What is a good life?

As we trudge through the last icy breaths of winter in Sweden, the optimistic faces of crocuses begin to show themselves. Spring, with her dazzling halo of light, stops Swedes on street corners, brings shop owners onto benches outside their windows, and colours the world with optimism. Now, it seems to say, life can begin again.

The goodness of spring is an illusion of course, life goes on with all its inherent frustrations and concerns, but a primal instinct prevails: the hard part of the year is over, things are growing again.

As we in the Northern Hemisphere are released from the clutch of cold, how are we going to live? And what makes a good life anyway?

Perfect Days

German filmmaker Wim Wenders and Japanese writer Takuma Takasaki have produced a new film, Perfect Days, that patiently reveals the bliss hidden in simple moments. The film drifts through the quotidian rhythms of Tokyo, following Hirayama, a city toilet cleaner, on his daily routines. That may sound dull (or worse) but somehow, Wenders and Takasaki gift us with glimpses of what a good life can be. Not one waiting for confetti and fireworks to brighten a future that has yet to arrive, but one where connection and depth is found in the capacious sobriety of each mundane moment. We’re asked to really notice what is here now, and if what we think of as important, actually is. If a toilet cleaner can see, Wenders and Takasaki must think we have a chance too.

Wellbeing and the secret to relationships

If anyone knows the key to a good life, it’s Robert J. Waldinger. Waldinger is a psychiatrist, Zen priest, and the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development – an unprecedented study of human wellbeing that began in 1939 and, amazingly, continues with the original participants’ children today. 

In 2015, Waldinger made a 12-minute TED talk on the findings of the study. At that point, some of the 724 original participants were in their 80s. With 75 years’ of data, the team could now make some assumptions about what contributed to a good life. 

The study shows that it’s relationships that seem to dictate the quality of our lives over the long term. Waldinger says strong, reliable relationships offer a buffer against mental and physical decline in health in later life. 

“The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the ones who were the healthiest at age 80.”

As Bertrand Russel wrote in What I Believe, love in its true essence – that is, a sense of existential social support – is the most vital of all the elements of a good life. 

“To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting. All these things, in varying degrees, depend upon the community, and are helped or hindered by political events. The good life must be lived in a good society, and is not fully possible otherwise.”

And the secret key to good relationships? A good relationship with yourself.

Would you talk like this to a friend?

About a decade ago, I first discovered my favourite yoga teacher on YouTube: Lesley Fightmaster. Lesley’s broad smile and sweet Californian voice guided me through some challenging years of my life, before she passed away in 2019. In the true nature of yoga, Lesley’s videos taught me so much about life. In one early video, Lesley said whenever she heard negative self-talk in her mind, she would catch it and ask herself: “would I say that to my best friend?” And if the answer was no, then she wasn’t allowed to say it to herself either. The simplicity of that: being kind in all directions – making your inward conversation as accountable as your outward – stuck with me. 

The problem with listening to your inner voice is that before you can change it, you have to go through a period of time when you hear all that internalised negative chatter. Everyone I know who has worked on their inner voice has gone through this difficult phase of listening. But the sharp sensation of awareness is also the bud of awakening and peace. Only after you become aware, can you begin to change what you say, or how you say it. You can improve your relationship with yourself, and this way, improve your relationship with everyone around you. 

When Lesley passed away, we were in the middle of writing a new song. The opening lines are: Listen to yourself, would you talk like this to a friend? 

Until next time…


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