02/09/2012 10:48 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2012

Maintaining a Vision of the Good Life in a Time of Uncertainty

As boomers we were brought up to expect that our lives would be better than our parents' lives. That is even more pronounced in children of immigrant families, a statistic that has gotten so large in the U.S. -- but all demographic groups have instilled in their children the idea that they will live "the good life."

What does it mean to live a "good life?" For many people, it's defined by affluence and the capacity to buy material things that make our lives easier and more fun. Ironically, many who chase money are not using their hard-earned income to make their life easier, nor to have more fun.

Surprisingly to some, in surveys that the Met Life Mature Market Institute has conducted about what makes for the good life, the most typical response is not that more money makes us happy. It is that having a sense of purpose and meaning does. Often that purpose and meaning comes from relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Sometimes, it comes from a spiritual life. Or a passionate interest in something outside of oneself -- helping others or a hobby or sport. The common denominator seems to be living fully, engaging in whatever we do and being in the present.

In an article I wrote for WorkForce50, I pose some questions: is the good life one where we wake up every morning with a zest for living, with a sense that interesting things will occur and we will meet the challenges? Is it peace of mind, knowing that we have security? Is it having supportive relationships where deep communication is possible? Is it finding that optimal condition between feeling too anxious about new experiences and feeling too bored with old ones?

Richard Leider, author, coach, and educator, defines it as "the achievement of positive balance -- living in the place you belong, with people you love, while doing the right work on purpose... Purpose is the glue that holds the Good Life together."

Martin Seligman, creator of the positive psychology movement and psychologist of "happiness," discusses different ways of thinking of the Good Life. The Hollywood version, he suggests, convinces us that the more we have positive feelings or pleasure, the happier we are.

But, Seligman introduces another way of knowing the Good Life, one that Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle meant by the pursuit of happiness. To them it was more about contemplation, such as when we are having a good conversation with a like-minded person. I suppose this form of happiness could be a solitary one, found in reading, prayer, writing, or painting. But often it involves community. It suggests a "deep absorption and immersion," referred to as "Flow," or being "in the Zone," according to Seligman.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as a state of being totally involved in whatever we are doing, be it an artistic endeavor, playing tennis, reading a story to our children, having dinner with friends, or being fully engaged in our work. When in flow, we are un-self-conscious, we lose track of time's passing, and we are not judging ourselves. We are completely in the moment. It does not necessarily involve pleasure; probably there is no consciousness of feelings or thoughts at all.

Regardless of our experience in this time of economic turmoil, how can we access some of the states of mind referred to above? None of them are directly dependent upon income or how much money you have lost from your retirement savings. According to research findings, life satisfaction would seem to depend much more on our perceptions, attitudes and on the ways in which we invest in experiences that are meaningful to us.

Consider finding the Good Life in these ways:
• Keep a daily log for a week. Rank each experience relative to what extent it promotes a sense of the Good Life (10 being very well and 1 being not at all).
• Collect all the Good Life experiences and underline the commonalities among them; e.g. are they mostly contemplative, solo experiences, personal connection experiences, learning, teaching, challenging yourself?
• State an overall description of what gives you a sense of the Good Life.
• If you need more information, review your life history in 5-year increments. Write lists of all those experiences that gave you a sense of the Good Life in the past.
• Again, rank each on a scale from 1-10.
• To what extent can you build these into your life now?

James A. Michener wrote:

The masters in the art of living make little distinction between their work and their play, their labor and their leisure, their minds and their bodies, their information, their recreation, their love and their religion. They hardly know which is which; they simply pursue their vision of excellence at whatever they do, leaving others to decide whether they are working or playing.