Early Adolescents' Conceptions of the Good Life and the Good Person

Article excerpt

What is a good life? What is a good person? Virtually every religious tradition, countless philosophers, numerous psychologists, and many self-help authors offer answers. Lay people, too, have their own thoughts on the topic. Our answers guide our actions, influence our decisions, and inspire our dreams. So, what do people believe is required to be a good person and to live a good life? In this study, a sample of early adolescents were asked these questions and their responses were compared to what a prominent psychologist believes is required.

Major world religions offer guidelines for being a good person and for achieving the good life. For example, the Hindu faith sees life on Earth as "maya," or illusion, and promotes selfless living. At the core of that tradition is a fundamental belief that the soul survives death and will be born again. A good Hindu, then, is one who is unselfish, and a good life is one led with preparation for releasing oneself from "samsara," the endless cycle of rebirth. A good life in the Buddhist faith is one that seeks to follow the Eightfold Path, which provides a guide for striving to perfect the qualities of wisdom and compassion; accordingly, a good Buddhist is wise and compassionate. Islam means submission, and the faith is structured on five pillars or acts designed to ensure righteous living, including: praying five times a day; fasting during the month of Ramadan; "zakat," or giving to those who are less fortunate; making pilgrimages to the holy shrines; and maintaining a strong belief in Allah, the creator. A good Muslim is one who seeks to follow this path; doing so constitutes a good life. Jews who seek to live the good life follow the guidelines set out in the Torah. These include 613 commandments dictating rites of passage, conduct, and dietary principles. Fundamental to Christian belief is the worship of God, the Creator, and the belief that God's son Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins. A good Christian seeks to emulate the life of Christ. Virtues such as honesty, fidelity, and not harming others are important aspects of a good Christian life.

Philosophers have also had their say. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that happiness plays a role in the good life only for simpletons. The good life for the uneducated masses means seeking hedonic pleasures, while for more sophisticated people it means seeking honor, and for the most learned of society it means pursuing a contemplative, virtuous life. These learned people, we might call them "good people," find that what they want to do is simultaneously what they ought to do.

Like philosophers and religious leaders, psychologists also have ideas about what the good life and the good person look like and about how to achieve both aims. In fact, either ultimately or more directly, all psychologists, writ large, are charged with helping people live better lives. To a counseling psychologist, this may mean alleviating the pain and suffering of a client, while to an educational psychologist it may mean helping young people learn more effectively. The means vary, but the end goal is the same.

A few psychological researchers have explored the question of the good life more directly. For example, King and Napa (1998) conducted a study of the folk conceptions of the good life. They found that happiness and meaning in life are two important components, but the authors only asked respondents to select among three variables: happiness, meaning, and money. No doubt responses would have been more varied had the question been open-ended. Despite this limitation, it is interesting to note that while happiness rarely makes the list in religious and philosophical notions of the good life, it often is at the top of the list of folk conceptions.

Social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a good life as one in which the individual is deeply engaged in his or her daily activities. In his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement in Everyday Life, (1997) the author explains that a good life is one that is full of flow experiences. …