Happy New Year and the ‘Good Life’ Paradox
“Happy New Year! I hope that for you and your family, it is a year of much happiness, health and success!”
This salutation, and many versions of it, flood our social media feeds on this, the first day of 2019. It is a customary greeting (at least in our western culture) and it feels nice to know that people wish us and those that we are close to, a year of happiness, health and success. Which is good, because I certainly don’t have any well-defined plans for sadness, ill-health or failure over the coming 12 months; although we’d be wise to be prepared for, and welcome them, when they inevitably arrive. What do I mean?
As we move into this new year, we can expect that just like all years preceding it, 2019 is likely to bring both; uncertainty and hope, promises of fulfillment and yet will have its inescapable disappointments, and it may bring (some) satisfaction, although no doubt, it will also deliver disappointment. In many ways 2019 is likely to be a year where life will have both ups and downs along with many moments of ‘ordinariness’ in between; such is human ‘being’ and ‘living’.
So, as we begin the year, rather than simplistically wishing for and expecting; infinite happiness, health and success, might we instead be wise to hope for a year filled with all that it means to ‘be’ as a human? Is this what we really mean when we wish someone: “all the best for the new year”?
As we reflect on these questions and ponder the year ahead, we may be drawn to another question; “what does it mean to live ‘a good life’?” This is one of those age-old philosophical questions and one that cannot be easily explored in a few pages of a blog piece. However, I thought it may be useful to contemplate it in the context of ‘Happy New Year’.
To begin this, I picked up Hugh MacKay’s book The Good Life, a book that is filled with wise advice and importantly invokes useful and thought provoking questions. MacKay is a social researcher and the author of many books – including in the field of social psychology and ethics, along with six novels. In ‘The Good Life’, MacKay shares the following story:
I went to one of those happiness conferences. Some of it was quite helpful. I got some good tips on how to minimize stress, and how to live in the moment. But some of it was weird – people telling us we were responsible for our own happiness, and if we weren’t happy, that meant we really didn’t want to be – all that stuff about how you can get what you want just by wanting it badly enough. Reach out to the universe. All pretty old hat, actually. The woman sitting beside me had a son who was dying of cancer, and she eventually left in tears. (2013, p.55)
Can you imagine how this woman may have felt? What might a ‘good life’ mean for her and, her son? Could they even contemplate such an idea? Perhaps it’s something that can only be considered on a day by day basis as they spend time together? Feasibly, as they contemplate a ‘happy new year’, thinking beyond today is just too much at this point in time and given their circumstances? Maybe they can’t see any ‘good’ at all? Perhaps ‘ordinary’ moments of sitting and ‘being’ with her dying son are all that this woman could hope for in ‘living’? Maybe in such circumstances, good can only be understood paradoxically?
That is, in a challenging irony, could it be that through the adversity of dealing with her son’s cancer, that she may actually spend more quality time together than many children and parents, who may get easily caught up in the busyness of our modern lives? I can imagine it would be difficult (if not impossible) for this mother to recognise this paradox (and maybe for, her it does not exist), certainly not during a moment while sitting with her dying son, although in reflection it may emerge.
Before finishing on the above story, I recognise that some people may suggest that we ought not disregard the part about ‘taking personal responsibility’ for our own lives and even happiness. I agree that we do need to accept some responsibility, however equally, isn’t there much that we cannot control? Is happiness a ‘choice we make’?
So how might we know if we are living ‘a good life’? McKay might help us consider this when notes that:
A good life is not measured by security, wealth, status, achievement or levels of happiness. A good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way. (2013, p.43)
Perhaps if we are going to contemplate the question of ‘a good life’, we would be wise to consider this in union with others? We are after all, social beings so perhaps life can only be ‘good’ if we are in community with others? We certainly know that the opposite can reign true with increased levels of anxiety and addiction being associated with loneliness.
However, this is challenging in a world that at almost every turn encourages a ‘privitisation of self’ (http://www.revgrahamlong.com/the-privatization-of-self/) and of thinking that ‘a good life’, means only ‘my good life’. Maybe we ought to think of it as ‘our good life’? How can we avoid falling for the trap of measuring our lives in accordance such individualistic traits such as wealth, status and achievement? What might this mean for our connection with others? These are challenging questions.
As we search for meaning and try to make sense of the question of ‘a good life’, how can we do this if we are not open to the ‘good life paradox? If we are accepting of the inevitable ‘bad’ that will occur in amongst the ‘good’ and the ‘ordinary’, do we in turn open ourselves up for a more fulfilling experience of ‘being’ and living’?
Maybe this is what we wish for when we bid someone a ‘Happy New Year’?
Author: Robert Sams