Figuring Out ‘The Good Life’

A few weeks ago, I had a great conversation with a few good friends about what exactly it means to “live the good life.” It turned out that we all had somewhat different views on what “the good life” actually is.

For one person at the table, it meant that he could simply have things he wanted. If he wanted to have a certain thing or do a certain thing and he could mostly just do it or have it, then he was living a good life.

For another person at the table, someone who had dealt with a long illness and may not ever fully recover, the “good life” simply meant a day with minimal pain while going outside and doing stuff.

For me? I thought about it for a bit and said that, for me, a good life is one with little “background stress,” meaning that there were minimal ongoing things that worried me.

The idea of the “good life” is a core idea of philosophy, often described with a single Greek word, eudaimonia (there’s your new word for the day, most likely). It simply means aiming for the highest human good – the good life, in other words.

Those pictures, and the others that were shared, all point to rather different day to day lives, even though they all have a few things in common. Rather than rattle on a lot about what elements would make up my idea of the good life, I was actually more interested in what elements are commonly found in the ideas of the good life that lots of people shared with me, so I thought about those stories and asked a few others what they thought the “good life” was.

Here are some of the big things that I found that they had in common.

One, most ideas of the “good life” involve the removal of ongoing stress. Although this was pretty much my description of my ideal life, a life with minimal ongoing stress, it was an element in a lot of different descriptions of the good life.

Two, most ideas of the “good life” involve being a good person and being around people who treat you well, too, and having good relationships with them. Depending on the person, these can form a cause-and-effect relationship that goes either way, or they can both stand on their own. In either case, most people seem to think the “good life” involves being a virtuous person and also being around other people who are virtuous. This doesn’t mean that you or the other people are “goody two shoes,” but that you are surrounded by people who treat you well and you tend to treat those people well.

Three, most ideas of the “good life” involve having sufficient financial resources to have an expanded freedom of personal and professional choice. Usually, people don’t see themselves as exorbitantly rich, but merely having enough resources so that many of the “compromises” they feel like they’re making in life go away. We’ll definitely circle back to this one later on.

Four, most ideas of the “good life” involve having something worthwhile to do with one’s time. Pure idleness might be fun for a while, but most people seem to eventually want something to do in their life, something meaningful that drives them forward.

Finally, most ideas of the “good life” involve being personally healthy. People seem to often want to feel good in their minds and bodies, not feel like they’re breaking down, and to be able to move and do whatever it is they want.

While the ideas of what made up the “good life” varied far and wide, they almost always included those elements in some way, shape, or form. Low stress. Good people around you. Being good yourself. Having sufficient resources for things you want to do. Being physically and mentally healthy. Having something meaningful and engaging to do. Almost every concept of the good life either relied on those things or were variations on those things.

The thing is, those elements of the good life are actually pretty interconnected. If you achieve strength in one of them, it’s often going to help the other ones.

For example, a person in good financial shape has eliminated a fair amount of background stress from their life, and they’re much more likely to have a healthy amount of freedom of choice in their daily life.

A person who is a “good” person, meaning they’re virtuous without expecting others to engage in tit-for-tat behavior with them, usually feels low background social stress and has a lot of good relationships in their life.

A person who is physically healthy has a lot more freedom of choice in their daily activities.

The more you look for interconnections between those elements of the good life, the more they pop up. It’s all tied together.why

This is a big reason why I find personal finance to be so foundational. Whether or not personal finance seems important to you or not, it directly ties into many elements that almost everyone thinks of when they think of “the good life.”

Another thing worth noting in all of this is that most of the elements of “the good life” are things that people really can start implementing right away in their life, without waiting for some mythical future where everything is just perfect for it. Let’s walk through some of the elements and the specific things you can do to make it happen.

Build a Financial Backbone

Obviously, as a personal finance writer, personal finances – at least in terms of having enough financial resources to give yourself an enhanced degree of personal freedom – are a key part of living the “good life.” Having sufficient money saved up to alleviate many of life’s worries going forward is an incredibly powerful way to open up your options and lower your stress.

This site has thousands upon thousands of articles about how to build up your finances, but here are three core strategies (and a bunch of links to more articles) for building your financial backbone.

Spend less than you earn, then do something useful with the difference. By “useful,” I mean paying off debt, saving for retirement, or building an emergency fund.

Ask yourself whether your non-essential purchases are really providing lasting value for you. Whenever you spend a little money, use the ten second rule and give yourself ten seconds to really ask yourself whether the purchase is worthwhile; if not, put it back. If it’s a bigger purchase, use the thirty day rule and give yourself 30 days to decide whether you really want this item. Look back on it thirty days later and if you still want it, then start actively shopping for it. It’s likely the desire will fade, which means that it wasn’t a good idea to begin with. Another good strategy is to buy the lowest cost version of everything and then only buy more expensive versions if there is a real compelling reason to do so – in other words, you should fill your shopping cart with store brands.

Track and organize your spending. Keep track of all of your receipts, bank statements, and credit card statements. Once a month or so, sit down with them and see how much you’re really spending. Group those expenses into sensible groups – by retailer, by type of item – and ask yourself whether spending that much money on something is really worthwhile or if there’s a way you could cut back.

Get More Control Over Your Time Use

Many people feel overwhelmed by the demands on their plate, which brings them a great deal of stress, leaves them feeling as though they don’t have time for things they care about, and leaves them feeling exhausted. It can often feel like a vicious cycle that’s hard to escape from.

Yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are proactive steps anyone can take to get a grip on their time and stop feeling as though they’re losing touch with the things they care about.

Here are three simple things you can do to get more control over your time.

Block off time for things you care deeply about. Literally write it into your schedule. Make this time sacrosanct. Turn off your cell phone and your computer and engage in those activities during this blocked-off time. This is important time. You need it to adequately recharge your body and mind so that you can perform well when it matters.

Use your “idle time” productively with mindless tasks. If you’re in a situation where you’re “idling” – which is okay, we all need to idle a little bit – find something mindless to do with your hands. Fold your clothes while watching Sportscenter. Do the dishes while staring out the window. Go to bed instead of napping on the couch in the evening.

Decommit from less important things. If you have too many commitments, step back from one of two of them, preferably the least important ones. Find someone else who can handle it, or simply end the commitment. If you commit to too much, you don’t give quality to all of the things you’re committed to.

Lower Your Background Stress

“Background” stress simply refers to a constant level of stress that we all feel in our modern lives, often brought on by having the other elements listed here out of balance. While correcting the other elements listed here will definitely help improve your stress levels, there are a number of practices you can do to improve your personal stress.

Here are three simple things you can do to lower your stress level.

Spend some time outdoors in a natural setting. Seriously, just spend some time outside in a park, whether it’s just in a grassy field or deep in the woods on a hike. There is a ton of evidence that nature exposure reduces stress in a bunch of direct and indirect ways, including brain scans that indicate less activity in the stress-linked areas of the brain, reduced blood pressure, and more reported calmness. In nicer weather, try to work outside for a while.

Get more sleep. 40% of Americans get less sleep than they should all of the time, and many others go for periods with inadequate sleep. Not getting enough sleep leads to worse performance and far more stress (and an inability to handle that stress). An ideal sleeping pattern is to simply go to bed early and rise naturally, without an alarm to wake you. This lets your body self-moderate the amount of sleep you need.

Listen to music that matches your desired mood. If you need some energy, listen to energetic music (dance music, for example). If you need to focus, listen to music that helps focus (ambient electronic, for example). If you need to chill and relax, listen to relaxing music (for me, downtempo bluegrass music is perfect). Just find music that works for different moods that you enjoy and choose to listen to music that tugs you toward those moods.

Surround Yourself with Good People

By “good,” I mean people who are generally virtuous and genuinely care about you, both in good moments and bad moments. Those people will be celebrants when times are good, allies when times are bad, and friends always. It can be difficult to build a circle of those people in your life, but it’s well worth the effort.

Here are three simple things you can do to seek out good people and integrate them into your life.

Build up relationships that leave you feeling good. Reflect on how you feel about people after you spend time with them, and increase the time you spend with people who leave you feeling good and happy and supported and positive toward the world.

Minimize relationships that leave you feeling down. At the same time, if people leave you feeling sad or worse about yourself or worse about the world, start trimming down the time you spend with those people.

Know your social needs and plan accordingly. Some people are introverts. Others are extroverts. Some people like crowds, while others avoid them. Some people love clubs, while others hate them. Some people love intimate dinner parties, while others do not. Know what social situations you like and be involved in the planning of the social events you engage in to choose situations where you’re comfortable and happy. It’s never bad to try new things, but you shouldn’t go to the club every week if you seriously dread going there. Find friends who enjoy many similar social experiences as you do. A good place to start is Meetup.

Be a Virtuous Person

Being a good person in as many situations as possible helps you to have a clear conscience and few worries, and it also helps sustain a positive social network and positive professional contacts. You don’t have to be a “goody two shoes” – just practice what you preach and be the person you wish you had around.

Here are three simple things you can do to simply be a more virtuous person.

Live out the golden rule in each interaction. Try to act towards others as you would like them to act towards you. If you wish friends were there for you when you were down, be there for friends when they’re down. If you wish people would be nicer to each other, be that kind of nice. It really is that simple.

Help others without expecting something in return. There’s often a temptation to fall into a “tit-for-tat” arrangement when helping others. Don’t let that guide you. Give the help you wish others would give you when you need help. Look especially for opportunities where a small help from you (like five minutes of your time) makes a huge impact on someone else (saving them hours or lots of money).

Be honest (but not cruel) in your dealings with others. Speak honestly but positively to others when you talk to them. Tell truthful stories. Don’t speak negatively about people when they’re not around – if it’s not something you would say to their face, don’t say it. Be honest. Don’t be cruel.

Promote Your Own Physical Health

Feeling good on a day to day basis is incredibly valuable. It adds to almost everything you do and every interaction you have. Almost everything you want to do is easier to do, and you feel happier and more confident in every social situation. It’s well worth the effort you put into it, especially since most of the things you can do to improve your health are either right in line with things you already do or can be enjoyable to do.

Here are three simple things you can do to improve your physical health.

Eat a healthier diet – real food, mostly plants, and not too much. For me, the biggest switch I made was to recognize that while food might be pleasurable, the primary purpose of food is fuel for my body. Focus on eating what’s good for it – mostly plants, some fish, not too much food, lots of “raw” foods that aren’t processed to the point where you don’t know what plant or animal they came from. It’s pretty easy.

Move around throughout the day. Don’t just sit in the same spot all day. Move around. Go for short walks every hour. This is actually the thing on this list that I’m worst at because I tend to write for long periods without interruption. Yet, I find that when I force myself to take breaks and move around, I feel better. The solution here, obviously, is to get a standing or walking desk, which I think is the best eventual solution for people with sedentary jobs.

Get some exercise that you enjoy. People often associate exercise with misery, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is to try different forms of exercise that involve doing things that you actually enjoy, then doing them at a pace where your heart rate is elevated and you’re out of breath but not miserable. I’ve found this in martial arts; I used to find it in basketball. I find that if I push myself just right, I get really out of breath and sweaty, but I feel amazing afterwards, and it persists. Even better, if you exercise regularly, that good feeling starts to become a baseline in your life. Make exercise, in the sense of doing something you like and doing it with enough intensity to raise your heart rate and get out of breath and sweat, a part of your life.

Promote Your Own Mental Health

On the flip side of the physical health coin is mental health. Do you feel generally happy (or at least not negative) about the state of things in your life? Are you generally in at least a neutral mood and regularly in a positive mood? Do you have good feelings about the world? Those are signs of good mental health. We all go through periods where we don’t feel this way, but having good mental health practices as a part of your life makes those periods less frequent and less intense, and this same practices

Here are three simple things you can do to improve and sustain your mental health.

Write in a journal each day. Simply spend a few moments each day writing in a journal. If you’re not sure what to write about, I consider Michael Hyatt’s eight questions to be a great place to start. It’s a format I often use. Another strategy is to simply write off the top of your head, literally whatever comes to mind, for two or three pages.

Do a daily mindful meditation. Each day, spend just five minutes or so sitting in a quiet chair somewhere. Close your eyes and start breathing calmly and slowly, focusing your attention on your breath, in and out, in and out. If your attention wanders, bring it back to the breath. I find that this is only slightly helpful as a one-off routine, but if you make yourself do it every day for a while (perhaps for a longer period), it’s incredibly powerful for making you feel calm and aware and in touch with your life.

Step away from consumption. If you find that you are consuming things as a matter of routine just because they alter your mood or alter your thinking or behavior, particularly if you are doing it almost on instinct, cut it out of your life. Get back to square one. Cut out the drugs, the alcohol, the cigarettes, the caffeine. Get back to the raw you and see where you’re at, especially when you’re doing the other things in this article. You might find that the substances you thought were helping were actually just dragging you further off the track (and costing you a pretty penny, too).

Have Something Meaningful and Engaging To Do

In both the workplace and outside of work, finding tasks that are deeply engaging and meaningful is a great way to make the tasks you have before you actually fill you up rather than drain you. That’s difficult to do, especially at a job that you don’t enjoy. The trick is to find the tasks that click with you and bundle them together into quality blocks of time.

Here are three simple things you can do to find meaningful and engaging things to fill your time with.

Find a hobby that gives you something that you really enjoy doing. The key is to find things that are so compelling to you that you literally lose track of time and place while doing it. That’s called a “flow state,” and it is one of the peak human experiences. Try to fill your time with that, and the way to do that regularly is to do what’s suggested above and block off time for your hobbies so that you can engage with them long enough to slide into a “flow state.”

Organize your time at work so that you can spend blocks of uninterrupted time on the tasks that really “click” with you. We all have things at work that we really enjoy doing and other things that we don’t enjoy doing so much. Reorganize your time as much as you can to make uninterrupted blocks of the “good” work and fill in the gaps in your schedule with the “bad” work. Ideally, find ways to offload the “bad” work entirely, if you can – maybe you can discuss simply eliminating some of those tasks entirely, or automating them.

Try to enter a “flow state” during those uninterrupted blocks of “good work.” When you settle in for a batch of meaningful work, do everything you can to put yourself into a “flow state.” Turn off distractions (like your cell phone and social media notifications). Close your door. Turn on some good focusing music, or some white background noise (I use this noise from an icebreaker ship). Drink a cup of tea and settle in. You’ll find that those times when you get into a flow state with work that really engages you are actually somewhat refreshing rather than wearing you down.

Final Thoughts

While these things won’t guarantee you “the good life,” they certainly will help you make forward progress on finding whatever it is you think of as the good life for yourself.

If you take nothing at all away from this, take this one thing: the “good life,” at its core, has little to do with having a lot of money. Having money does reduce stress and it does open up options, but most of the elements of the “good life” don’t require a lot of it. You can have the “good life” while still being incredibly financially responsible.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.