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New book explores famous psychologists’ thoughts on ‘living the good life’

Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015

Many of history’s most influential psychologists thought deeply about what it takes to live a “good life” — a positive, fulfilled existence that is both significant and joyous.

Richard Bargdill, Ph.D.
Richard Bargdill, Ph.D.

In a new book, Richard Bargdill, Ph.D., assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has collected a number of writings on “living the good life” by seminal psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Karen Horney, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

The book, “Living the Good Life: A Psychological History,” delves into a variety of topics, including living within the framework of an irrational world, the roles of creativity and resilience in African-American experiences, experiencing growth, and the importance of art and art education.

Your new book is a collection of writings about “living the good life.” How do you define the “good life?” What does it mean to you?

This book is a collection of works of 17 different well-known authors broken into four major sections: behavioral voices, psychodynamic voices, humanistic voices and diverse voices. In researching the book I tried to find an article or book chapter from the likes of Freud, Skinner, Maslow where they addressed their visions of the good life as directly as possible. In some cases, such as Carl Rogers, this was an easy task since one of his chapters had that exact title. But for many others, Freud for example, there was some extrapolation involved and I try to clarify that in the individual chapter introductions, the general introduction and epilogue that I wrote as commentary on the volume.  

We will all experience ridicule, heartbreak, drudgery, injustice, loss of friends, death of loved ones, physical pain and deterioration — assuming we live long enough. 

A good life is not a “pain-free” life, since there are plenty of unpleasant events that all of us have to survive. We will all experience ridicule, heartbreak, drudgery, injustice, loss of friends, death of loved ones, physical pain and deterioration — assuming we live long enough. So the good life is not about avoiding those things because that is impossible; they are a part of life. The good life means discovering what makes enduring these pitfalls worthwhile.

We must seek out meaningful projects that we see as worthy of spending our precious time on earth in pursuing. This seeking includes reflecting, learning and aiming toward some goal of personal value. This means the good life is a personal evaluation and there is no universal formula to follow (e.g., becoming rich will give you the good life).

With that said, the path to discovery of the good life is aided by reflecting on the things that inspire an individual person such as the peak experiences they have already had, the consistent sources of beauty they find and the work that they engage in that produces a flow experience, the feeling of being challenged and time flying. Learning would suggest that our failures are more important than even our successes because when we succeed we rarely reflect on our activities, nor do we tend to make adjustments; we believe that we will be successful again simply by repeating what we have already done. So failure frequently leads to re-evaluation, scrutiny and analysis that improves our chances of being successful in our endeavors in the future. Notice that the courage to try again after not succeeding is a major part of learning. Aiming at a goal means that the good life is not maintaining of some static level of achievement, but primarily the pursuit of a series of goals that are simultaneously being worked on. Once a goal is obtained, a new goal must be created or very quickly stagnation will set in.

What do you hope readers get out of reading these writings on the good life by famous psychologists?

“What would the good life be for me?” is a fundamental question that all people should ask themselves relatively early in adulthood. However, we are much more likely to be asked “What are you going to do to be a useful member of society?” The latter question makes us think about life in terms of what the society values rather than what we find intrinsically interesting or what we feel passionate about. In addition, since Western society has valued certain professions (business, law, politics, medicine) over others (educators, artists, farming) people are often drawn towards the financial security of professions that they might not otherwise go into.

The good life would suggest that regardless of the financial gain, one ought to pursue what they are interested in rather than what would bring them the best salary. Strangely, when a person finds what they love to do and reveals that they want to pursue this direction — they will not be supported. Family, friends, spouses will tell them they are “crazy.” They will be encouraged to take the “safe road,” to have a back-up plan, to take a job with benefits, to simply do what they love “as a hobby.” They will have to overcome this dissuasion to continue on their path. Again, a spot where courage is required and doubt can creep in and destroy their dream.

How would you describe this collection’s central argument?

The good life is not easy to obtain because we are, in a sense, prompted by our culture to just “fit in.”

Fitting in means that you compromise the thing you are most interested in pursuing or give up your unique qualities so that you can be like others. Western cultures seem to value “individuality” but this is only because of the tremendous pressure to conform that everyone who attends high school feels intensely. In a sense, we value individuality because you have “passed the test.” A person didn’t completely become a drone or ditto as they had been trained to. For example, all children are artistic and creative to begin their lives and they enjoy it. But eventually, usually in school but sometimes with the help of their parents, they are told their drawings aren’t good — their color is wrong, they didn’t stay in the lines, the object doesn’t look the way it should. Thus, most children quit drawing, music, make-believing, etc. The person who becomes an artist in adulthood has been able to protect that inner artist through all of these attacks. Everyone who loved some activity that they are now not doing has been told and has come to believe that something else (usually something much more mundane) is more important than their loved activity.

In other words, rather than make a piece of art it is more important to make sure the lawn is mowed.

What led you to put this book together?

There was a book I did, and still do, use, that collected together the great philosophers and their views of the good life into one collection. I was at a conference and I ran into the author of that book just by happenstance. I told him that I wanted him to write another book but this time he should collect all the writings of great psychologists into one volume and then I would use them both. He told me flat out that he would not being doing that! But then he told me that I should do it. I guess it was the prodding that I need. Now in my classes, I start with his book and then move into my book.

Why is it important for readers today to learn the psychological history of views on “living the good life?”

Psychology is ultimately about making life better. It is both a science and practice that wants to improve human life and reduce human misery and do that in a systematic way. Most people do not think about living the good life on their own, but rather they adopt the “American Dream” as a sort of default good life. The American Dream is largely a materialistic-based good life. Generally, it says that if you work hard, eventually, no matter who you are, you can have a house, a car and raise a family in comfort and freedom. Notice it doesn’t say anything about how you make that living. The psychologists concentrate on “finding” your calling, career path, passion. They tend to believe that the good life is not related to the things that you have but that you have a meaningful task that you are pursuing and making progress toward. These psychologists tell you how to do it rather than what you should see as a successful result.

As you were putting this collection together, were you surprised by anything you found?

Originally, many people went into therapy seeking self-improvement and personal growth. Many of the clients who sought therapy did not see themselves nor did the psychotherapists see them as having a “mental disease.”

Up until the mid-1980s and early ’90s, you could go to therapy to get unstuck and the therapists would see that you were trying to get help with problems you had in living. Changes in insurance billing and the advent of Prozac, led to a mandatory “diagnosis,” which increase the popular understanding of psychological difficulties being a biological chemical disease imbalance.

In general, entering therapy always requires both courage and humility (it is hard to admit that you need help with life) but now the stigma of having a “brain disorder” seemed to discourage many people from seeking therapy.

At the same time, many people who would have probably benefitted from therapy were then guided instead toward chemical interventions. There are some indicators that there is a shift moving back toward therapy as a tool for self-improvement and personal growth.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s never too late to pursue the good life, but it does require an act of courage. Courage is not fearlessness but determination in the face of fear. I always ask my class if any of their parents hate their jobs. I am always surprised to see about a quarter of the class nod their heads. Usually someone will share a story about how a parent announced one day that they quit their job to pursue what they always wanted to do. At first everyone else in the family thinks this is nuts, and of course, it is financially difficult initially. Yet, in the long run, after the bumps and bruises of changing gears, the parent is much more happy with the new life.

It’s never too late to pursue the good life, but it does require an act of courage.

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