- The book introduces the question of the meaning of life and explains why it is important and urgent. It also presents a method of inquiry that involves imagining ourselves in a hypothetical situation where we have to choose a way of life without knowing our personal circumstances, preferences, or biases.
- The book explores four different ways of life that have been proposed by various religious and philosophical traditions: the life of pleasure, the life of wealth, the life of fame, and the life of power. It also compares and contrasts them with the Christian way of life, which is based on love, grace, and hope.
- The book presents the authors’ own vision of the good life, which they call the life worth living. It defines it as a life that is oriented toward God, who is the source and goal of all meaning and value. It also addresses some objections and challenges to their vision, such as the problem of evil, the diversity of religions, and the role of reason and faith.
Life Worth Living (2023) is about discovering your own vision for a meaningful life. It offers a wide spectrum of philosophic and theological ideas in order to better understand what is most important to you, and how to turn that understanding into action.
Introduction: Discover some of the best answers to life’s biggest questions.
Table of Contents
When you think about “the good life,” what springs to mind? Does the phrase conjure up images of yachts, exclusive restaurants, designer clothes, champagne on ice and endless days of sun-soaked leisure? Somewhere along the way, we’ve come to equate the good life with that of the moneyed high life, and this might be a problem. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the comforts that money can buy, are these the things we should be striving for in life?
In the sections that follow we’ll try to get at what the authors call “the Question.” Part of that question is, What’s really worth wanting? What should we hope for? And, how should we live? That’s right. We’ll be getting into some heady philosophical territory in this summary. So, if you’re ready, let’s dive in.
The Question with Many Answers
If you’re reading or listening to these words, there’s a good chance you’re alive. We can all agree on that, right? But what does it mean to be alive? What responsibilities, if any, does this gift come with? Here we begin to find ourselves at a point of divergence, for there are many schools of thought on what it means to live a good and ethically sound life.
Whether or not we have responsibilities as human beings is part of what the authors call “the Question.” Really, the Question is made up of many different, interconnected questions, such as: What matters most? What does a flourishing life look like? And, who do we answer to?
Before we dig into the philosophical and theological ideas behind the Question, let’s look at the process we’ll be taking along the way. We can start by considering one of the biggest parts of the Question: What is worth wanting?
You can think of the process as something akin to a deep-sea dive. You want to go down, past the realm of automatic, reflexive action, and proceed through self-reflection in order to reach self-transcendence. Here, we can determine what you see when you think of a full and flourishing life. Remember, we’re not asking, “What do I want?” But rather, “What is worth wanting.” What would make life fulfilling and meaningful to you?
Now, as with any deep-sea dive, once you discover what is truly worth wanting you have to come back to the surface. Back to action. This is important because the point is to live a life that reflects this understanding. Sure, you might be able to tell people what’s important to you, but do your actions support your words?
Before we move on, let’s look at one more fundamental part of the Question: Who are we responsible to? To frame it another way, you might ask yourself: Are my actions subject to judgment?
This is an essential question because it will help you to spot the differences in the various philosophical and theological theories that we’ll touch upon. As you might imagine, this question can also be answered in different ways.
As a handy shortcut, the authors use the old Smokey the Bear saying, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” to highlight the three primary modes of responsibility.
First is the “only you” part. In this scenario, you are the primary agent of responsibility. But then there’s the forest, which you can think of as the sphere of your responsibility – your family, your community, the world around you. Finally, there’s old Smokey himself. He’s the authoritative figure. The rule giver and the judge. If you want to make meaningful choices in life, you’ll want to at least consider all three of these responsibilities: yourself, those around you, and the possibility of a higher power.
In the next sections we’ll start to look at some more compelling visions of the good life, and see how the great philosophical and theological minds answer the Question.
Pleasure, Pain, Freedom, and Indifference
In this section we’ll look at some of the most influential philosophies on life, like utilitarianism, Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as some other religions and a few more modern sources of wisdom.
It’s worth noting that the authors aren’t prescribing any one idea over another. Rather, they all have valuable insights that may or may not help you form your own vision of a good, meaningful, and flourishing life. You can think of it like making a recipe. It’s about finding the right ingredients that can harmonize and work together.
Let’s start with utilitarianism. In a way, utilitarianism offers a sensible answer to the question, “What does it feel like to live a good life?” Jeremy Bentham, who offered up this philosophy in 1822, provided a straightforward dichotomy. As he saw it, actions that result in pleasure, or allow us to avoid pain, are good. Actions that result in pain, or take away pleasure, are bad.
Bentham was also something of an anti-snob. He didn’t create a hierarchy of pleasure. There was no distinction between parlor games and a Beethoven symphony, so long as both generated pleasure to the individuals in question.
This supports the view of self-responsibility. The person having the experience is the ultimate judge of whether it is good or bad. But one important distinction is that Bentham believed we also had a responsibility to increase the pleasure of others. His vision was for nations to enact constitutions that would promote pleasure and minimize pain.
But is pleasure what we should really be focusing on? And are all pleasures of equal value? And is pain really that bad?
In 1895, the playwright Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in jail under England’s laws against so-called “acts of gross indecency.” While in prison, he wrote a self-reflective work entitled De Profundis, wherein Wilde reevaluated his previous devotion to pleasure. He didn’t regret anything, but he now viewed some pleasures as more “senseless” than others. The pleasures provided by nature were more valuable than the pleasures provided by fame.
On top of that, Wilde also realized the importance of sorrow and recognized how much he’d been avoiding what he called the “supreme emotion.” He now understood that sorrow was a fundamental component to everything in life. Disappointments and heartbreaks happen everyday, all around us. There’s nothing bad about this, it’s simply the truth, and the truth is beautiful. So, when we feel sorrow, we’re in touch with this reality in a profound way. Now he believed that you couldn’t live a good life without feeling and connecting to this sorrow.
Buddhism also teaches us that pleasure is more of a distraction than a goal. All suffering, as Buddha saw it, stems from craving. We crave pleasure, fame, wealth, power, and we form such attachments that even the thought of losing these things can bring about suffering. Buddha went the extreme route. He starved himself on one grain of rice a day. But he eventually saw “a middle way” that meant neither extravagance nor denial. He realized that the things we crave are not the problem. It’s the craving itself.
When Buddha achieved transcendence, he still felt pain, but it didn’t cause suffering because he had detached himself from his need for pleasure. So, while Oscar Wilde found an intellectual rationalization for suffering, Buddha became indifferent to it.
Judaism and Christianity suggest that freedom can be found by taking another path. In the Old Testament, God instructs Abraham, and Abraham listens and follows. The word of God tells us what we need to know and leads us along the path of the good life.
Later, Paul, who was one of the first to convert people to the way of Jesus, laid a similar foundation to Christianity by saying, “Obeying the commandments of God is everything.”
Meanwhile, Islam teaches us that before any of us were born, we took an oath. He asked all of the human beings he created, “Am I not your Lord?” Everyone answered yes. While we may not remember taking this oath, the responsibility is real, and those pangs of guilt that your conscience feels when you do something wrong is a result of that initial agreement with God.
For many, there is a sense of freedom in religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The good life is simply a process of discerning God’s will and following it. It may not be an easy life, but we’re told it is indeed a good life, and there can be a sense of relief in not having to calculate and weigh your actions against more arbitrary guidelines.
The Big Picture and How it All Ends
If you don’t mind my asking, how big is your forest? Remember the Smokey responsibility? Well, one important question within that is how big are you going to make your forest — or, how far are you going to extend your sphere of responsibility?
This also relates to another part of the Question: What should we hope for, and whose circumstances are we truly considering?
Philosophers like Aristotle and Friedrich Nietzsche often had a certain type of person in mind when considering the qualities of a flourishing life. Aristotle was only concerned with a free man who owned property. Nietzsche’s focus on the development of artistic genius required a certain level of privilege and exemption from everyday chores. Indeed a lot of philosophies are more concerned with a good personal life rather than a good world. And this goes beyond just our fellow humans. Shouldn’t we be thinking about the non-human life on the planet as well?
Robin Wall Kimmerer is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass and she casts a critical eye on a certain Christian mindset that came to America. It’s the mindset that pushed the Native American population off their land, and then proceeded to kill off entire species of animals and deplete and poison many parts of that land.
Kimmerer identifies aspects of Christianity that can lead its followers to treat non-humans as less important, and be unconcerned with the present. After all, everything will be fine once we get to heaven, right? And God created humans in his image and bestowed us with power over all other creatures. Therefore, responsibility doesn’t extend to animals and trees.
Yet the beliefs of North American Indigenous peoples do extend to nature and the other living things around us. Respecting the water we drink and the air we breathe, and making sure this gift keeps on giving, is essential to the good life.
Kimmerer’s critique of a specific Christian mindset touches upon how our values can be swayed depending on our understanding of death.
Surely you’ve heard the famous word from Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question…” Well, Buddha would like to politely disagree. This is not the question, for being or not being — that is, life and death — are two opposing concepts that have limited bearing on reality. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains it, everything is in constant interdependent transformation. Your life wasn’t the beginning and your death isn’t the end. There is no birth and death, only continuing transformation.
For some, this idea of no birth and no death can help us focus on the here and now. While this might help some people achieve happiness in the moment, for others, it raises red flags. People like the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the writer C.S. Lewis believes that the finite aspect of life is what gives agency to your life.
Some people may long for eternal life, but others feel that if life lasted forever, there would be no meaning to it. Death is what gives life purpose. In fact, when we say we’d be willing to die for something, this is a statement that testifies to life’s importance.
Now might be a good time to ask: Who are the people, and what are the ideals that you would die for? Or, to put it another way, what is worth living for?
Living the Vision
Let’s say you’ve done your homework and you’ve come up with your own vision of the good life. You’ve identified your values and you’ve answered the Question. You know what your good and meaningful life looks like. You know what is worth wanting.
But now what? For some of us, the next part can be the most difficult part of all: putting words and ideas into action. Actually living the life you envision.
This kind of deep, newfound understanding in life often requires making significant changes in your life. It may prompt a lifestyle change or force you to deal with some ingrained habits that need to be gotten rid of. This kind of change can be hard, to say the least.
Now, you may very well be one of those strong minded people who can set a goal and reach it without any help. But most of us benefit from some sort of help. People tend to flourish when they’re in a community that supports their vision.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be a large community, either. Consider the programs that support alcoholics and addicts who are trying to stay sober. Breaking the cycle of addiction can be one of the most challenging things to do. But when Bill W. created the Alcoholics Anonymous program, it went on to become one of the most successful programs of its kind. One of the key aspects is that of a sponsor — one other like-minded person who is going through the same challenges and can act as a lifeline in times of trouble. They can relate to the struggle, empathize with the difficulties, and keep the other person motivated and on track.
When you broaden out to bigger groups, it’s more likely that you aren’t going to find a homogenous consensus of ideals and values. When it comes to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, you’ll likely find a lot of internal debate going on. But what you do gain is ritual. Rituals and communal traditions can be a powerful thing in raising spirits and providing strength to continue when times are tough.
Meditation and prayer are also good tools to promote long-lasting change. Chances are, you may have a basic understanding of how meditation works. So, for our final bit of insight, let’s look at the tool known as the examen.
The examen is a tool developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Before he became a saint, Ignatius was a somewhat typical sixteenth century guy, in that he was into gambling, dueling and womanizing. But after he was nearly killed in a military battle, he had a vision involving the Virgin Mary and was forever changed.
One of the tools he developed in maintaining his newfound, late-in-life devotion to theology was the examen. It is essentially a daily prayer, but it takes the form of five parts.
The first is gratitude: reflecting on your day and acknowledging the good parts.
Second is review: go a bit deeper into your reflection and think about the times where you might have felt God’s presence, and when you might have turned away from that presence.
Third is sorrow: acknowledge the actions of the day for which you are sorry.
Fourth is forgiveness: ask for forgiveness and make plans to reconcile with those you may have hurt, or those who have hurt you.
Fifth is grace: look ahead to tomorrow and ask for God’s grace and to be more mindful in recognizing God’s presence.
Hopefully these ideas and tools can help you to identify your own vision of a good life, and provide you with the motivation to actually live that life to its fullest.
There are many different visions of a good life out there. This isn’t a life of comfort and wealth. Rather, it is a meaningful life where you flourish in the pursuit of your values and ideals, perhaps making the world a place where other people can also flourish. Finding your own vision of the good life may involve piecing together the harmonious aspects of different visions from the past and asking tough questions about what you really believe in. By looking at aspects of utilitarianism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and other philosophies and religions, we can create a recipe that best suits our own vision. Taking action on this vision may also be difficult. It may require community support and daily meditative practice.
Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz teach the most in-demand course in Yale College’s Humanities Program: Life Worth Living. Students describe the course as life changing, and preliminary analyses by an outside researcher show strongly significant effects of the course on students’ sense of meaning in life.
Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, and was awarded the 2002 Grawemeyer Award in Religion for Exclusion and Embrace, which was named one of the one hundred most influential religious books of the twentieth century.
Croasmun is the director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, a lecturer in humanities at Yale College, and the faith initiative director at Grace Farms Foundation. He is the author of The Emergence of Sin and Let Me Ask You a Question, as well as a coauthor with Volf of For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference.
McAnnally-Linz is the associate director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. He is a coauthor with Volf of The Home of God and Public Faith in Action, a 2016 Publishers Weekly Best Book in religion, and has written for The Washington Post’s Acts of Faith blog, Sojourners, and The Christian Century.
Motivation, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Happiness, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Nonfiction, Self Help, Theology, Psychology, Self-Improvement, Relationships, Personal Growth, Women’s Personal Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Growth Self-Help, Motivational Self-Help
Table of Contents
Introduction: This Book Might Wreck Your Life xi
Part 1: Diving In
ONE• What’s Worth Wanting? 3
TWO• Where Are We Starting From? 18
Part 2: The Depths
THREE• Who Do We Answer To? 35
FOUR• How Does a Good Life Feel? 49
FIVE• What Should We Hope For? 62
SIX• How Should We Live? 77
Part 3: Bedrock
SEVEN• The Recipe Test 105
EIGHT• The Really Big Picture 126
Part 4: Facing the Limits
NINE• When We (Inevitably) Botch It 153
TEN• When Life Hurts . . . 172
ELEVEN• . . . And There’s No Fixing It 187
TWELVE• When It Ends 207
Part 5: Back to the Surface
THIRTEEN• It Turns Out We Have Some Work to Do 227
FOURTEEN• Change Is Hard 241
FIFTEEN• Making It Stick 259
Epilogue: What Matters Most 281
The book is a work of existential philosophy and theology that aims to help readers discover the meaning and purpose of their lives. The authors argue that we are facing a crisis of meaning in our culture, where we are often driven by external pressures, superficial pleasures, or narrow self-interests. They propose that we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question: What kind of life is truly worth living? And they suggest that we can find the answer by engaging with the major religious and philosophical traditions that have offered different visions of the good life.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces the question of the meaning of life and explains why it is important and urgent. The authors also present their method of inquiry, which involves imagining ourselves in a hypothetical situation where we have to choose a way of life without knowing our personal circumstances, preferences, or biases. This is similar to John Rawls’ idea of the original position and the veil of ignorance, but applied to the question of the good life rather than justice.
The second part explores four different ways of life that have been proposed by various religious and philosophical traditions: the life of pleasure, the life of wealth, the life of fame, and the life of power. The authors examine the strengths and weaknesses of each way of life, and show how they can be appealing but also unsatisfying or harmful. They also compare and contrast them with the Christian way of life, which they argue is based on love, grace, and hope.
The third part presents the authors’ own vision of the good life, which they call the life worth living. They define it as a life that is oriented toward God, who is the source and goal of all meaning and value. They explain how such a life involves cultivating a relationship with God, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and pursuing justice and peace in the world. They also address some objections and challenges to their vision, such as the problem of evil, the diversity of religions, and the role of reason and faith.
The book is a thoughtful and engaging exploration of one of the most profound and universal questions that humans face: What is the meaning of life? The authors draw from their academic expertise and personal experience to offer a clear and accessible introduction to some of the major religious and philosophical traditions that have shaped human history and culture. They also present their own perspective on the good life from a Christian point of view, which they argue is more satisfying and fulfilling than other alternatives.
The book is not without its limitations, however. Some readers may find the authors’ method of inquiry too hypothetical or abstract, and may prefer more concrete examples or stories to illustrate their points. Others may disagree with the authors’ assumptions or conclusions about certain ways of life or religions, and may feel that they are too biased or dismissive of other viewpoints. Still others may question the authors’ claim that there is only one way of life that is truly worth living, and may wonder if there are other possibilities or nuances that are not considered.
Overall, the book is a valuable contribution to the literature on existential philosophy and theology. It is a stimulating and challenging invitation to reflect on our own lives and choices, and to seek the truth about what matters most. It is also a hopeful and inspiring affirmation of the Christian faith as a source of meaning and purpose in a world that often seems meaningless and chaotic.