Sunday, November 24, 2013

Four Approaches to the Life Well-Led

Here's an advance look at my next column for the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer.

Four Approaches to the Life Well-Led 
Countless authors have opined on how to live the life well-led but their approaches seem to distill to just four: pursue happiness, serve God, serve society/the universe, and pursue balance. Here are pros and cons of each:

Pursue happiness. Obviously, making choices based on what makes you happy leads to an enjoyable life. And you can define happiness more contributorily than just eating, having sex and watching comedies. Your definition of happiness might, for example, include the contentment that comes from being productive, whether as accounts payable clerk, cancer researcher, a friend, or school volunteer providing (badly needed) enrichment for Mensa-level kids.

A limitation of the pursue-happiness approach to life is that you’re less likely to do worthy but unpleasant tasks, for example, diving into icy waters to save a drowning person or be a Mother Teresa who, to save lives, worked amid Calcutta’s sewage stench, her ankles ever bitten by scorpions. Of course, there are more common examples. I know a top hand surgeon who, because he’s been doing that for decades, would find it more fun to play guitar gigs on evenings and weekends but recognizes  he’ll make a bigger difference spending that time seeing patients than playing Grateful Dead songs.

Serve God. For many people, religion is the prime driver of people’s lives. And it’s easy to understand why:
  • Many people need rules or structure for their lives. Religion provides them.
  • Many people need fear and reward to motivate them to follow rules. Religion provides them, for example, heaven and hell.
  • Many people need support in life’s tough times: The belief in a loving God provides that.
  • Following a deity’s rules magnifies the import of one’s actions.. It’s one thing to be kind for its own sake; it’s a bigger thing if you believe it’s part of a benevolent God’s plan.
A downside of religion is that it’s too black-and-white: There’s only one way. For example, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal,’ no exceptions--In many denominations, a poor person who steals a drug from a corporation to save a spouse’s life is deemed destined to burn in hell for eternity. Sure, individuals can perceive what they want in religion: Some claim the Bible condemns homosexuality; others insist the Bible endorses it. Some say the Koran encourages peaceful behavior, others that it demands jihad against the infidels. But net, a God-centric approach to life suffers from a narrow definition of acceptable behavior.

Another weakness of the serve-God approach is that it urges passivity. For example, the New Testament urges surrender to God, to trust God above reason: “Be not wise in your own eyes. God shall supply all your need.” (Philippians 4:19;) “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:1: )“If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

Serve society/the universe. This is the utilitarian approach: Ongoing, you decide which activity will most likely make the biggest difference. In the extremis, you could rate each of your life’s hours on how contributory it was: from -100 (making progress toward developing a mutated smallpox virus so communicable, deadly, and incurable that it would cause Armageddon) to +100: (working toward being a Messiah that would inspire everyone in the world to use their greatest powers to abet humankind as much possible.)

The serve-society approach has value even if your sphere of influence is small. For example, a ditch digger can decide whether, during a break, to have a cigarette or to teach a novice how to dig a ditch more easily. In turn, that novice will not only dig more efficiently but be equipped to teach others. The ditch digger has also, without preaching, shown the novice the value of giving, which makes that novice more likely to give to others. And those others, in turn, are more likely to give to others in this generation and in generations to come. So even a ditch digger’s impact can be significant enough to be worth the effort.

An even loftier variation on the serve-society approach is to serve a universal/cosmic good. For example, some people believe efforts to equate resources among people is a cosmic justice. Others believe that furthering meritocracy is more just.

But whether serving society or the universe, you can enhance your utility by focusing on what few others can or will do. For example, I champion the intellectually gifted at a time when government and non-profits focus on redistributing to “the least among us.” That way, I feel I make a bigger difference than if I focused on popular causes I believe in such as abortion rights, where my efforts would add a mere grain of sand onto a beach.

A downside of the serve-society/the universe approach to life is that it leads to a less pleasurable existence. That approach gives no brownie points to fun. Sure, adherents to the serve-society model may sometimes deviate from it and watch that silly sitcom but when life is done, devoted serve-society people die having experiencing less pleasure than do others.

And for some people, focusing so much on doing good for others could lead to burnout and, ironically, to doing less good than if they were moderate. However, based on the people I’ve known, you’re unlikely to burn out even from a lifetime of long workweeks as long as you’re working on something of value, are good at it, and have a measure of control over your work tasks. I’ll be 64 in June, been working 60+ hours a week for my entire life, and feel as energized as ever.

Another downside of the utilitarian approach is that an individual can do only so much. With seven billion people on the planet, your likelihood of making a big difference is small. Nevertheless, it strikes me that a life aimed at even minor contribution is better than rationalizing that you should pursue a pleasure-centric life because your potential for impact, in the largest scheme of things, is modest.

Strive for balance.  Many people believe their best shot at the ideal life is to work moderately and play moderately, dividing your time among serving yourself, God, and society. Or as many of our parents say, “Moderation in all things.”

The downside of that is that it assumes all those goals are of equal value. Can one say that a week on the beach is as valuable as a week mentoring Mensa kids?

Now it’s your turn.  In light of the above (and anything else,) do you want to write a word, sentence, and/or paragraph summarizing how you plan to live the life well-led?


Rex said...

I basically agree with your stance that productivity is key to living a life well-led. It's great if, like you said, you do valuable work you're good at and have control over most of the tasks. However, having just seen the Zeitgeist movies, I do think our society, being primarily driven by profits, is fundamentally flawed, and what serves society generally does not serve the best interests of human beings, other forms of life, or the planet in general. While some people might object to my point of view as being overly negative, a very good argument could be made, for example, that people working in the "defense" industry should do everything they can to transfer to another field. The creation of weapons, however defensive in nature, simply enables conflict. Or how about the cardiologist who works 70-80 hour weeks making $300K+ prescribing blood pressure medication yet who cannot or will not even address a patient's diet and lifestyle, much less look into more traditional modalities of health care? What about food industry scientists who make well into the six figures manipulating chemicals to make junk taste good? Alcohol and tobacco industry execs who sell poison and make handsome wages doing it? Bankers who create literally nothing of any real value as far as I can tell. It's very difficult to determine if a certain field is actually valuable to humanity and the planet as whole, even if it is considered valuable to society. I appreciate the intent behind your words, and I agree with that intent, so my objections may simply be semantics...that said, many people do have a choice over what kind of work they pursue yet still persist in justifying their profits through a "serve society" kind of rationale.

Maria Lopez said...

While I don't completely share Rex's enthusiasm for traditional medicine,
I agree with that it's often hard to know if what you do serves society or not.

In fact his argument that the full effects of drugs cannot be known because the body is too complicated a system, applies in spades to society. I know an academic who has written papers full of math on whether or not taking specific actions in response to disease benefits the individual, society, neither or both.

The solution to this is to pick a task that produces a specific good. You can know that you are producing a scalable database, reducing water pollution, or rescuing dogs from abusive homes.

I also think that service to your family is important when you have young children. This cannot be your goal when your children are grown or before you have them, but is or should be important during their childhood.

Finally, some somewhat harsh words about burn out. Your energy and excitement at 63 comes at least partially from the fact that your work circumstances are relatively easy.

You do not have to debug complicated R scripts, reboot servers in the middle of the night, chase criminals, clean bar screens at waste water plants or fight fires. Just because work is socially useful doesn't mean that many people can continue it into their sixties or for some people even much into their forties.

Marty Nemko said...

Maria, your "harsh" point is valid. Thank you for reminding me.


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