What Can Nelson Mandela Teach Us About Happiness?

12/14/2013 11:08 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2014

Suppose you were asked to deliver the eulogy at Nelson Mandela's memorial service, with one instruction: Be completely honest, and don't worry about offending anyone. Would you say that he had a good life? I expect most of us would. In fact I'd wager a few bucks that if you did a poll today asking people to give examples of good lives, Mandela would rank high on the list.

The "eulogy test," as we might call it, is a good way to think about how you're going about the business of living: When the time comes for someone to deliver your eulogy, will they be honestly able to say you led a good life? Can you say that? Whatever you do in life, that is the one question you really want to get right.

You might think it important, for having a good life, that you be happy. "I just want to be happy" is, after all, a not-uncommon refrain. And indeed happiness is important for a good life: It is surely relevant for the goodness of Mandela's life that he spent 27 years in a brutal prison, and saw the failure of his marriage. Wouldn't his life have been even better if he could have accomplished so much without quite so much unhappiness? Would you want such a life for your children?

But just because happiness is important doesn't mean you have to be happy to have a good life. Health is important, but you don't need to run marathons to have a sensible concern for your health.

Even when things don't go very well, even when life is hard, it still tends to be a pretty wonderful thing to be alive.

Probably most of the people I know aren't happy -- too much stress, too many worries. But their lives still contain many pleasures, fulfillments, and many of them have a great love of life.

Life has to be pretty grisly -- worse than 27 years in a South African prison -- not to be worth living. Indeed, well worth living. And if your life is well worth living, then it is a good thing for you. To that extent you have a good life, even if you aren't quite happy.

But happiness and well-being aren't the main reason we think Mandela's life a good one. We think it a good life mainly because he lived so admirably -- he lived well. As philosophers would put it, he led a virtuous life.

Living well isn't just about moral goodness. We admire Mandela for many qualities of character that aren't obviously moral virtues: his toughness, resourcefulness, or good humor, say. But it is the moral character of his life that really stands out: the sacrifices and strides he made in the name of justice, peace, and love.

As for Mandela, so for the rest of us: If we want to have good lives -- if we wish to pass the eulogy test -- there is nothing more important than to get the moral side of things right. Nobody gets on the podium and says, "Jackson was a treacherous fink and mean as a snake to boot. But he had a good life: He really enjoyed himself."

It is said that Mandela died a happy man, and it is not hard to imagine why. You can endure all manner of hardships and disappointments as you pass through life, and those things may hardly give you pause when you make your final accounting, deciding whether yours was a life worth affirming. But moral lapses are a different matter. "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness," George Saunders famously observed in a commencement address.

If you can reach the end of the line and feel like you held up your end of the bargain, treated your loved ones well, and were honest and kind in your dealings, you'll likely have escaped the worst regrets that can plague that last reckoning. And you'll likely be able to say, honestly, that you had a good life: a life well lived, and well worth living.