psychology good life

“What is a Good Life?”

It is a question that has sparked debates through the millennia, yet have remained unsettled to the present day. The widest variety of thinkers have tried to tackle it, from Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, who called it eudaimonia to religious leaders such as the Buddha, who called it nirvana. Existentialists such as Sartre tried to answer it, calling it authenticity, while the Chinese philosopher Laozi, called it Dao. This article series will study a particular group of answers—those originating from the field of positive psychology.

Confusing Answers from Positive Psychology

Some would trace the origins of positive psychology to Seligman’s term as the President of American Psychology Association, around the turn of the millennium. It should be noted, however, that the field of psychology already had a few decades’ head-start on the study of well-being, before positive psychology exploded into the public eye. Nonetheless, it was an exciting time, as Seligman marked the boundaries of a new field, distinguishing it from past efforts towards “the question”, by claiming that it was time to study positive functioning empirically, through the lens of science.

Now that more than ten years have passed since that heady time, and the field of positive psychology has boomed. An established academic infrastructure has sprouted up around the topic, including a large number of  conferences, several journals, a few university departments, and of course, many, many popular self-help books.

Yet for the lay individual who wants to learn how to live a better life, the scientific field of Psychology is bewilderingly difficult to navigate. The field is fragmented with multiple lines of research, each having its own theories and concepts. Within the booming number of experiments and studies, there seem to be a series of confusingly contradictory findings.

To make things worse, one does not know if one can trust the mass media, which often exaggerates and over-extrapolates. That a significant number of positive psychologists have cashed in on the hype, writing self-help books that were more flash than substance, also did not help.

Thus, in this article series, we aim to help this confused individual bring some clarity to the field. In other words, we try to answer the question: “what is a good life?” for him.

A Road Map to the Answers

In the first part of the series, we begin by looking at broad, comprehensive theories about well-being proposed by professional psychologists, which attempt to explain the entirety of a well-lived life. . We focus on four:

  1. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  2. Ryff’s Model of Psychology Well-being
  3. The Self-Determination Theory
  4. Martin Seligman’s Orientation to Happiness and P.E.R.M.A.

In the second part of the series, we turn to research which relieves the experts from the task of defining well-being (somewhat), and places the job into lay people’s hands (to an extent).

Our first article in this part, Researchers ask 650+ people, “What is Happiness?”, will focus on the answers given by ordinary people to open-ended questions about what constitutes the good life.

The second article, Subjective Well-Being, Measuring Happiness, shifts our attention to the field of Subjective Well-being, a rather different approach to “the question”. These researchers ask people to rate their life satisfaction, and then look at the correlations between these ratings and different parts of these people’s lives. In this case, the processes by which people judge whether their lives are good is just as important as the correlations found.

In the third and last part of the series, we deal with some more specific aspects of well-being.

In the first article, Money and Happiness? It’s complicated, we explore the eternally-debated correlation between money and happiness.

In the last article, Differences in U.S. and Chinese conceptions of Happiness, we talk about some cross-cultural issues surrounding well-being, specifically, comparing happiness between the East and West.


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