My recipe for the “Good Life” is much more than a way to achieve happiness. While initially the emerging discipline of positive psychology focused exclusively on what makes people happy, increasingly these researchers are attempting to figure out the more complex notion of “the good life.”

Positive psychology uses science to understand why some people thrive. The subjective nature of the good life must be affirmed. Our personal values significantly shape our understanding of what constitutes the good life.

For example, if you value security more than adventure, a stable job might be more desirous to you than a life devoted to world travel.

The focus on the good life is not to be in a perpetual state of happiness, for there are happy people who have no purpose and who contribute nothing to the world. Nor is the good life one that is focused solely on professional success or material comforts, for there are rich and successful people who have little life satisfaction.

The good life is a complex combination of purposeful activity, varying emotional states and reflection.

As Robert Biswas states:

“The good life is best constituted as a matrix that includes happiness, occasional sadness, a sense of purpose, playfulness and psychological flexibility, as well as autonomy, mastery and belonging.”

Historical Antecedents

Obviously, many people throughout the ages have contemplated how to achieve the good life. Here are a few well-known philosophical approaches:

» Aristotle, the fourth century BCE. Greek philosopher, called the good life Eudaimonia, by which he meant human flourishing. He thought that virtue and its exercise were essential elements, while acknowledging the importance of health, wealth and beauty.

» Epicurus, the Greek philosopher from the third and fourth centuries BCE, argued that the good life is a life of pleasure. Hedonism is the idea that pleasure is the only intrinsic thing and that pain is the only bad thing.

Epicurus considered that the life of pleasure would coincide with a life of virtue. He did not advocate the endless pursuit of pleasure but a sensible policy whereby pleasures are maximized in the long run.

» Stoicism, a philosophical school started by Zeno of Citium in the third century BCE, is less concerned with theoretical contemplation than with practical actions in the real world. To live a good life, one must be a morally just person.

Stoics try to figure out which things are under their control so that they won’t waste time worrying about things they cannot change. Stoics try to be grateful for what they have and not be upset by what they lack.

They also try to see life’s challenges as potentially providing hidden opportunities and benefits.

The most famous Stoics, including Seneca the Younger and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, were Romans living several centuries later.

» Utilitarianism, a tradition stemming from the late 18th- and 19th-century English philosophers and economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, focuses on achieving outcomes that maximize the most benefits for the most people. The problem is that sometimes that action that brings the greatest benefits to the greatest number of people is not fair or just.

Seven Practices to Achieve the Good Life

By studying the daily routines and mundane habits of happy people who lead the good life, scientist have been able to reverse engineer the essential elements of life satisfaction.

The following seven practices all find support in the findings of positive psychology:

» See Yourself as a Work in Progress. Take time to reflect upon who you are, envision the person you want to be, and endlessly work to become that person. A multifaceted and complicated individual is always learning and growing. Formalize a lifelong learning plan of things you hope to master. Remain curious about yourself and the world.

The search for meaning and truth is a lifelong journey that can be tremendously satisfying, as well as frustrating.

» Develop a a Life Purpose. Each of us has things we must do before we die. A meaningful life is one in which you deeply connect to your purpose. A person living life with purpose is a hero who gets up every day with a clear sense of who they are and what they are doing in the world.

A clear sense of your own true purpose is one of the most important qualities you can have. Consider creating a statement of life purpose.

» Be Fully Involved in Your Life’s Details. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s best-selling 1990 book, Flow, added an important topic to the study of positive psychology. Our best moments often happen when our minds and bodies are fully engaged in a challenging and worthwhile activity. Flow is a mental state that occurs when we are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

» Accept Your Emotional States. The good life is not a 24/7 joy ride and it is not an exclusive focus on being happy. Any intelligent and creative person pursuing a rich and meaningful life is going to have periods of anxiety, disappointment, frustration and depression.

If you accept this, you can better overcome these states. Learn coping strategies and have a healthy support network. Suffering is a part of the process of transformation. Attempt to focus on how you are now in the solution.

» Cultivate these Attitudes. Happiness is dependent on what we choose to focus on and how we interpret things. Learn to cultivate gratitude, acceptance, curiosity, wonder and awe, mindfulness, optimism, humility, forgiveness, and joy in being of service to others.

» Become Aware of the Mind-Body Connection. Your body is the only thing you will keep for your entire existence. It surely is a temple. Remain healthy and strong, filled with stamina and strength, robust and whole. Establish a regime of self care tailored to your unique needs and physical requirements. This should include diet, exercise, meditation, sleep, hygiene, etc.

» Prioritize Relationships and Become a People Person. Develop healthy intimacy that is not clingy or detached. Find people to love who can also love you. Collect supportive friends who are kind, will listen to you and who you can trust. These are rare items indeed. Develop a diverse network of people at all stages and levels of society. These others expand your universe and may have knowledge you need for the good life.

The human mind does not always serve us well. It can persuade us to follow intuitions about the good life that are wrong.

Many of the things you think will make you happier won’t. A long vacation, more money and a different job may seem like enticing solutions to your lack of life satisfaction but might not do the trick.

While having an accurate understanding of what will lead you personally to the good life is a unique individual journey filled with trial and error, I have found the seven practices outlined above — all based on the research findings of positive psychology — to be very useful tools for living a life filled with satisfaction.

No matter what, enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy.

— Wayne Mellinger Ph.D. is a social justice educator, writer and activist. He is a member of the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Commission, sits on the county’s Continuum of Care Program, and is a board member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-SB), Showers of Blessing and Social Venture Partners-Santa Barbara. The opinions expressed are his own.