What is the good life? Probably one of the most important questions we have to ask. Science is moving closer to answering it. This post is a map of what I believe makes a good life. I'm putting it here for you to critique, to hear and maybe it inspires some useful introspection.You guys are smart people, you reason well, and you don't hold back in your criticisms. I hope you will do the same for this post. Thank you for your time.
The Terminal Goal
This is where science falls short. We can figure out how to get from A to B, but I find it unlikely that science can define a B without axioms. To me, I want the greatest well-being for myself as my primary goal. This is selfish, but looking at what I feel, it is who I am. In the process, though, I care a ton about helping others, so I most definitely will end up helping out a lot as well. So, what does the greatest well-being look like? I want to feel energetic, happy and have a meaningful life. Many other indicators didn't make the cut here, but I am completely open to suggestions!
How do we get there?
This section draws inspiration from Ryan and Deci's Self-Determination Theory (SDT). It's the most comprehensive, empirically backed theory of needs that I've encountered. Casual googling hasn't turned up any major criticisms. I am grateful to anyone who has opposing viewpoints, though!
A Quick Introduction to SDT
SDT presents basic psychological needs in the aptly named Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT). Here follows a short summary, but I encourage you to check out Cp. 10 of the SDT book. There are three basic psychological needs: Competence, Relatedness and Autonomy.
Competence is the feeling that you can do important activities well. It is the possibility for and ability to develop and express skills, understanding and mastery. Optimal satisfaction of competence is dependent on choosing your actions. There is no room for oughts or shoulds.
Relatedness is the need for caring about others and being cared for. It is experiencing others as being sensitive to your needs and being sensitive to the needs of others. Most call it a combination of trust, love, caring and connection. Optimal satisfaction of relatedness is conditional on the love being volitional and unconditional.
Lastly, autonomy is the feeling that the source of your actions is yourself. It is not the same as independence. You can autonomously engage in relationships that decrease your independence. Satisfaction of autonomy is conditional on your motivations being integrated. This is the subject of Organismic Integration Theory (OIT, cp. 8 of the SDT book) which is beyond the scope of this article. These three needs are the components of psychological well-being. But how do we go about satisfying them?
How to Satisfy Competence
To satisfy competence, you choose to do things that are challenging, important and that you're good at.Satisfaction requires that you feel effective at what you do. This further requires that you're getting informational feedback. Feedback that tells you whether you're doing well. You also need to know how to improve, otherwise feedback doesn't matter.Lastly, it requires that you have opportunities to work on things that you find important.
How to Satisfy Relatedness
For relatedness, you need to be sensitive to the needs of others. You need to take genuine interest in who they are and what they want, not judge them for it, and help them. It goes the other way as well. You want to feel that others are sensitive to your needs. This can't happen unless they know who you are. We have to expose what we need, where we are most vulnerable. Not all at once, but a little bit at a time. Being seen like this, and having people respond to us favourably, is what satisfies relatedness.
Lastly, autonomy. If we want to feel like we make our decisions, we have to avoid constraints that we don't choose. This implies that we need sufficient money and time to do what is important to us. We also need something that is important to us, and to have this belief integrated as part of who we are. For this to happen, you must trust yourself enough that you can look at your desires without judgement. Then you can reconcile and integrate them. One way of cultivating non-judgement is mindfuless. Ryan and Deci explore this further in the final part of the BPNT chapter (p. 267 in the SDT book). Not only is autonomy important in itself, it is also essential for the two previous needs. Relatedness is not satisfied if you believe that the other is helping you because they are being coerced to do so. Nor is competence satisfied if you're working on something because you feel like you ought to.
These are necessary conditions. Psychological needs matter much less if your physical needs aren't met. Physical needs are also different from psychological needs in that they are "deficit needs". They become salient only when deprived, but further increases don't yield well-being. Overeating doesn't make you feel good. But there is no end to how competent you want to feel. I chose a lot of willful omissions here. I have included only those needs that I believe can become salient for me. If you think I've missed a need that a westerner in a socialist country might have deprived, please let me know!
This brings us to the part I've been looking forward to the most, me presenting the flowchart of my mental model.
Why write a post on this?
My motivations are twofold, altruistic and selfish. Maybe it can help someone! Before I encountered SDT, I thought autonomy was a normative entity. That we should respect the wills of others because "that's what we do in democracies". I've been ecstatic to learn that we have empirical evidence to back it up.
SDT has also made it clear for me that where motivation comes from matters. Forcing yourself to do something is harmful, and we can quantify the consequences. Spending time considering what is important is useful not only in being efficient. It also increases your well-being, and makes your work higher quality. Fighting and tricking myself into doing what is important isn't the best way of being. I can live in harmony, as long as I dare look at, and care for, who I am.
Selfishly, I am uncertain about this model. I haven't encountered any decent competing candidates. Exposing it to scrutiny seems one of the best ways of increasing my confidence.
How do I create my own?
Diagrams were created with Flying Logic Pro. The idea for the diagram is borrowed from Dettmer's The Logical Thinking Process, the section on IO Maps.
I hope you will come up with a ton of questions and criticisms! When criticising, I hope that you'll include which evidence would change your mind :-)I hope this post was of value to you.
Relatedness: I am sensitive to the needs of others; I feel that others are sensitive to my needs
To me, having relationships with people is less about sensitivity, and more about having friends and family who have my back and I have theirs, even if they're insensitive assholes and so am I. Even though that's an unpopular view today.
I read your comment as "I don't mind that my emotions are sometimes not considered, as long as I can depend on my friends and family". I'd argue that that's sensitivity to your needs as well – they satisfy what matters most to you :-)
It seems to me that all of the things you label "action" are actually also preconditions. For instance if I said to you "Go feel that discretionary time is sufficient" or "Go have things you find important" I don't actually think you'd know what to do.
One fun thing might be to do some How Laddering on this, until you a get a set of habits, actions, skills and knowledge that you can actually act on.
Oh, I completely agree! I simply labeled things "action" when I thought they were sufficiently specific for me to act on.
I hadn't seen how-laddering before, so thanks for that!
Since there's essentially unlimited ways of having things one finds important, I use these more as heuristics to decide between different options – ie. do I currently feel constrained on time, and if so, is option A or B best for me.
In my life happiness stands above all, because well-being and happiness seem to be the same. How do you distinguish between them? Or: Why are maximum energy and maximum meaning not leading to maximum happiness?
Good question! I haven't been very clear on my definition of well-being; to me, it is reacting in the optimal way to life circumstances. That does not mean happiness in all cases – when my family faces hardships, it makes sense for me to worry.
Another example is the manic patient in the psych ward. He may be experiencing maximum happiness/joy, but I don't call what he experiences well-being.
I completely agree that maximum energy and meaning lead to maximum happiness! It looks ugly in the software I use – not adding the arrows was an entirely pragmatic choice.
I see. I am skeptical, if you can justify something not refering back to your own happiness or some kind of satisfying feeling. Why do you want to worry, if not for benefiting you in an extended way (worrying helps you to feel something for others, so that they can feel for you, so that you can feel happy)? But these are just some questions to think about. Do not feel obligated to change anything!
Thanks! Skepticism is exactly what I asked for, so thank you for providing it!
I think I agree with you. If we mean happiness in the "at peace" sense, and not the "feeling joy" sense, then happiness is probably my terminal goal. I don't think maximising for joy is possible without trading off a lot of peace, so joy becomes a sub-goal. But thank you! I'll adjust it in my graph.
As I see it, at the action level it makes little difference. Do you agree? :-)
Maybe. But I am not sure. I think defining it like this is more truthful to your reasoning, so that you can better analyze your actions, if something goes wrong. For example, if you are feeling unhappy, but you do not understand why (maybe because you are doing something due to social norms to improve your life through prestige), then references to your feelings can help you to find a better outcome, while "doing the optimal thing" could lead you to believe in self-sacrifice, even if you suffer from it. Maybe it diverges at this point of individualism vs. communitarianism.
doing something due to social norms to improve your life through prestige
is caught by "I have integrated motivations" in the chart – subjectively it feels much different from integrated motivations, at least it must for the SDT questionnaires to have predictive power, which they do 👍
I'll start with these comments are not well thought out or organized in the written statements. Much more of a reaction (hopefully not too "knee-jerky")
I think a number of other comments have touched on similar thoughts as I have. What I struggle a bit with, and it might be purely how things are expressed, is the end goal bit. I really don't know how I would evaluate Maximum Well-being. Part of that is I see all the actions of getting there to be dynamic (actions) while the goal seems to be a final state.
But even if I think of the end goal in a more dynamic setting (max well-being today, what I think that should be tomorrow or next year) I still struggle a bit with how I would even know I achieved that goal.
That might be me though. It is true that I am pretty happy with where I am with my life, I certainly don't have any significant material worries (no debt, good income, good savings and net worth). I don't have to concern myself with any type of real budgeting my life. I am not an overly social person but do have a group of people I interact with socially and can turn to for emotional/mental support. I have a long term relationship but not without its challenges so have the feeling I am needed and supporting.
Still, I would not say I have reached some maximum; I still want. This is true even though I can see myself as successful, or what others would say is successful, in my efforts. Once I get to a certain point of success I start getting bored and look for other things.
So for me the end goal is in fact an ongoing set of doing new things. But I don't see that I could evaluate any "max" based on something like number of new efforts that were achieved to the level I was interested in reaching.
Another aspect that I wondered about was that bit about journeys versus end points -- enjoy the ride as much as the destination type view. That doesn't seem to fit the model described. So there may be more interaction between end goal and process of reaching the end goal than suggested in the model. I"m not sure if the "when life gives you lemons make lemon aide" fits in this area or deserves separate consideration but I think it should fit somewhere -- and for me would be important as I do value new experiences that cross my path and interrupt any routine, and sometimes point me in a completely new direction.
Last, regardless of whether or not I consider the end goal as some static or dynamic "equilibrium" I've achieve how do I know if it is a local or global one. Or, what weight should I place on the mistakes or paths I've taken in the past that have perhaps locked me out of other paths I would like to be on at a later point in life. How would we evaluate things, or even should we, in a retrospective view?
As a side note, not sure if this will fit in your thinking or if you can even locate the article (I don't know if it was ever published), but one of the econ profs at GMU presented a paper at a brown-bag lunch back in the earlyish 1990s about nonconvex utility function and addiction. It was a case of local versus global maximization but one could argue perfectly efficient (per economic criteria) and rational. The prof was David Levy. I think the question about how one might check if they have convex or non-convex utility functions might be an interesting personal exploration.
Thank you so much! I'm exploring here, so thank you for your input.
Still, I would not say I have reached some maximum; I still want.
Oh, definitely! I mean "maximum" in the sense of increasing well-being, not in the sense that there is a limit.
Another aspect that I wondered about was that bit about journeys versus end points
This fits incredibly well into SDT, but I agree that I did not specify it in the article. One of the most competence-satisfying things is optimal challenges, challenges where you're stretching your abilities but still likely to succeed.
How would we evaluate things, or even should we, in a retrospective view?
I think this is a much larger causal question on counterfactuals, and it's often very hard/impossible to meaningfully do that. But we can still make clear answers to prospective questions, and to specific retrospective questions: If a choice A is more likely than B to satisfy competence, relatedness and autonomy, then it is the better choice.
To conclude, I agree with basically everything you stated. The goal is no the goal in the to-do sense, rather in the compass sense. Was that a satisfactory explanation? :-)
Not when it is based on the above preconditions, no.
If happiness was defined as "experience maximum pleasure" then yes, I'd be afraid that I would end up in abject hedonia. But when it is based on things that lead to meaning, as SDT has shown that autonomy + relatedness + competence do, then that is not currently a fear of mine.
Does that make sense? Or did I miss your point? :-)
This autonomy looks a bit like utopia to me, or the definition needs to be more precise. Autonomy: making decisions and taking responsibility for these decisions? The most stressful thing in life. Autonomy: the choice to say 'no' to one's decision? Something that we always have, only the results vary depending on the circumstances and will not always make us happy. Autonomy: financial and physical ability to own and do what we want? Something that we have little influence on. Apart of that, aren't autonomy and sensitive relatedness mutually exclusive? To have sensitive relations, " You need to take genuine interest in who they are and what they want, not judge them for it, and help them. " first thing will be limiting our autonomy. If we look back, what are our happiest moments? Early childhood: security, love, attention, adoration, lack of competition and almost total lack of autonomy. Holidays: safety, love or friendship and you don't have to make many decisions. We need a choice to say 'no' to someone's decisions, but the times when we feel safe, to say 'yes' to someone's decisions are the happiest moments in our lives. It's really amazing how happy we are to give up our autonomy when we feel safe to do so. Maybe because making decisions and taking responsibility for these decisions is the most stressful thing in life, same with competences, competition causes constant stress. Is stress what we need to be happy or how much stress do we need to feel happy?
A lot to unpack here! Three statements catch my eye:
Autonomy: making decisions and taking responsibility for these decisions? The most stressful thing in life. Autonomy: the choice to say 'no' to one's decision? Something that we always have, only the results vary depending on the circumstances and will not always make us happy. Autonomy: financial and physical ability to own and do what we want? Something that we have little influence on.
Autonomy in the SDT-sense is not defined by whether we're making decisions, nor whether we can own what we want. To make it as specific I can, it's scoring high on the BPNSFS which contains the following items on autonomy:
I feel a sense of choice and freedom in the things I undertake
I feel that my decisions reflect what I really want.
I feel my choices express who I really am.
I feel I have been doing what really interests me
Most of the things I do feel like “I have to”. (R)
I feel forced to do many things I wouldn’t choose to do (R)
I feel pressured to do too many things. (R)
My daily activities feel like a chain of obligations. (R)
Where (R) items are reverse scored.
As you can see, every item contains "feel". Autonomy is about whether you feel like you can do what you want to do.
It's really amazing how happy we are to give up our autonomy when we feel safe to do so.
Having the ability to give up autonomy and take it back at will is, in itself, incredibly autonomous! It also satisfies relatedness.
Is stress what we need to be happy or how much stress do we need to feel happy?
I highly doubt that stress has an independent effect on happiness, but I find it extremely likely that many of the activities that satisfy competence, relatedness and autonomy to the highest degree are also stressful :-)
" As you can see, every item contains "feel". Autonomy is about whether you feel like you can do what you want to do. "
So autonomy is not something we need, but something that we always have, we just need to gain the awareness that we have it, and the awareness of what we can, and the awareness of consequences of our choices. “Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be mastered by anything. " or "the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."
I agree, that was counterintuitive to me as well! Empirically, though, at least for most people it seems that being sensitive to the needs of others is even more important than others being sensitive to your needs.
Furthermore, giving autonomy support to a friend predicted the givers' experience of relationship quality over and above the effects of receiving autonomy support from the friend. When both receiving and giving autonomy support competed for variance in predicting well-being, giving, rather than receiving,autonomy support was the stronger predictor.