12/12/2014 04:19 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

Have You Thought About the "Good Life" Lately?

Tom Merton via Getty Images

The time for making changes--or at least trying to--is just around the corner. Better known as the "new year," this is when many of us take stock of our lives and think about what we could be doing to make it better, happier. And so come the resolutions to lose weight, stop smoking, find a new job or a new love. All of which sound good and work well for at least a couple of weeks. But all too quickly the old habits reassert themselves and we find ourselves in the rut.

The problem isn't so much the goals we set for ourselves as the way we look at those goals. We see them as one-offs--things to change that will make life better, happier--ignoring the truth that they are parts of a bigger picture. And, as we soon learn, one small change frequently necessitates another change and another and so on.

So in time for a new year let me suggest another way to approach making changes. It requires a bit more thought and a different way of looking at your life. But as it also offers the possibility of lasting change and ever increasing happiness, you might give it a try.

As part of a program I created to help people deal with life changes, called "The Next Step," I put participants through an exercise that has them thinking about their definition of a "Good Life." What do change and a good life have to do with one another? Change is a catalyst for our changing thoughts about what we need to feel happy and fulfilled, to feel like life is good.

Philosophers starting way back with Plato and Aristotle have all considered the question of what constitutes a good life. They spent a lot of time pondering the elements that make for a life well lived. While some of us may have encountered their ponderings in a college course, most of us don't do much conscious thinking about the question after those heady days of late-night conversations about the meaning of life...and about how we intend to do a better job of living than our parents did. Those thoughts don't re-surface until something jars us out of our everyday life and demands our attention, abruptly awakening us from a chronic state of somnambulance.

The alarm-clock event can be anything that shakes up your usual routine -an illness, divorce, a lost job, retirement or happier events like a new baby or a new love. Anything that has you taking stock of your life and asking - What is it I need/want? Am I where I want to be? Is there more? All questions leading up to the big one - "What (for me) is a good life?"

As part of the exercise I ask people to think back to various times in their lives and try to remember what a good life looked like from that vantage point. I pick watershed times or ages, the ones that people are most likely to recall - 16, 21, 30 and (for the "older" participants) 40.

Think back to age 16 and where you were in your life - in high school and finally in possession of that all-important document, a driver's license (at least if you were living in California as I was). What or who populated your adolescent dreams of Eden? Mine were filled with images of freedom, signified by a car of my own (preferably a baby blue Mustang convertible). Sitting next to me in my dream machine was my boyfriend, tall and athletic, and our destination was the beach - a trip that usually required parental permission, but not in my good life scenario.

After sharing a 16 year-old's image of Nirvana--whether or not it was achieved--I move them on to thinking about age 21. This is generally a time when people are graduating from college and looking forward to making their way in the world, and a good life means a good job and an affordable apartment. By 30 people are looking toward a bigger job and salary, as well as a mate to share life with and for some the beginnings of a family. Others remember wanting to see the world, to have adventures, to find out more about themselves. By 40 a good life includes a bigger residence, a better job, savings, perhaps.

Now I fast forward to the present and ask them to think about what a good life looks like today. Their "top-of-the-head" responses are obvious and expected - family, good friends, good health, financial security, travel. But as people think further their answers evoke deeper needs - love, purpose, giving back, serenity, compassion, peace, passion in life and work, balance. The list grows longer the more they reflect.

At this point I ask them to look at their list and, being honest with themselves, decide if they are currently leading a good life. Are those elements you think are important part of your life? If not, why not?

People often tell me that when they look at everything on their list they are daunted. How can their lives encompass all those needs, they ask, when it's hard to find time to get to the gym even once a week? I remind them of the exercise we just did looking at a good life at different times in life. The lists changed because their needs changed, their priorities were different.

We're advised to regularly "re-balance" our portfolios to reflect our changing financial needs, to take our car in for check-ups after a certain amount of time or mileage to see if everything is working well. Yet how many of us regularly check in to see if the life we are living reflects our changing mental, emotional and spiritual needs? If it still matches up with our definition of a good life?

"The great question is: 'What is worthwhile?' declared the artist and renowned teacher Robert Henri in his important book, The Art Spirit. "The majority of people have failed to ask themselves seriously enough, and have failed to try seriously enough to answer the question."

A good life is not a static concept, frozen in time or in the pages of a philosophy book. It is not something that requires consensus or even agreement as to what is needed in order to live a life you consider good. But it does require attention, thoughtfulness and honesty. If you need balance, if you want to do work you are passionate about, if your body is telling you that it needs more sleep--or that it's time to exercise--then those should be your priorities. If they aren't on the top of your "To Do" list, it's time to make some changes.

All of this may, indeed, seem daunting. It can feel scary and risky to start making changes to your life, even when you know they are needed, even though you may not feel happy or fulfilled where you are. Ruts may be confining but they can also seem comfortable, especially when you avoid looking up over the edge. Periodic good life check-ins are a way to ease yourself into these changes, to take a look around--and within--and make sure that you're not so far off your path that you feel lost.

Back to those New Year's resolutions. Go ahead and resolve to lose weight but then ask yourself what that has to do with living a good life for you. Does it mean better health, looking better, feeling better about yourself? Dig deeper into your resolutions and you'll find your list of what makes for a good life now.

Perhaps seen in that context your resolutions will be easier to stick to. And even if you stray from the path occasionally, you won't be lost. Just think of those times as another opportunity for a check in and a course correction on your way to a good life.