Towards a Sociology of the Good Life

What is the good life? It’s a question which preoccupied me in my past life as a trainee political philosopher and it’s one which still concerns me as a sociologist. It’s rarely addressed within the discipline for reasons that cut through a number of trends within the field: a hostility towards normativity, an admission of normative question in a restrictively critical mode and a scepticism concerns questions pertaining to the particular character of individual lives. This is a shame because I believe sociology has a lot to contribute towards questions of the good life, not least of all because it can ensure otherwise abstract ruminations are grounded in an appreciation of the variable circumstances within which actual lives are lived. It can also help link these philosophical questions to empirical ones concerning dominant trends in how ‘the good life’ is conceived within a particular social order.

In this sense we could see existential questions as close to invariant but the dominant cultural answers as being immensely variable through history and across the planet. This is not a matter of individual variation, such that each person individually confronts universal existential dilemmas and through their responses contributes towards patterns that register aggregatively at the macro level as empirical patterns in understandings of ‘the good life’. It’s also necessary to distinguish between discursive formulations and actual practice without prioritising one over the other. Cultural formulations of ‘the good life’ are intimately connected to lived practices in a way that necessitates we appreciate their entanglement if we are to properly understand either culture or life. Only through doing so does it become possible to understand how change occurs at either level, as people individually or collectively advocate for heterodox understanding of the good life or elaborate upon prevailing ideas through their personal or shared practice which may come to be formulated at a discursive level and so escape their original context and begin to potentially exert an influence in others.

The work of Harmut Rosa offers clues about what a sociology of the good life might look like, though his suggestions are only a peripheral part of a much larger and very different project. In his Social Acceleration, he writes about the notions of a good life that emerge under conditions of acceleration and describes how these have been shaped by older conceptions of the life well lived:

the idea that an accelerated enjoyment of worldly options, a “faster life,” will once again allow the chasm between the time of life and the time of the world to be reduced. In order to understand this thought one has to keep in mind that the question concerning the meaning of death is indissolubly tied to the question of the right or “good life.” Thus the idea of the good life corresponding to this answer, which historically became the culturally dominant idea, is to conceive of life as the last opportunity, i.e., to use the earthy time span allotted to humans as intensively and comprehensively as possible before death puts a definitive end to it (pg. 181)

These are theoretical observations that are informed, albeit unsystematically, by historical sociology. I think they could also be informed by cultural sociology and cultural studies, drawing upon popular texts which deal with these themes. For instance I’ve been reading Late Fragments by Kate Gross, a former high flying civil servant, who died of colon cancer at the age of 34 and left a moving collection of ruminations on life catalyzed by its early end and the pain of leaving behind two young sons and a much loved husband.

Acceleration is a theme that runs through the book, albeit without using that term, for instance in her description of friendships that “survive on scraps of time and emails, squeezed between the rest of life, and very often conducted thousands of miles apart” (pg 51)  and her wonderment at the life she has lived (analysis of her privilege would be an important part of a Sociology of the Good Life, though in Kate’s case, it’s hard to think this through without feeling immensely uncharitable):

There is wonder in my past, and in my present. As I write this book, I lay out my memory quilt to see all the dancing I have done: places I have been, people I have met. I have fitted so much colour into my short life that I wonder if I lived on hyper-speed, as if, somehow, I knew my time was limited. (pg 30-31)

My suggestion is that Kate Gross embodied Rosa’s accelerationist ethic, feeling compelled at she did to fit so much into her life and confrontation with an early death leads her to reflect on the virtues and limitations of it. Her account of the cancer in part frames it in terms of deceleration, in which “time was carved out for friendship again” (pg 52) and she was led, by existential need rather than reflective inclination, to cultivate those aspects of herself which had been lost in the rush:

It is too easy, as an adult, to let life rush past with its business of succeeding, working, consuming, rearing. All of that can be joyful and fulfilling, I grant you. But it is so, so easy in the rush of life to neglect your inner world. I know mine was dead for many years, squeezed between work and achieving stuff and my darling little ones – it’s a choice I made, and gladly. But one of the unexpected blessings of illness is that it has given me time to tend my mind again. (pg 75).

I found the phrase ‘achieving stuff‘ immensely powerful. It conveys her continued investment in what she has accomplished while expressing how the details (what? when? why? with whom?) have begun to fade away in the face of finality. Perhaps this suggests it was the achievement rather than the particular achievements which were deemed worthwhile: securing the worth of life through what is achieved in its short span. This points us towards questions of qualitative worth: what distinguishes an ‘achievement’ from the simple fact of something we have done? Does it entail leaving a lasting mark? Once we start to ask these questions, we’re already way outside the realms of the hedonistic calculus currently being reinvented by behavioral scientists like Paul Dolan. The graphic artist Jim Steranko conveys this vividly in his account of the meaning he derives from his work:

I believe that happiness is nothing … I don’t think people were put here to be happy. I think if you decide to bean artist or a writer, you automatically accept the responsibility of being alone. However, after your 50 or 60 years are up you’ll be able to look back and see this output that you’ve done that will endure long after you’re gone, and will continue to fill the minds of millions of people.

Marvel: The Untold Story, Pg. 83

Would this still provide meaning for him if his work endured but it was largely forgotten? There are lots of different levels on which statements of purpose and statements about purpose (with the latter probably more interesting) can be analyzed. I think a Sociology of the Good Life would be well equipped to do just this. The study of texts could supplement the theoretical work undertaken by someone like Rosa in a way that enhances both. However I think there would be much more to it than this, for instance looking at the material constraints upon the good life and how these ideas help reproduce existing inequalities, not least of all by binding people in to life strategies that perpetuate structural injustice.


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