What makes a good life? This is my map.

What is the good life? Probably one of the most important questions we have to ask. Science is moving closer to answering it. This post is a map of what I believe makes a good life. I’m putting it here for you to critique, to hear and maybe it inspires some useful introspection.You guys are smart people, you reason well, and you don’t hold back in your criticisms. I hope you will do the same for this post. Thank you for your time.

The Terminal Goal

This is where science falls short. We can figure out how to get from A to B, but I find it unlikely that science can define a B without axioms. To me, I want the greatest well-being for myself as my primary goal. This is selfish, but looking at what I feel, it is who I am. In the process, though, I care a ton about helping others, so I most definitely will end up helping out a lot as well.
So, what does the greatest well-being look like? I want to feel energetic, happy and have a meaningful life. Many other indicators didn’t make the cut here, but I am completely open to suggestions!

How do we get there?

Psychological Needs

This section draws inspiration from Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT). It’s the most comprehensive, empirically backed theory of needs that I’ve encountered. Casual googling hasn’t turned up any major criticisms. I am grateful to anyone who has opposing viewpoints, though!

A Quick Introduction to SDT

SDT presents basic psychological needs in the aptly named Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT). Here follows a short summary, but I encourage you to check out Cp. 10 of the SDT book. There are three basic psychological needs: Competence, Relatedness and Autonomy.

Competence is the feeling that you can do important activities well. It is the possibility for and ability to develop and express skills, understanding and mastery. Optimal satisfaction of competence is dependent on choosing your actions. There is no room for oughts or shoulds.

Relatedness is the need for caring about others and being cared for. It is experiencing others as being sensitive to your needs and being sensitive to the needs of others. Most call it a combination of trust, love, caring and connection. Optimal satisfaction of relatedness is conditional on the love being volitional and unconditional.

Lastly, autonomy is the feeling that the source of your actions is yourself. It is not the same as independence. You can autonomously engage in relationships that decrease your independence. Satisfaction of autonomy is conditional on your motivations being integrated. This is the subject of Organismic Integration Theory (OIT, cp. 8 of the SDT book) which is beyond the scope of this article.
These three needs are the components of psychological well-being. But how do we go about satisfying them?

How to Satisfy Competence

To satisfy competence, you choose to do things that are challenging, important and that you’re good at.Satisfaction requires that you feel effective at what you do. This further requires that you’re getting informational feedback. Feedback that tells you whether you’re doing well. You also need to know how to improve, otherwise feedback doesn’t matter.Lastly, it requires that you have opportunities to work on things that you find important.

How to Satisfy Relatedness

For relatedness, you need to be sensitive to the needs of others. You need to take genuine interest in who they are and what they want, not judge them for it, and help them. It goes the other way as well. You want to feel that others are sensitive to your needs. This can’t happen unless they know who you are. We have to expose what we need, where we are most vulnerable. Not all at once, but a little bit at a time. Being seen like this, and having people respond to us favourably, is what satisfies relatedness.


Lastly, autonomy. If we want to feel like we make our decisions, we have to avoid constraints that we don’t choose. This implies that we need sufficient money and time to do what is important to us.
We also need something that is important to us, and to have this belief integrated as part of who we are. For this to happen, you must trust yourself enough that you can look at your desires without judgement. Then you can reconcile and integrate them. One way of cultivating non-judgement is mindfuless. Ryan and Deci explore this further in the final part of the BPNT chapter (p. 267 in the SDT book).
Not only is autonomy important in itself, it is also essential for the two previous needs. Relatedness is not satisfied if you believe that the other is helping you because they are being coerced to do so. Nor is competence satisfied if you’re working on something because you feel like you ought to.

Physical needs

These are necessary conditions. Psychological needs matter much less if your physical needs aren’t met. Physical needs are also different from psychological needs in that they are “deficit needs”. They become salient only when deprived, but further increases don’t yield well-being. Overeating doesn’t make you feel good. But there is no end to how competent you want to feel.
I chose a lot of willful omissions here. I have included only those needs that I believe can become salient for me. If you think I’ve missed a need that a westerner in a socialist country might have deprived, please let me know!

The Map

This brings us to the part I’ve been looking forward to the most, me presenting the flowchart of my mental model.

Why write a post on this?

My motivations are twofold, altruistic and selfish. Maybe it can help someone! Before I encountered SDT, I thought autonomy was a normative entity. That we should respect the wills of others because “that’s what we do in democracies”. I’ve been ecstatic to learn that we have empirical evidence to back it up.

SDT has also made it clear for me that where motivation comes from matters. Forcing yourself to do something is harmful, and we can quantify the consequences. Spending time considering what is important is useful not only in being efficient. It also increases your well-being, and makes your work higher quality. Fighting and tricking myself into doing what is important isn’t the best way of being. I can live in harmony, as long as I dare look at, and care for, who I am.

Selfishly, I am uncertain about this model. I haven’t encountered any decent competing candidates. Exposing it to scrutiny seems one of the best ways of increasing my confidence.

How do I create my own?

Diagrams were created with Flying Logic Pro. The idea for the diagram is borrowed from Dettmer’s The Logical Thinking Process, the section on IO Maps.

What’s next?

I hope you will come up with a ton of questions and criticisms! When criticising, I hope that you’ll include which evidence would change your mind :-)I hope this post was of value to you.

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