The Good Life by Hugh Mackay

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To sum up, Mackay argues that ‘the good life’ is defined by service to others. This book appeals to our apparently innate moral sense: our natural wish to help and our awareness of ourselves as cooperative social animals. Though, a person living ‘the good life’ would not be expecting anything in return for his or her help, not even a thankyou. An act performed in the expectation of anything in return (even a pleasant sense of worthiness) loses its ‘goodness’ instantly, this author argues.

He points out that Western society glorifies both individual realization and the pursuit of happiness, in case we had not noticed. But, according to him, these are the Wrong Goals. Nor does he promise that if we should lead the good life, we will achieve happiness. I must admit, I had, prior to reading his book, assumed that happiness was indeed my goal, for myself and my friends and family, and particularly for my daughter. Instead, Mackay describes ‘wholeness’ as a better goal than happiness. A ‘whole’ person experiences the complete range of emotions at appropriate moments (fear when something frightening happens, irritation when something annoying happens) to an appropriate degree (not brooding on a small rejection), learning all the while. Indeed, this idea is central to the Traditional Chinese Medicine concept of being ‘in balance’, and I admit I had not previously considered that this may be incompatible with a constant striving for personal happiness and fulfilment.

His book is dotted with anecdotes, quotes and case histories (each, I think, invented to illustrate a point, rather than about people he knows), which do indeed provide human interest to his rather judgemental, stern tone. (For example, he scorns those middle-aged people who continue to wear blue jeans as clinging inappropriately to their lost youth!) The book is quite readable, even when the author criticizes the self-obsessed behaviour he observes in many people. And I think we can all agree (with him) that most of us could benefit ourselves and others by being quite a lot more community-spirited and much kinder to everyone we come in contact with.

Yet, even after reading the whole book and following the development of his argument, I do not feel it is obvious that his premise is correct (service to others should be our life’s goal and there’s no call to aim for happiness per se). Nor is his advocated lifestyle possible in all societies. In a very unequal society, it is not easy to exchange favours. Mackay also seems to take no account of the role of reciprocity and hierarchy as stabilizing factors in animal societies.

It should be a thought-provoking book, but (I think) on the whole, I’m left with good intentions to be a bit more compassionate, a source of balm for whenever I don’t feel I’ve been personally ambitious enough, and not much more.

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