Creating a Good Life

By Martin Thielen

September 5, 2023

I recently purchased a book called The Good Life. Prominently displayed on the front cover are the words, “Create a More Meaningful and Satisfying Life.” According to Amazon, The Good Life is selling well, which doesn’t surprise me. It represents the universal human desire to live a good life. In this brief article I’d like to tell you about my own efforts to create one.

Identify the Essentials

A few months ago, before it left Netflix, I watched the classic 1991 film City Slickers. In one scene, an old cowboy named Curly and a forty-year-old man in a midlife crisis named Mitch have the following (now famous) conversation.

Curly says to Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?”

Mitch replies, “No, what?”

Curly holds up on finger and says, “This.”

Confused, Mitch says, “Your finger?”

Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”

Mitch replies, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?”

Curly says, “That’s what you gotta figure out.”

There’s no one right formula for creating a good life. Everyone has to figure out their own version. But it begins by determining the things that are most important to you. At this stage on the journey, I’ve identified five core essentials that I need in order to live my good life.

Relationships.  The director of the world’s longest study on happiness (at Harvard University) was once asked, “What was learned from this seventy-year-long study on happiness?” He replied, “We learned that the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.” After sixty-six years of living, I’ve come to the same conclusion. Family and friends matter most.

Spirituality My spiritual journey has evolved over five decades from conservative evangelicalism to progressive Christianity to a hybrid of progressive and nontraditional faith. Since the journey isn’t over, it will continue to evolve. But wherever I find myself on the journey, spiritual values and practices will always be essential to me.

Work.  Although work isn’t everything, it is, according to one author, “The scaffolding that holds up our adult lives.” It doesn’t have to be a formal paycheck job. Meaningful work (with inevitable frustrations) can occur at school, at home, or in a volunteer setting. I no longer have a vocation as a minister. However, I do have an avocation as a writer, and it brings great joy and meaning to my life.

Health.  Author and educator Wayne Oates once said, “You can do nothing more spiritual than to maintain your own physical health. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. You serve God well if you take care of your body as a means of worshipping God.” Although I don’t always do it perfectly, getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet are important values of mine.

Gratitude.  Happiness expert Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky says that “the expression of gratitude is a kind of metastrategy for achieving happiness.” Every day in my journal I jot down the (mostly simple) things I’m grateful for like time with my grandchildren, conversation with my wife, a beautiful day, a cup of hot tea, lunch with a friend, an engaging film, or a good book I’m reading. This daily expression of gratitude is a crucial key to my overall life satisfaction and contentment.

Evaluate and Enhance the Essentials

After identifying your core essentials for living a good life, you need to regularly evaluate and enhance them. For me the evaluation process is simple. Several times a year I jot down my five essentials and give each one a score: (1) good or good enough, (2) needs improvement, or (3) in trouble. This only take a few minutes.

The real work begins as I determine strategies for enhancing the essentials. If my score is good or good enough, not much needs to be done other than maintaining it. On the other hand, if something needs improvement, I develop a plan.

For example, when I retired and left the workforce (from a highly relational job as a clergyperson), I realized that my relational connections needed to be enhanced. So I helped create a support group of seven progressive retired clergymen. We’ve become a close-knit group of friends. The group has become an extremely important part of my life.

Although it rarely happens, if one of my essentials is in trouble, quick and decisive action is required. For example, several years ago my blood pressure jumped. When new medications from my primary care doctor didn’t work, I set up several appointments with a cardiologist. Within a few months we resolved the problem.

Although this specific plan for creating a good life works great for me, it won’t work for everyone because we all have a different set of nonnegotiable essentials. However, if you will follow the process listed above and identify, evaluate, and enhance your core essentials, you will be well on your way to creating a good life.

More than Enough

Last year I watched an old movie called The Prince of Tides starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand. The film tells the story of a high school teacher and football coach named Tom Wingo who lost his joy for living but then, after a long and challenging journey, found it again. In the final scene of the film, we see Tom mowing the grass of his high school football field. In voice-over narration Tom says, “I am a teacher and a coach and a well-loved man, and it is more than enough.”

Over my lifetime I have discovered that when I prioritize relationships, focus on spirituality, engage in meaningful work, maintain my health, and consistently express gratitude, it is (even with inevitable imperfections), more than enough.


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