Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

What is the good life?


What is ‘the good life’? A recent update of the Personal Wellbeing Index in Australia has highlighted this very issue. The Index, which examines various aspects of life such as standard of living, relationships, purpose, community connectedness, safety, health, and future security, showed that overall life satisfaction among Australians is at its lowest level in two decades.

In particular, those aged 18-25 reported the lowest scores, with an average wellbeing score of 72.5 out of 100 – the lowest in 21 years, the study continued. This result ‘likely reflects heightened feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, and climate worry among this age group.’ This begs the question – are these low scores indicative of a misunderstanding of what the good life truly is?

Despite facing a cost-of-living crisis, Australians are considered relatively comfortable, especially when compared to previous generations and contemporaries in different regions. This comfort, however, does not alleviate the universal human concern of contemplating the good life. Being human often involves pondering our desires and aspirations, leading to sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling, our pillowed heads filled with thoughts that refuse to be quieted.

Throughout history, philosophers, religious leaders, and scholars have endeavoured to define the best way to live. Socrates suggested a life centred around knowledge and personal growth, guided by reason and moral choices. His star pupil Plato offered a different perspective, arguing that the good life was found by integrating with one's inner nature and understanding reality. Aristotle, meanwhile, suggested that the good life was one lived well physically, spiritually, and mentally, with a focus on happiness, achievement, excellence, and virtue.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, perspectives on the good life lean more towards pragmatic acceptance of our mortality, coupled with a hope for life beyond our known existence. In the ‘wisdom book’ of Ecclesiastes, the author commends ‘mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry’. Understandably that’s easier if you are a potentate with your own military-industrial complex, untold wealth, despotic authority, submissive minions and unnumbered concubines. Similarly, the Book of Isaiah advocates a simple philosophy: ‘eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.’ An apt summation, read as a calm acceptance of our mortality, which sits in tension with our innate human desire to avoid pain.

Yet throughout history, our engagement with philosophy and spirituality has led us to associate the overcoming of fear and existential uncertainty with hopes of immortality – life beyond the existence we know empirically. The concept of the good life being postponed to a heavenly realm might seem overly optimistic or even naive, particularly to those who are more jaded. A fanciful, idealized vision of heaven might as well be an imaginary voyage to a candy shop on the Good Ship Lollipop.


'Rather than grand pursuits of wealth, fame, power, or legacy, the good life lies for most of us in the smaller, more modest moments: the pastimes that bring us joy, the gifts that offer peace, the people who provide love, the dreams that inspire hope...'


However, who’s to deny that our earthly existence might offer us the fulfillment we seek, a life of Maslovian completeness? David, the shepherd king of Goliath slaying and Bathsheba bedding repute, is said to have penned his desire that ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’. While this is a comforting notion, it ain’t that easy. David’s words, much like the reassurances given by Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's novel Candide, bear signs of an underlying desperation; a deep longing that arises when considering the turbulent and often traumatic life of the conflicted poet king.

While philosophical and religious views of 'the good life' may offer intriguing insights, they can often feel remote or out of reach, particularly for those grappling with the realities of 21st century life. It goes without saying that existence on this lovely planet is not universally sweet. We all start from radically different points, in terms of genetic inheritance, the privileges of gender, ethnicity, class, wealth, the connections that make life an adventure, a joy or a living hell. And then we’re called to navigate an increasingly complex world, with increasing pressures from economic instability, raging inequality, and climate change to name a few.

Given these circumstances, perhaps it is not surprising then, that the Index results highlight a general downturn in life satisfaction, especially among younger generations who were not lucky enough to have paid off their mortgage or inherited their parents’ wealth. For them, it seems the concept of the good life is particularly elusive.

Yet, the beauty of the good life may lie in its simplicity, as expressed by one of history’s most quixotic figures, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. A poet, rake and warrior serving King Henry VIII, he fell afoul of his liege through arrogance and some petty treasons and plots. Howard was convicted and sentenced to be ‘taken to the place from whence you came from there to be dragged through the city of London to the place of execution called Tyburn,’ and there hung drawn and quartered. Despite facing a brutal end, Howard’s words resonate. Quoting the Roman poet Martial, he says: 'The happy life be these: the quiet mind, the equal friend/No grudge, no strife/Wisdom joined with simplicity/The night discharged of all care…' Howard’s brutal end doesn’t take away from the beauty of that vision: of concord and peace, nights spent care-free with those you love.

A downturn in life satisfaction needn’t cause alarm, but we would do well to be spurred by it and re-evaluate our understanding of what it means to live well. Rather than grand pursuits of wealth, fame, power, or legacy, the good life lies for most of us in the smaller, more modest moments: the pastimes that bring us joy, the gifts that offer peace, the people who provide love, the dreams that inspire hope, and the grace that keeps us slogging along.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Young people on a beach. (Javier Allegue Barros / Unsplash)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Life, Mortality, Satisfaction, Good Life



submit a comment

Existing comments

I’m with Plato about integrating our inner nature with understanding reality. Although, I’ve always loved the film “Dr Strangelove” with its satirical take on life. A sense of humour certainly helps. Having people to love and passions to pursue are important, but perhaps not pursuing ‘the good life’ is the key. My favourite theologian St Paul kept persevering in his chains. And he wrote some of the greatest words about life in the Spirit.

Pam | 24 May 2023  

Living the good life is like riding a bicycle. You have to learn your balance. There are good mentors. More often in real life than on social media.

Edward Fido | 25 May 2023  

Similar Articles

Not a stockbroker

  • Julian Wood
  • 24 May 2023

They knew secret restaurants where / You had to knock at a little door with a hatch. And they rose each day at six sharp to train / Before striding into glass towers, And one of them, she said, had read Proust / And told her it was ‘great’, Only he (or she) / Pronounced it ‘Prowst’ like Faust / And all his envy turned to air.


Tim Winton's wild nature

  • David Halliday
  • 16 May 2023

Arguably Australia's most celebrated novelist, Tim Winton conjures up images of ocean surf and wild remote beaches, having spent decades exploring the mysteries of the natural world in the pages of his novels. Now, speaking to Eureka Street, Tim Winton discusses his new documentary Ningaloo Nyinggulu and why we need to rethink our relationship to the wild.