What Makes A Good Life?

The OECD Better Life Index ranks many attributes, including, shown here, Life Satisfaction.

I stumbled across an unbelievable combination of informations today on the internets (Thank you, Twitter!), and my mind is still reeling.

First, there was the new truth of how American demographics are changing, ousting the married-with-kids as the central building block of American society, which declined in double-digit percentages in the past 10 years. (The biggest growth, of course, is “other households,” i.e. nontraditional family formations, which, I’d wager, will become the majority soon enough.)

Second, was the discovery of The Better Life Index (thanks to @Brainpicker on Twitter; if you’re interested at all in Smart New Thinking, please follow her immediately). In this amazing chart, the “good life” is intelligently and clearly expressed in petals, each making up a flower that represents a country in the world. And the U.S. is not at the top. (Canada is higher than the U.S. See? My Canada obsession is well-placed!)

Now, I know, I’m getting all wonky-like, but stay with me here for a minute:

I started this blog to talk about the personal challenges of transition. This topic is interesting me to not only because of the series of personal disruptions I encountered in the last year, but also because of the tremendous changes that are being wrought in American society right now. And not just the digital revolution, people. We are starting to face the long-term consequences of plenty, after our society was initially built on the long-term struggles of scarcity (see: pioneers, settlers, Great Depression, Dust Bowl, WWII and so forth). We don’t know quite what to do with too many calories, too many possibilities, not enough time, and the divide between democracy (individuals all count equally) and capitalism (profits count more than people). Okay, I know, I’m getting speechy, but hang in for another minute or two! It comes back to you, I promise. And as the editor of Redbook magazine from 2004 to 2010, I watched the canaries in the coal mine—regular Americans, living all around the country, as opposed to the celebrities and business moguls that capture most of media’s attention—start to struggle with this terrible shift in the balance of American life.  Politicians were still addressing the fantasy—happy, secure two-parent intact families with two well-paying jobs not too far away from their affordable homes—instead of addressing what I saw in the lives of the women I worked for: being stretched more and more, with fewer and fewer opportunities, and the terrible feeling that they’d done something wrong to suddenly find life so hard. (“We did everything right,” was a common refrain in the letters I got when I started a financial column in the magazine. “And yet, we are just barely making it month to month.”)

Part of my own personal drift, aside from being unmoored from my family and my career, was this: being able to see so clearly that my own personal values are starting to diverge from the values of the country at large, as represented by how we define success. I didn’t want my success to only be about having a big, cool job, and making a lot of money, and being on television. None of those things mattered to the “me” in me (although it was a deeply rewarding job because of the daily conversations with women just like, and unlike, me).

And part of this change I’m trying to make right now is to live my life by my principals, not by my goals. The goals were great, they were fun, they drove my life and my attention for a long time, and I was very lucky in that I achieved so much. But the achievements did not answer the big yawning question of Why bother? Why be here? What are we supposed to leave this world knowing that we didn’t know when we got here?

For sure that answer can’t just be knowing what “my number” is that I’m working toward before I retire.

So back to The Better Life Index. These are the categories that drive the final tallies:
•Life Satisfaction
•Work-Life Balance

It got me thinking: Which one of these really matters the most to me? Yes, job. Yes, community. Yes, education. But the most? Life satisfaction. A sense that my LIFE is well-spent and well-earned, as opposed to my MONEY.  I think the notion that the U.S. ranks high on Work-Life Balance is kind of mind-boggling, because the number-one stat I read in studies again and again is that we Americans (and American women in particular, mother or not) are overwhelmed by how much there is to do in too little time. (Again, the curse of plenty, the burden of opportunity.)

But one of the most amazing attributes to this unbelievably cool chunk of research and data-crunching on the Better Life Index, is that you can sort, play, adjust—make up your own idealized life with these attributes. Rank them in the order that you believe they affect and shape your sense of satisfaction with you life. Change the petals on the flowers. See what happens if Community counts to you more than Money, or Housing more than Job.

That’s essentially what I’m doing now, in these many months of forging my What’s Next, playing with the levers. (A total luxury to be able to do, I know. But when your parents die youngish, they leave with you the money they thought they would need to live well into their dotage. It’s kind of a crap consolation prize, honestly.) Deciding what matters most. And I’ve decided it’s Life Satisfaction.

And you know what country that rates highest? You guessed it: Canada!

But all joking aside, go to that site and play. Think about what matters to you. Rank it. Are you living your life by those measures? Which petals connect to something deep within you? And if you’re not, is it simply because you’re afraid to try to do something otherwise?

If we, as a people, can break through the notion that there is a “safe place”, let go of the idea that making money and putting away for retirement (as my parents did) gives us 10, 20 years of pleasure at the end of our years (usually long after our body is worn out from all the stress and disease of our way of life), realize that we need to be living by our principles and not by our promises (ahem, politicians), and commit to the idea that without community—a true, vital sense of connection—everything else will fail since self-interest erodes the institutions and securities we can build only together.

So yes, I’m looking for a job. But I’m also trying to live by my purpose. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a way to have both. And I urge you all to try to live your life that way, too. We have to endure days of facing our fears—and that single, bracing moment, when you let go of the trapeze bar, to release What We Believed to instead grab What Is Inexorably True—to reach that safe place. There is no other way.

So in my adopted language of my adopted alter-residence, Canada, I say the word that must lead the way for us all: Courage! (Fortunately, it’s spelled the same either way. But it sounds so much the bolder in French: Koo-rahj!)

Here’s the good life. However we define it, we must set out and find it. This is how the world will change, one person, one family at a time.

Speech over!

About stacy

I am a writer, author, mother, former magazine editor (last at Redbook), optimist, and, above all, a searcher. I'm still searching for whom I'm really meant to be, after a series of very jarring losses. Since then I've been trying to figure out what's next. Or, in other words, how to fill in the blanks.
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8 Responses to What Makes A Good Life?

  1. Kaitlin says:

    Love this post and have been thinking about that research too. For me, going after the goals is necessary, but if pursuing while ‘pausing’ the principles and life satisfaction you mention, it burns me out. It also makes ot harder to live in the moment and see all there is to be satisfied with that is already here. Thanks for this!

  2. Libby says:

    Oh girl, I so enjoy reading your posts. This one, in particular resonates with me. I began this journey of learning what was going on with you when you were missing from my editor’s letter last April (was it?), anyhow, since I have gone through a Hellacious season of my own. Transition happens to bey thing right now as well. As I have said in two job interviews in the last week, my life really is about community and relationship. What good are any of our material possessions if we have no one with whom to share them? I with you on Canada! Let’s go!!!

  3. Bet says:

    Outstanding entry!! *cheers, whistles, applause*
    Life satisfaction is #1 with me. It took me a long time to wake up and realize that. Thanks for this post.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this post since yesterday, when I first read it. So much to consider, and cutting through so many issues of our contemporary culture and values, not to mention what we as individuals want for ourselves and our children.

    Events beyond our control – accident, illness, death, (at times) divorce – these are few that set the ball rolling when it comes to figuring out what we really care about, and what that “Better Life” might comprise.

    Other countries offer employment and social structures that make work-life balance (and parenting) easier; not easy, but easier. A June 28 Motherlode piece touches on some of this (something I hope to write about for tomorrow) – countries / cultures where the superior job of recognizing family needs may mesh better with motherhood for some, and for others, the feeling of being torn nonetheless remains.

    For me – the beauty of this post (among other things) is in your openness to so many possibilities, and your honesty in saying “yes, I’m looking for a job, but I’m also trying to live my purpose.” (This is a place where I, too, find myself.)

    I do believe we increase our likelihood of both through awareness – and willingness to try to push our boundaries.

    Thank you for asking these questions of yourself, and nudging us to admit to them as well.

    • stacy says:

      Wolfie, thanks for hanging on and finishing the post, and for coming back to comment today! I know it’s a big, long run of text, chockablock with ideas and layers and whatnot! I get a little lost re-reading it myself. But I love your enticing assessment of it. Thank you! Here’s to share and share alike.

  5. This is fascinating research and now you have me thinking about how we view our lives and the differences in generations — assumptions of scarcity vs. assumptions of plenty and how those assumptions factor into how we live our lives as those constructs change.

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