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What Is the “Good Life”?

A boy lies on a rickety bed in the only room of a grimy cottage. He is deathly ill and his family is impoverished and dysfunctional. The father is loving, but cowardly; the mother is mentally disabled and distant. And yet, as he slowly dies, a group of boys—who had once alienated him—begin visiting him often. They offer him constant company, give him gifts and manage to lift his spirit. They form an intimate community, the joy of which none of them had ever experienced before…

What is the “good life”? How would you define it: Prosperity? Fame? Health? Intelligence? Popularity? Would you consider the life that I described above, “good”?

When I think of “the good life,” a song by Kanye West comes to mind. You know:

I go for mine, I gotta’ shine, now throw your hands up in the sky!

In other words, I think we typically define the good life—and the American Dream for that matter—as having more good things. And they aren’t always material things either. It could be great friendships, honorable achievements, lasting health or impressive talents.

And while there is some undeniable truth to that, I’d like to offer a different way to think about it: The good life is a choice.

The story that I opened with is taken from the very end of “The Brothers Karamazov.” When I first read the brief depiction of Ilusha—the sick boy—and his friends, I was brought to tears. Here is a boy that is dying, horribly impoverished, and yet…happy. Why? Because a group of boys, who had once picked on him and made him miserable, dedicated themselves to bringing him joy.

“How good life is when one does something good and just,” Dostoyevsky writes.

[pq]Choose to do what is good and just—and I assure you, you will see how beautiful life can be.[/pq]

Is that not true in each of our lives? When I think of my own life, I must agree. It seems to me that an individual life becomes “good” when it is filled with—and surrounded by—good, noble, beautiful and just choices. And societies flourish when an aggregate of individuals make those same choices.

In the end, life isn’t about having more stuff—it’s about what you do with whatever you have. Bill Gates, who recently visited AEI, is the quintessential example of this. He is the richest man in the world, but his material wealth is not what makes his life good. He has dedicated himself (and much of his wealth) to eradicating disease and poverty across the globe. In other words, he chose to use his wealth and talents to do something good and just.

Prosperity, health and an excellent education are wonderful things that everyone ought to enjoy. And we should be sure to make use of the tools (i.e. free enterprise, among others) that help make that happen. But don’t expect these things to bring you fulfillment.

Remember, the good life is a choice. Choose to do what is good and just—and I assure you, you will see how beautiful life can be.