What is a good life?

I met a guy named Jack.

Jack speaks 10 languages. Some languages he speaks so well that he deceives locals into thinking he’s a native. While speaking with some Germans, they claimed “we know you’re from Germany, but we cannot place which region…” Jack snickered with a toothy smile, as he revealed “I’m British.”

At just 15 years old, Jack decided to spend his life traveling.

Jack holds degrees in psychology and law, but never formally used either. The challenge of nomadic travel for Jack was that he started in the 70s and thus didn’t have the luxury of digital work, so he needed to re-establish employment every time he country-hopped.

Accordingly, he learned to install solar panels, dig wells, construct buildings and maintain sewer systems. These transferable skills enabled him to find quick and reliable income, which opened the door to his wandering lifestyle. After a dozen years on the road, Jack found himself in Bolivia, which he decided to establish as home base thanks to a tremendously low cost of living and vibrant culture.

He never looked back.

Now in his mid-60s, Jack is a friendly and retired chap with a carefree demeanor. Jack passes time watching futbol and chewing Bolivia’s infamous coca leaves, seemingly unconcerned about the black ash smeared across his bottom lip from the lejia, an alkali that amplifies the coca’s effect. He dons a long salt & pepper beard accompanied by a foot of hair that can be described as nothing less than liberated, with each strand marching to the beat of it’s own drum.

Fairly early in our conversation, Jack surprised me.

“I’m dying,” Jack confessed. “I’ve got 5 years left, at most.”

Taken aback by the abrupt and blunt reveal, I collected my thoughts and expressed wishes for 5 wonderful years, if that is in fact all he has left. However, after 50 years of smoking cigarettes, Jack’s health is deteriorating quickly. He’s got a mean limp and lacks at least 4 teeth, along with other less visible ailments.

One might assume that a man entering his final chapter would bear a more melancholic attitude, but Jack is not that man. He seemed kind of giddy to be chatting, clearly excited to meet another traveler. With a childlike curiosity, he peppered me with questions throughout the duration of our two hour of conversation. And most significantly, I cannot recall a moment when he wasn’t smiling.

This was no ordinary smile.

Jack’s smile contained depth. His goofy grin extended beyond the corners of his mouth, into raised cheekbones and glowing eyes. This smile was a testament to 40+ years he’d spent pursuing his dreams. Jack’s smile demonstrated an inner peace and self-confidence. He would not have needed words to express what he said next.

“I have no regrets. My life was f***ing great!”

Death is a magnifying glass for life’s big questions.

Things of insignificance quickly fade, distilling what really matters. The deep topics that surface in one’s mind during their final years parallel the same themes and questions that we should be contemplating throughout our lives: What is our purpose? What truly matters? Who do I want to be? How shall I spend my days?

The combination of Jack’s lifestyle and comments got me thinking…

What exactly is a “good life”?

There are many answers to that question because there are many contributing ingredients. Popular ingredients include developing high quality relationships, finding a connection or purpose in something bigger than oneself, growing in knowledge and wisdom, making a positive impact in the lives of others, reaching some level of financial or professional success, maintaining good health, participating in favorite hobbies, and living in a place or way that allows you to authentically be yourself.

The above list is not comprehensive.

One can undoubtedly live a good and happy life with just a few of these, and conversely, one could have most or all of these things yet remain unfulfilled. This paradox highlights that perhaps the most foundational determinant of a good life is something else. Perhaps, it’s the quality of one’s thoughts, or phrased differently, how someone chooses to see the world and their life. When we remain engaged in the present moment, appreciative of the things we have, and prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by that which is outside of our control, our happiness is destined to increase by multitudes.

The good life does not need to be complicated.

– It’s sticking your head out the window of the passenger seat.
– It’s encountering a work of art that moves you.
– It’s the feeling of accomplishment when you gave your best effort.
– It’s the laughter of children, warming your heart.
– It’s a conversation that stokes your curiosity and expands your mind.
– It’s the delight of biting into a freshly cut mango.
– It’s the joy of reconnecting with old friends that you haven’t seen in ages.
– It’s a belly-busting laugh that brings you to tears.
– It’s the acknowledgement of beauty in a colorful garden, buzzing with life.
– It’s the smell of coffee beckoning you out of bed.
– It’s reaching a state of flow, so deeply absorbed that you lose track of time.
– It’s gazing into the eyes of someone you dearly love.
– It’s giving back to your community through whichever means you feel inspired.
– It’s a rhythm that your body cannot help but dance to.
– It’s a rainy day spent in your cozy bed, reading the latest novel or binging on Netflix.

The good life is composed of good moments.

And good moments are a matter of attention.

– It’s paying attention to what’s happening all around you. Sights, sounds, smells.
– It’s paying attention to what’s happening inside of you. Thoughts, feelings, growth.
– It’s paying attention to what’s happening between you and others. Affection, warmth, love.

We can amplify good moments through appreciation.

We can choose happy.

Observe your thoughts and feelings, both present and past. During which moments do you feel most alive? When do you feel most drained? Are there any recurring themes? Listen to yourself. Don’t judge. They’re trying to tell you something. They’re trying to steer you towards a better life. A better you.

We have more control over the quality of our lives than we realize.

This is good news.

Most of us have the agency to affect change in our “good life ingredients”, as well as an ability to adjust our perspectives. Again, when we remain engaged in the present moment, appreciative of the things we have, and prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by that which is outside of our control, our happiness is destined to increase by multitudes. When we pay attention to what brings us joy, we can and should introduce more of that into our lives. The primary challenge is blocking out the noise of what society and other people think you should want, and instead listening to yourself.

I’ve spent the past few weeks considering what exactly a “good life” looks like, hoping to land on some articulate and fully rationalized definition that applies to all of us, but I keep coming back to this notion that it varies for each individual. While the binding theme of listening to our inner voice and applying that to our outward actions seems universally important, the reality is that each of us have our own nuanced set of values, beliefs, interests and desires. Accordingly, my version of a good life, Jack’s version, and your version may look different. In fact, they probably will. And that’s not only ok, but a good thing. This kind of diversity adds flavor to life, and allows for constructive conversation.

Landing on a conclusive definition for “what is a good life?” is not important.

Regularly pondering the question, is. This question can focus us on living lives that we won’t regret once we reach our deathbeds.

Maybe, we too can smile like Jack.

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