Instead of achieving the good life, how about a good-enough life?

My philosophy discussion group has been pursuing the topic of what constitutes a good life.  We started our quest with a look at ethics and moral philosophy.  Wow. In case you’re wondering, there are no real answers in the realm of moral philosophy, even fewer answers than in other fields of philosophy, if that’s possible!  Is morality something that is universal, with certain moral “rights” that transcend individual societies and cultures, or is morality relative?  And if there really is such a thing as universal human rights, which many of us would like to believe, then how come agreements on what constitutes morality change with history even within one culture?  See, no real answers.

But I did come across an essay from 2 years ago that I think does a great job of addressing our group’s original question of what constitutes a good life.  This essay, entitled The good-enough life: the desire for greatness can be an obstacle to our own potential, by Avram Alpert, suggests that we do ourselves a big disservice by expecting too much of ourselves, as if life is a competition.  He posits that, just as our philosophy group has been realizing from our frustrating pursuit of absolute answers to moral questions, trying to please everyone all the time just can’t work.  Your definition of “best” isn’t necessarily someone else’s definition of “best”.  And that’s all right!

Alpert’s thoughts are worth sharing, and his essay says it a lot better than I could.  With that, I’m going to share its highlights with you.

The desire for greatness … unites the diverse philosophical camps of Western ethics. Aristotle called for practicing the highest virtue. Kant believed in an ethical rule so stringent not even he thought it was achievable by mortals. Bentham’s utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness. Marx sought the great world for all. Modern-day libertarians will stop at nothing to increase personal freedom and profit. These differences surely matter, but while the definition of greatness changes, greatness itself is sought by each in his own way.

Swimming against the tide of greatness is a counter-history of ethics embodied by schools of thought as diverse as Buddhism, Romanticism and psychoanalysis. … To fully become good enough is to grow up into a world that is itself good enough, that is as full of care and love as it is suffering and frustration.

In this radical vision of the good enough life [as opposed to the unobtainable great life], our task is not to make the perfect human society, but rather a good enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.

Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.

Achieving this will also require us to develop a good enough relation to our natural world, one in which we recognize both the abundance and the limitations of the planet we share with infinite other life forms, each seeking its own path toward good-enoughness. If we do manage any of these things, it will not be because we have achieved greatness, but because we have recognized that none of them are achievable until greatness itself is forgotten.

I don’t know about you, but I find more comfort in this approach to living than in striving to be better than someone else (or have more than someone else) for no apparent reason.  Let’s find happiness in our good-enough lives.  And let’s support others in achieving theirs.

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18 Responses to Instead of achieving the good life, how about a good-enough life?

  1. Jean says:

    Totally agree..good enough is also less stressful long-term

  2. Pingback: Instead of achieving the good life, how about a good-enough life? – mostly philosophy

  3. Great post! I also find it comforting and kind of validating to know that greatness doesn’t have to be a goal. Nor do I want to define it by the standards of others in North American society, because that’s can be an uncomfortable place to go, at least for me.

  4. debscarey says:

    Jane, this is a most timely piece – thank you for sharing. There’s a lot about Abundance and Attraction in the life coaching world at the moment – about there being enough for everyone so that you’re not being greedy by striving for more & larger pieces of the pie. I’ve tried to be comfortable with this concept, but it doesn’t sit well with me. I’m very much in the “good enough” camp, both in being good enough at [whatever] and in having a good enough [whatever]. That doesn’t mean I won’t strive to give my best to my clients, but that I don’t seek more than I need. Security doesn’t require abundance, just enough.

    Oh & you have a philosophy discussion group? I am so jealous.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Yes, our philosophy group is one of my favourite activities. We’ve been able to keep going through Zoom or in a socially distanced local Arts Centre space throughout the pandemic. Debs, I’m very surprised by this Abundance and Attraction theory. Perhaps it makes some sense for non-material quests or goals, but certainly not for material goods. The wealthy countries are already consuming pretty well all of the world’s resources as we speak. Interesting.

      • debscarey says:

        You’ve understood my conflict exactly Jane. To be fair, the abundance attraction is also around non-material aspects such as health and work-life balance, but still, there’s no doubt I am feeling out-of-step with much of my work community. In some ways I’m still the counsellor I planned to be before I changed direction in my training.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Aha, then maybe the promoters of this Abundance and Attraction theory need to alter its name. Abundance in anything material in nature is precisely why our planet finds itself in existential crisis. Interesting challenge for you!

  5. Good is definitely enough for me. In fact I’ll settle for okay if it means I’m alive. Lol it’s all relative isn’t it? I talk about this all the time with my sister. Now that I’m fighting cancer if I’m not throwing up I’m having a good day. You learn to re-evaluate your adjectives. Greatest now means that I woke up, the sun is shining, and I got to take a walk outside. Greatness is just a word. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
    We have to constantly readjust our reality. Once we appreciate what we have then we can appreciate ourselves and greatness isn’t important. It’s just another word.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lesley, I’m so sorry that you’re still having to endure such challenging cancer treatments. I hope the end of this treatment cycle is near. Learning to appreciate what we have is the key to contentment for all challenges and phases in life, but it’s better if we’re able to arrive at that realization without having to suffer first. God speed.

      • Thank you Jane. It’s all good. I have a short reprieve so I’m off chemo until my cancer antigen numbers go up over 100. Hopefully I’ll get a couple months until that happens . 🤞I can’t really complain though. I turned 72 last week and had two wonderful celebrations. I’ve stuck around more than a year and half longer than was predicted and I’m not planning on going anywhere! I’m getting good at this survival thing! 👍

  6. LA says:

    Good good is good enough for me

  7. A wonderful post! I love the idea that greatness needs to be forgotten and then we can find happiness in good enough. The fact is, that greatness is in the eye of the beholder. And most of us are brought up looking for it or expecting to achieve it. It’s rather like “waiting for Godot.” We need to just be! Surviving cancer makes me so much more aware of everything around me. I now see greatness everywhere I look. We are always surrounded by extraordinary people, places, and things if we choose to see them.
    But, the most important thing is to appreciate what we have and who we are. And that will be great enough! ❤️
    “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” ― Twelfth Night.
    Will Shakespeare

  8. AMWatson207 says:

    Very interesting. My personal opinion is that few of us strive for greatness but within everyone is the desire to be recognized, to be seen within our communities.

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