Exploring the big question: What does it mean to live a good life?

Exploring the big question: What does it mean to live a good life?

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 23 August, 2023


There are three central questions to ask about your life. First, ‘am I living a morally good life?’ Second, ‘is my life going well for me?’ Third, ‘Is my life meaningful?’ Perhaps, at different times in our lives, one or another of these questions will take priority. However, they are all important questions that we should regularly ask ourselves.

Matthew Hammerton

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Singapore Management University

In brief

  1. One must recognise that the notion of a ‘good life’ is ambiguous.  It could mean living a morally good life, a prudentially good life, or a meaningful life. 
  2. Some individuals live meaningful but lopsided lives, while others live well-rounded lives where there is a balance between relationships, knowledge, moral virtue and other forms of stability.  
  3. Pursuing ‘workism’ can enhance meaning but may involve tradeoffs with other valuable aspects of life like relationships and personal growth. 

This article is being featured in Special Feature: From Living to Thriving

Living a good life is something that many people aim to do, but the steps to attaining this elusive goal remain unclear. Some look to iconic figures like Confucius, Marie Curie, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa for having lived respectable and meaningful lives. But does a ‘meaningful life’ necessarily equate to a ‘good life’? What factors and tradeoffs must one be aware of when choosing their approach to life?  Matthew Hammerton, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, offers his views on this complex and significant topic.

The many faces of a ‘good life’

Asst Prof Hammerton suggests that the first step in defining a fulfilling life is clarity that a good life is a broad concept. It encompasses three different but important subsets that have been discussed by philosophers.  First, there are those who live morally outstanding lives. They devote their energy to serving others and putting the common good before personal enrichment and glory. However, this does not guarantee that their life is going well for them. For example, despite their virtue, misfortune befalls them. Maybe they suffer from a rare genetic disease that causes pain, or several of their loved ones die leaving them with emotional scars that do not fully heal.

Next, there is a prudentially good life, whereby the person lives comfortably,  financially or emotionally. The third definition is centred on the concept of meaningfulness. To illustrate this point, Asst Prof Hammerton highlights the case of Albert Einstein, whose groundbreaking discoveries revolutionised our comprehension of the universe and paved the way for numerous advancements in technology. His life would undeniably be considered to be meaningful, especially when compared to the life of a person who is a proverbial ‘couch potato’. 

“If we accept these distinctions then there are three different questions to ask about your life,” says Asst Prof Hammerton. “First, ‘am I living a morally good life?’ Second, ‘Is my life going well for me?’ Third, ‘Is my life meaningful?’ Perhaps, at different times in our lives, one or another of these questions will take priority. However, they are all important questions we should regularly ask ourselves”.

Well-being vs. A meaningful life 

In his research, Asst Prof Hammerton has noticed an overlap between theories of ‘meaning in life’ and theories of ‘well-being’, with both encompassing qualities such as knowledge, love, beauty, moral excellence, achievement and creativity. This led him to ask the question - what truly differentiates a well-lived life from a meaningful life? Upon further study, he developed a new theory on ‘meaning’ - specifically identifying balance as the key distinguishing factor from ‘well-being’. 

He explains: “Balance is key when it comes to well-being, as the individual needs to experience a healthy amount of all the major goods in life - such as loving relationships, knowledge, moral virtue and engagement with art and culture.” 

On the other hand, a lopsided life that is focused on one area of value can have a more significant positive impact. He gives the example of an artist who sacrifices their financial stability, social standing and relationships in their quest for artistic excellence. By living lopsidedly, they might achieve more in their chosen field and contribute more value to the world, ultimately leading to a more meaningful life. 

A shift in perspective 

The stresses of modern life often leads people to focus too much on their own personal well-being and forget the bigger picture. In some cases, life altering events shake us from the stupor of the daily grind, as seen in the case of Mr Wong Zi Heng, a teacher who became a wheelchair user after being paralysed at the age of 21 in a diving accident. After a period of heartbreak and hardship, Mr Wong shares that he now accepts that some things are out of his control, and that the incident helped him develop greater compassion and patience for those around him. Asst Prof Hammerton says, “life altering events can shift our perspective, leading us to think more deeply about having a meaningful purpose in our lives”. 

Balancing matters

This is particularly relevant when it comes to a common dilemma many face: Which comes first - one’s career or having a family?

A 2021 Pew Research Center study showed that 44 percent of non-parents aged 18 to 49 do not think they will have children, while a separate study by SoFi and Modern Fertility found that three out of five respondents were willing to prioritise career advancement over starting a family. ‘Workism’, a term coined by writer Derek Thompson to describe the growing trend where people choose to make their work the centrepiece of their identity and life’s purpose, typically results in people living lopsided lives where their work is prioritised above all else. 

Asst Prof Hammerton’s framework on meaning and well-being shows the positive and negative aspects of this mindset. He says, “If you are in a career that perfectly fits your skills and talents, then workism could be a way to enhance the meaning in your life. However, choosing this path also involves ignoring many other sources of value in human life, like building loving relationships, engaging with art and culture, or building moral character through things like community service.”

Ultimately, the tough decisions people must make about work versus other life priorities involve tradeoffs between meaning in life and well-being. With workism, individuals are choosing a lopsided life that is potentially more meaningful over a well-rounded life with greater well-being. Of course, the assumption here is that people are making meaningful contributions through their work. Economic pressures sometimes force individuals into jobs they do not find fulfilling or valuable, which results in a lack of meaning derived from their work.

Advice for living a good life

Asst Prof Hammerton has three pieces of advice for people who want to start living a ‘good’ life. 

The first is to think about the different ways one might evaluate their life as being ‘good’. You should ask yourself not only whether your life is going well for you, but also whether your life is meaningful and whether it is a morally good life. 

His second piece of advice is to avoid being consumed by the pursuit of happiness. He explains that when it comes to living a morally good or meaningful life, happiness should not be viewed as a critical component. He cites the example of an aid worker who devotes her life to helping others and therefore lives both an ethically outstanding and highly meaningful life, but may not necessarily live a happy one. He says, “Many people have bought into the narrative that happiness is all that matters in life. As long as you feel happy, your life is going well for you. I believe that this is a mistake. I think that happiness has been overrated and overhyped in recent decades.”

His final piece of advice is to understand that there are no easy answers to life’s deepest questions. He says, “As a philosopher, I have spent a lot of my adult life thinking about life’s deepest questions. I feel that this has made me wiser and yet I am still unsure about so many things”. Reflecting on this uncertainty, he says “I’m okay with that. Even if there will never be final answers, there is value in asking and thinking through these questions”.

Click the numbers to learn more

What insights come to mind?

What insights come to mind?

Click to respond and see what others think too

What makes you skeptical?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you curious?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you optimistic?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you on the fence?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

Story successfully submitted.

Story successfully submitted.

Thank you for your story. We'll be consolidating all stories to kickstart a discussion portal in our next release. Subscribe to get updates on its launch.

I consent to SMU collecting, using and disclosing my personal data to provide information relating to XXX offered by SMU that I am signing up for/that I have indicated my interest in.

I can find out about my rights and choices and how my personal data is used and disclosed here.

Methodology & References
  1. Yehoon, A. (Jul 2023). A diving mishap took away this 31-year-old teacher's ability to walk, but not his passion to help others. Today Online. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/diving-accident-paralysed-teacher-goh-chok-tong-enable-fund-2216551
  2. Brown, A. (Nov 2021). Growing share of childless adults in U.S. don’t expect to ever have children. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/11/19/growing-share-of-childless-adults-in-u-s-dont-expect-to-ever-have-children/#:~:text=Some%2044%25%20of%20non%2Dparents,same%20in%20a%202018%20survey.
  3. RO. Modern State of Fertility 2020: Career & Money. RO. Retrieved from https://ro.co/fertility/fertility-survey-2020/
  4. Thompson, D. Workism Is Making Americans Miserable. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/
  5. Flanagan, O., LeDoux, J., Bingle, B., Haybron, D., Mesquita, B., Moody-Adams, M., Ren, S., Sun, A., and Wilson, Y. (May 2023). Against Happiness. Cup Columbia. Retrieved form http://cup.columbia.edu/book/against-happiness/9780231209496