In the pursuit of societal excellence, there comes a time when people must ask themselves, what is it that constitutes the “good life"? This obscure and seemingly insoluble inquiry has inhabited human consciousness since the beginning of time. Even today, beneath the political drama of the current presidential election, this question runs deep in American society and exists at the heart of our nation’s conversation.
Despite the vast differences between the two presidential candidates, in presenting their political agendas, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made the development of “better jobs” a priority. It can be assumed that this implies increased wages and more consistent employment hours. Still, the question remains: does a high salary and a generous boss correspond to a happy life?
In the money-driven climate of modern America, it cannot be denied that financial stability provides a sense of security to the individual. In a New York Times article titled "Can You Have a Good Life if You Don’t Have a Good Job?" author Michael Lind says that Americans are in fact moving away from their long-held belief that a high-paying occupation is the most necessary aspect of a good life. He writes that this gradual change in ideology is reflected not only in our nation’s collective psyche, but also in legislation itself.
“Expanding wage subsidies is one way to compensate for the low wages paid by many of the new jobs that are being created,” says Lind. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 94.6 percent of jobs added from 2014 to 2024 will be in the service sector. The single largest employer of near-minimum wage workers, the restaurant and food service industry, is one of the sectors with the greatest projected job growth.”
Lind goes on to provide several other examples of policy changes which indicate a shift in economic trends. While such concrete evidence is gratifying, it fails to illuminate the additional, often-overshadowed idea of the “good life within.” At Boston College, the majority of students and faculty agreed that the “inner life” is an essential aspect of happiness and perhaps of an even greater value than monetary wealth itself.
Amy Flynn, an advisor in the Career Center at Boston College, works to help students identify what it is that makes them happy and then guides them to explore different career paths harnessing these interests.
“While there are many factors which influence students while making career decisions and no two people are alike, the students who experience long-term happiness and success often take the time to figure out who they are and what they value most,” says Flynn. “They think about their true interests, what they are good at, and what motivates them.”
It is evident that Flynn and the other members of the Career Center approach job exploration with a sense of balance. Students are enabled to discover and pursue their passions while still maintaining a realistic attitude. Maddy Morris, CSON '20, said that though she believes people should always strive for the best possible career and never underestimate the immense importance of money in our society, we must remember that financial stability, by itself, does not equate to ultimate success in life.
“I think that a good job gives a person the right ideals and virtues for one to live a good life,” says Morris. “However, it is up to that person to live out those ideals and virtues in the correct manner.”
In this, Morris casts light on a secondary sense of duty which all members of society bear. Unlike maintaining a job or paying taxes, however, the responsibility of virtue is entirely independent of governmental affairs and concerns only the individual. The question follows in accordance with Plato's dialect: what exactly is virtue in itself and what does it mean to lead a good inner life while also trying to maintain stability in a materialistic, mercenary world?
Professor Brian Robinette, who teaches theology at Boston College, has a unique perspective on this. Though he has earned a Ph.D., published a book, and earned several professional awards, he made clear that his highest priority in his day to day life is honoring the spiritual side of reality.
“While it seems circular to say this, the first step towards the good life is asking the question itself: to persistently bring the question about what the good life really is to consciousness,” says Robinette. “Beyond being alive to the question, I would suggest that there are three qualities of the good life. The first is gaining some degree of focused awareness—a practice of living more wakefully, more mindfully, and with attention to one's own desires, habits, and frames of mind. Only from a place of self-awareness can one aspire to the good life.”
It is strange yet settling to consider that the answer to one of life’s most profound questions, the inquiry which has puzzled everyone from Plato to Trump, is in fact quite simple. According to this viewpoint, the external circumstances of society—the plight of socioeconomic conditions, the chaos of the political election, and the political dramas which occupy our everyday conversations—are in fact frivolous matters which bear no importance on the quest to true and lasting happiness. Certainly we cannot ignore and turn our backs on such affairs, but what Morris, Flynn and Robinette suggest, each in their own unique way, is a shift in our gaze towards that part of life which we can control—inner goodness.
The inquiry of what constitutes success will continue to press on human consciousness, but perhaps there is another question, regarding this idea of virtue, which runs even deeper in American society. And perhaps as we approach the presidential election, forever in the pursuit of societal excellence, we will at last uncover our answer.