in a FIRST WORLD society that is very privileged. It appears, statistically, that Australians are breeding bullies, not humanitarians! As an Australian parent with access to these stats, this is a daunting fact!

    • Annie

      July 3, 2013 at 9:48 am

      I agree with you totally. We seem to vibe praise only and not the otherside so that our kids will grow up thinking the world owes them a living and they will be quite shocked to find out the reality and quite unprepared to know how to deal with life.

  • July 17, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    I agree with Hugh’s searing comments on the Happiness Industry. A better goal….satisfaction. Perhaps I missconstrued his comment that seems to chalenge the supremacy of science over religion. There must be some irrefutable science …..evolution over creationism or am I splitting hairs.

  • anthony

    August 4, 2013 at 11:22 am

    I don’t ordinarily contribute to these threads in response to narcissistic polemics masquerading as informed writing but this is beginning to annoy me. Neither the reductionism of empirical science nor the blind mythology of religion hold the answer we all crave as parents: will my kid be OK. MacKay, Seligman, Gladwell and the whole gang are merely commentators on the beautiful, painful, complex, chaotic, uncertain, joyful experiment that is bringing a child into this world. Find your values, live them as consistently as you can and accept the fact that you will sometimes fail.

    • H

      October 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      Sorry, did you mean something?

  • H

    October 9, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Gen Y are a complete disaster and everyone knows it. Their teachers, their parents, and the people who now must work with the entitled sods all know something’s gone wrong. Hugh’s just pointing out where we went wrong and how we might fix the problem in the next generation coming through. With the princes and princesses of Generation Me-me-me-me-me-meeeeeeeeeeee, we avoided all discipline and focused on self-esteem, and look how they turned out. Now we have to live with them, which is terrible, and I think it’s safe to say, “Let’s not do that again.” For the next generation coming up under them, the answer seems to be: teach them SELF-DISCIPLINE. I think we’ll have better luck with self-discipline than we’ve had with self-esteem.

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