The Good Life: what makes a life worth living

Simon Smart reviews the latest book from social researcher Hugh Mackay.

More than once in recent weeks I have heard people describe Hugh Mackay as something of a secular Priest. “That’s a church I could go to,” said one friend who long ago left the faith of his childhood. In his latest book Mackay—Australia’s most well known and loved social researcher—echoes the spirit of non-believers like Alain de Botton who call for our secular society to adopt the wisdom and sensibility of religious practice minus the outdated beliefs.

Mackay is not likely to follow de Botton in advocating for secular temples, and gatherings of non-believers that emulate church practice with songs, readings, exhortations and bad coffee. But he is very pastoral. He calls us to live the examined life. He brings to the table vast wisdom and experience, an eye for discerning our modern ills and thoughtful proffered solutions that lean heavily on our religious past. Like all the great prophets, Mackay challenges our assumptions, rails against our foolishness and urges us back towards the path of sanity. We would do well to listen.

Mackay’s 2010 book ‘What makes us Tick?’ described, without judgement, the things that drive human behaviour. In reviewing it I made the minor complaint that he (unnecessarily in my mind) restrained himself from offering much by way of a solution to the challenges we all face. This year’s follow-up, The Good Life – What Makes a Life Worth Living, provides Mackay’s answer. It is clear, unapologetic and direct. In summary, “the good life is a life lived for others.”

When Mackay says the “good life” he is referring to “a life characterised by goodness, a morally praiseworthy life, a life valuable in its impact on others, a life devoted to the common good.” This is the sort of life that will be marked by kindness and compassion, responding to others’ needs and their need to be taken seriously. Nowhere does he establish on what basis he would make such a claim, but the sort of person who would pick this book up would be unlikely to quibble over that. It would seem as self-evident to them as it does to Mackay.

This book is much more than a self-help pathway to success. It is a comprehensive and challenging assessment of a life well lived from the vantage point of age and much experience in observing human behaviour and critiquing contemporary life. Mackay believes many of us are trapped in what he calls a “Utopia complex”, which presents us with a vision of the perfect life that leaves us anxious and unsatisfied. The fantasy of the perfect marriage, house, family, job, holiday, sex life, emerges from affluent times where we have come to believe we deserve and are entitled to the best of everything. These fantasies insulate us from deeper and more enduring satisfactions. Under the spell of the Utopia Complex we become trapped in obsessive introspection and a life lived entirely for ourselves. This is a recipe for disaappointment says Mackay.

Mackay once began an address to the Happiness and its Causes conference by saying, “I want to talk about sadness”. He is big on the idea that we grow through pain and that the fully engaged life will experience and embrace all of life’s natural emotions and experiences, including disappointment, heartbreak and failure, along with moments of great joy and satisfaction. To be perpetually striving for happiness is to miss the point of life. Rather we should seek to live virtuously for the benefit of others without counting the cost. We are relational beings, and our lives are intricately bound up in the lives of others. We forget this, and succumb to our culture’s hyper-individualism at our peril says Mackay.

Throughout the book he offers advice for better relationships—be a better listener, learn to apologise and forgive. Don’t lose your sense of humour. He outlines the factors that will likely lead you astray: craving certainty when we must accept mystery; the quest to find yourself; worshipping intelligence; aiming for power, wealth, status and fame. He helpfully contrasts mature faith with fundamentalism, which demands neat answers to deep questions and rejects anyone who happens to disagree. Mackay includes not only religious nutters in this category but the breed of atheists that champion the “certainties” of science as the answer to all our ills.

But more than anything else Mackay’s task here is to promote the Golden Rule—to treat others as you would like them to treat you. This, writes Mackay, is the cornerstone of the good life from which all other worthwhile things are built. Love, being the most powerful, creative force in the world, is the source of all goodness, he says, so it makes sense that the life lived for others is what the good life is about.

Mackay makes the case that morality is about cooperation, a spirit of egalitarianism, taking into account the wellbeing of others and acknowledging other points of view. Only by recognising and responding to each other’s needs and rights will we live in peace and harmony while reducing unfairness and inequality.

Mackay is mostly talking about the Golden Rule while at the same time assuming that God has left the building

In asking the reader to ponder the concept of the common good: right and wrong, good and evil, Mackay quotes from Psalm 23 in the Old Testament part of the bible: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” But the ideas in that psalm are predicated on God being the source of goodness, and ultimately, of all comfort and hope. Without him those concepts are flimsy at best. And herein lies the problem. Mackay is mostly talking about the Golden Rule while at the same time assuming that God has left the building. Mackay recognises that putting the Golden rule into practice is extremely difficult, as it involves resisting our natural urges for greed, competitiveness and revenge in order to live selflessly.

My question is whether this is likely without something outside of ourselves to motivate us in that direction. Of course, some individuals manage it and live extraordinary lives of heroic devotion to others. But as a society I’m left wondering whether there is stable enough ground on which to build the “golden Rule community,” on the basis that this merely looks like a good idea. Can this astonishing and powerful notion maintain its potency having been cut from its moorings? Perhaps it can, but I’m not as optimistic as Mackay on this.

Mackay claims in a number of places that the Golden Rule is found in every philosophical and religious tradition whether that be Socratic, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or humanist. But nowhere is this idea expressed anything like as sharply as in the teachings of Jesus who called people to a radical self-sacrificial love for the other, even our enemies.

The early Christians were famous for their care for the poor, the weak, the marginalised and the despised. There was only one reason that they lived that way—they believed that the crucified and resurrected one called them into that life, rightly understood by Mackay as the key to satisfaction and wholeness. It’s about losing your life in order to find it. The Golden rule calls for, not just polite and respectful interaction with the other, but costly action in seeking the good of all those we encounter. But the grounding and motivating force for this life matters a great deal.

Nonetheless Mackay’s central message here, the promotion of a life that seeks the good of others more than it’s own, is much needed. It’s counterintuitive and the polar opposite of the messages we get from a young age —both subtle and direct—that life is mostly about me. Having observed us in our increasingly complex contemporary environments for decades, Mackay’s primary thought is this: “No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.”

Simon Smart is a Director of CPX