102: Finding the good life through philosophy with Dr. Meghan Sullivan
Could you guess the most popular undergraduate course at the University of Notre Dame?
If you guessed a philosophy class, titled “God and the Good Life,” you are correct.
But it’s not the Philosophy 101 you may have taken in college. It’s “built on the idea that philosophy is care for our souls.”
That our day-to-day stressors and everyday questions about what’s good and what makes a good life are in fact philosophical questions.
And now you can sit down for class too, but in a fun and approachable way through a new book, titled “The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning” (Penguin Press, 2022), co-written by Notre Dame philosophy professors Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blashko.
Turning to figures like Aristotle and Plato, you’ll explore love, finance, work and faith as you dive into the big questions and create your own “good life plan.”
As Meghan says, philosophy belongs everywhere. And she’s on the show to bring some of it to us today.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan is the Wilsey Family College Chair in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, director of the God and the Good Life Program, and director of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. She studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy at Rutgers University.
Meghan has worked with thousands of students to help them start to articulate a purpose and how to hold onto it. She’s here to help us reflect on happiness and meaning, too.
Show highlights include:
- How Meghan defines a good life.
- Meghan’s journey to writing “A Good Life Method.”
- Meghan’s experience teaching philosophy as care for the soul.
- What philosophy is and how it impacts us today.
- How Meghan’s philosophical research shaped her goals.
- How to create a “good-life plan.”
- The danger gap between theory and action.
- How faith influences Meghan’s “good-life plan.”
- The first steps toward a more meaningful life.
Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Christin Thieme: Meghan, thank you so much for joining us on The Do Gooders Podcast today. Welcome to you.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to our conversation.
Christin Thieme: Same. I really loved getting to preview your book that’s just now dropping, and I think people are going to love it. I’m excited to talk to you about it today, so thank you so much for joining us. I figured we’d start with just a small, easy question for you. What is a good life?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Oh, such an easy question. Only the core animating question of philosophy for the last 2,400 years in both the Western world and the East.
Christin Thieme: That’s right.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Here’s what I will say. First, read the book and by the end, you’ll have more questions than answers probably on this. But the thing I would want your listeners to take away from this conversation is that we ordinarily think that we have to figure out these good life questions on our own. So very few of us wake up in the morning and think, “Am I living a good life?” But we have a lot of good life questions that we worry about every day. Am I being a good parent? Am I being a good coworker? Should I have sent that email? Am I giving enough to charitable causes? And we worry about these questions and we don’t often recognize them as philosophical questions. They just seem like all the little stressors, day-to-day life questions. And we seek out advice, but we often don’t realize that we’re seeking out philosophical advice about what’s good and what it would be for us to be good people.
I think the good life is the big unifying goal that’s behind all of those little good life questions that are in our minds all the time. So when you’re asking, “Am I being a good parent? Am I being a good coworker? Am I a good philosopher? Was I a good philosopher this year?” You’re asking about the good life and you’re kind of seeking this goal out there that’s going to be the complete story of your life that hopefully answers all those smaller questions, “Yes.” And you’ll know your reasons for why you believe you’re making the decisions in the right way.
So the good life first and foremost is this goal. It’s a goal that we often don’t stare directly at, but it’s a goal that’s behind a lot of smaller questions that we think about constantly. And there’s actually a philosophical term we get from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, that describes that goal that’s kind of underwriting all of the smaller questions. He calls it eudaimonia, this kind of state of flourishing, of all the different dimensions and functions of your life going really well and fitting together in a unified whole. So when we talk about the good life, we’re talking about this eudaimonia, this kind of fulfilling of all of our different functions in a way that makes them harmonious and we can kind of understand. And again, that sounds like fancy philosopher talk, but I guarantee you, you’re worrying about little pieces of that big goal every single day.
Christin Thieme: Yeah. And don’t even realize it. Enter your book. So you’ve co-taught a course around this topic for a number of years. And your book now, “The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning,” really has come out of the course, if I understand it correctly. So can you tell us a little bit more about the course, which I understand is the most popular undergraduate course at Notre Dame, and how it led you to this book?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: So a few years ago … I’d been always teaching our really big Introduction to Philosophy course at Notre Dame. I’ve been here for 11 years. And when I first got here, I would teach undergraduates philosophy the same way I learned it. So we’d go through this kind of sequence of dead European guys. We would do Plato and Aristotle, then we’d do Descartes and Kant, then we’d usually run out of time. And I’d tell them about these big questions that those guys wrestled with in their own lives and I’d give them exams so that they could get their answers straight.
And I realized, after teaching this semester after semester, there was this big missed opportunity. I had all these students that were in my class, and I could tell that they were fired up about these questions, but I never had an opportunity to see how they were thinking about the answers. Then I wasn’t sure at the end of class that learning all this philosophy was having any impact on their lives. Now it’s fine to teach students something that’s not going to have an impact on their lives. I think a lot of our students learn linear algebra and it has no discernible impact on the rest of their lives.
Christin Thieme: That’s what I’ve been saying forever.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Exactly. You’re never going to use calculus. I heard an engineer earlier today at work say, “You’re never going to need calculus,” but you do need philosophy and for reasons that I just shared. It’s not the case with these questions about, “Am I living up to my moral standards? What does it mean to be honest? What does it mean to take responsibility for hard decisions that I make?” Those questions come up all the time in our lives, and I know they come up in the lives of my students. I also know that my students worry about those questions, the same way all of us do.
In fact, the last couple of years, looking at this group of 18, 19 year olds, you realize all of the good life challenges that they are facing day in and day out. They talk quite a bit about burnout. They have a lot of anxiety about what the future is going to hold for their jobs and for their families. The most recent generation has lived through these extremely disruptive two years, when they’ve had all of these questions about the direction that they’re pointing their life in. They’re the kinds of questions that philosophy is meant to speak into, but somebody has to teach them how to do it, and also create a forum where they’re able to make those connections. And so, a few years ago I had some other colleagues that have the similar kind of existential anxiety, my coauthor, Paul Blaschko, being one of them. And we decided we wanted to try and experiment by flipping the philosophy class and really making it a course that’s using Plato and Aristotle and Kant and these other guys as tools to help students really directly start to try to answer those questions.
And then, once we tried it, we didn’t really know what we were doing at first. We definitely didn’t know we were wading into, but realized very quickly the first semester we offered it that there was a definite need that this kind of teaching was meeting. And students really loved the class. There became this kind of class culture that developed organically around students wanting to continue these discussions outside of class and wanting to share what they were learning with a bigger group on campus. Another thing that started happening is students would tell their parents about what we were doing in class. And we would get requests from like Notre Dame alums or from adult community groups, “Can you come do a one session God and the Good Life course about how to be more philosophical about generosity over Christmas, or how to be more philosophical about feeling burned out at work?”
And so we started doing these one-off events and realized like, “Oh, it’s much more than 18, 19 year olds that have these good life questions. It’s everybody.” And we probably should have realized that more quickly, but that’s what pushed us to write the book, is realizing we want to do anything we can to contribute to a much broader conversation about the philosophical and spiritual resources that we have to start to answer these questions that we know feel really urgent to so many people right now.
Christin Thieme: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe even more so today than we would have said a couple of years ago.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Oh my gosh. I mean, some questions that were honestly never like the hit questions of our class had become central topics during the pandemic. So one that I’ll highlight, when we were teaching God and the Good Life five or six years ago, we usually did a unit on the life of contemplation. Like what does it mean to be somebody that has a really rich interior life? What does it mean to say that there’s more to life than action and activity and having projects? It’s a topic that Plato and Aristotle write a lot about. And five, six years ago we would teach on that topic and our students would look bored to death. Like their eyes would just glaze over. The thought of having a contemplative life, or working on meditation, or working on prayer, or just worrying that they were good at contemplation meant nothing to them.
Christin Thieme: Enter the pandemic.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Well, then the pandemic hit. And all of their activities got canceled. Every single activity that you could hitch your good life wagon to got stopped in its tracks by our students. And they’re sitting at home by themselves with their family members with their books and their philosophy, trying to think like, “What is good in my life right now? What do I have to like to nourish me?” And then suddenly we start getting all of these one-off requests, “Could you do a lecture on contemplation and the good life? Could you do a lecture on how we start to see the good life when action starts to fail us?” And Paul and I both did seminar after seminar over Zoom that first year of the pandemic, just talking to people like, “Here’s how philosophers have navigated this question about finding the good in their lives when they can’t do their normal projects anymore.” So that’s when we noticed like, “Oh my gosh, we got this philosophical problem thrown right in our face.”
Christin Thieme: Definitely an incubator for getting philosophy out there. So the good life is this goal. And especially this time of year, as we start a new year, we all set goals. We set resolutions. We maybe look at, if we have one, some sort of life map. And as we try to assemble this better life, or work at accomplishing our goals, it doesn’t always necessarily fall into place. So where should our goals come from?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: I think this is also a great question, and you get a lot of bad answers this time of year as well. One is The New York Times, somebody writes an article in The New York Times saying, “These are my top five exercise goals for the year.” You just write those in your notebook, like, “Those are going to be my exercise goals, too. I’m going to stop eating meat this year.”
And you have no clue why that’s your goal. It’s your goal for this really shaky reason, namely that you read about it in the newspaper, that’s kind of a bad way to get your goals. But it’s also really frustrating to think that you have to sit down just on your own every year with a blank sheet of paper and figure out what’s going to make this year valuable for you. I mean, that’s an incredible amount of pressure because you don’t know all the challenges that are going to come your way, and you might not know … For a goal to be a really excellent goal in your life, you have to know why you have chosen it.
We all have this experience, maybe thinking about previous New Year’s, there were some years when you made a resolution that by the end of the year felt incredible. Maybe you didn’t achieve it, but working on it was an important frame for how you spent your time that year. And there are many other years where you make resolutions and they just fall flat.
I can tell you two examples from my own life. This past year at New Year’s, I resolved to eat 50 different species of fruit and I put that into my big goal. It’s on my refrigerator still, saying I’m going to keep track of all the different kinds of fruit I’m going to try this year. And I lasted two weeks and then basically got bored. And I had no idea why, I think I thought it would be healthier if I did it, but it wasn’t like it didn’t connect with any deeper reason about the kind of person that I wanted to be. There wasn’t a way for me to really share that goal with other people that I care about. I didn’t really have a philosophy behind it or a philosophical motivation.
A couple of years ago I resolved at New Year’s that I wanted to finally just stop drinking entirely. That was going to be my resolution. I’d been kind of a casual drinker before then, and I was like, “This is the year when I think I just want to eliminate this part of my life,” which is a really hard resolution to form. But it was one that I’d been thinking about quite a bit, I’d been praying about it. And I’ve been also thinking, “Why is this really important to me? Well, I think that it will help me be able to spend more time every single evening reflecting on my day. I think it’ll make me a more responsible friend to people when I go out.”
I can just think of all these reasons why this felt like for me to be a better version of myself, I really needed to work on this year. And that goal, I’ve stuck with it for the last couple of years. And it’s part of this story of the person I want to become, and the person that I want to share with other people, and my moral views about what we owe other people, and what it means to you to care for your mind. That has made it like a really deep and important part of my life.
Reflecting on the goals that have that feeling of, “My gosh, this is part of my story now of me trying to pursue a goal for who I want to be,” versus the resolutions that you just picked up like lint along the way. That’s what the dream of having this philosophical, examined approach to life is is that you were able to identify those good goals when you start to get them in your sights. And then be able to put enough reasoning behind them, and enough like of yourself behind those goals to make them something that’ll hopefully be formative.
Christin Thieme: So can we just back up for one second, for those of us who don’t remember everything from our Philosophy 101 class? You’ve given us this incredible tool and your book of this philosophical approach to life, but before somebody picks it up, what is philosophy?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: You’re asking all the hard questions today. So I think the first thing you need to know about philosophy is that it is a method and not just a collection of old books. A lot of people, when they think about philosophy, and this honestly is how we’d normally teach philosophy classes, think that studying philosophy just means studying these famous dead people with really complex vocabularies. And that is true, if you become a philosophy major, you’re going to need to read a lot of Germans with really complex vocabularies, but that’s not what we aim for you to learn when you study philosophy. What we aim for you to learn is this idea which kind of took hold in Greece 2,400 years ago, in like 400 B.C., and took hold in China roughly around the same period with Confucius.
This idea that life throws us challenges. We get a pandemic, we have a new child, we have to make decisions about why we suffer. Somebody we really care about is suffering. We get some money and we have to figure out what we’re going to do with it. We get all of these puzzles. And by our very nature, we try to answer them. And some of our answers are better or worse than others. That’s maybe the first lesson of philosophy is you can go back and look at the ways that you’ve tried to answer questions about what’s good, or what’s true, or what’s beautiful, and realize some answers are really great. And some answers just kind of leave you flat. They’re like the bad New Year’s resolutions.
So first, philosophy tries to, especially in its origins, prod people to think like, “Maybe we could do better. Maybe we could be better versions of ourselves. Maybe humanity could do a better job.” And then, the second thing that separates philosophy as a discipline is a lot of different ways of answering your questions, prioritize the impact of your decision right now, right? So you might face this question, “How much money should I give to charity in 2022?” There is one way of answering that question where you say, “Well, I should give as much money as I possibly can to whatever charity is going to make as many people as happy as possible.” That’s the kind of give for impact theory.
And your friend, who’s an economist, can come in and tell you exactly how to achieve that goal. And he’ll say, “Give your money to this charity.” He’ll probably tell you to put it in a stock for five years or buy a bunch of Bitcoin and then give it away. But he’ll give you this means/ends advice. Philosophy’s in the business of, “Hold up, what does it mean to make people happy? Do you really know what goes into making people happy? Here are four different ideas about what it could mean to make another person genuinely happy.” And once you see the options, then you think, “Oh my gosh, it’s this other view that I think is genuine happiness. Maybe I’m going to go after that with my giving this year.”
And then, philosophy says, “Okay. Well, if that’s your vision of happiness, how does that fit in with other kinds of goals that you might have in your life?” And philosophy encourages you to keep asking those questions. So you get those really strong reasons that are behind your goals and don’t settle for quickly choosing something and going after it. So that’s a method and you absorb it by reading great philosophers. We’re huge fans of Aristotle in the book. Aristotle’s most famous work of philosophy is this book called the Nicomachean Ethics. It’s got kind of an intimidating name, but it’s basically Aristotle’s advice manual to other guys in Greece at the same time about how to be happier.
He gives you advice about how to be a better parent. He gives you advice about how to think of yourself and your habits. It’s in the process of giving advice, but advice with this like philosophical depth to it. And studying philosophy means starting to open yourself up to want to look for that depth and those reasons. And the great philosophers of the past are all people who are really good at just drilling down and finding those options, if that makes sense?
Christin Thieme: And you’ve walked through it in a very approachable way in your books, so thank you for that. When you talk about connecting your current goals with their deeper reasons, you actually work through in the book creating a plan that can go with you when you hit some sort of rough patch, when you want to reflect on your life, can serve as a compass. So can you share a little bit more about what is this plan, and why is it something that you have your students create first and that you feel like everybody should have?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Yeah. So this plan can seem intimidating at first, but it’s actually a really fun exercise and a really practical one. You can do with a pen and paper, or start working on your computer. We call it in our class a philosophical apology. And it’s not like apologizing for your philosophical goals or anything like that. It’s called an apology because in ancient Greece, Socrates, the founder of philosophy in the Western world, was asking all of these questions about the good life and famously was put on trial by the Athenians. And he had to go in front of this huge jury of his fellow Athenians and defend all of the decisions he was making about how he was living his life. Why is he so skeptical? Why is he spending so much time educating the youth of Athens rather than helping Athens fight Sparta? You know, those kinds of topics.
So famously that’s called Socrates’s Apology, or Apologia. He offers, to all of us, a defense of how he’s been making all of these good life decisions and how he’s understood his goals. And a lot of other philosophers have tried to give these apologies for their good life decisions over time. One of the things we ask all of our students in the course here at Notre Dame to do is to work on their own document. That’s where they are in life right now, how they are starting to answer these big questions about the goal and meaning of that life. So we give them the question, “How are you deciding who to believe right now?” And that might seem like a really abstract question. A lot of our students hear it as very abstract at first, but then we say, “No seriously, like why do you trust me as your professor to teach you about new subjects? Where do you get your news? And why do you get your news there rather than somewhere else? What do you do when you discover you’ve been wrong about something that you believe?”
And we ask them to first reflect on what’s going on in their actual life right now that’s raising philosophical puzzles. And then we read about skepticism. We read about philosophers debating what it means to be somebody who’s very concerned with the truth, and how you navigate caring about the truth with loving other people. That’s a fraught issue for a lot of us right now. And we have the students reflect on how they’re going to understand those trade-offs and which philosophical ideals or goals really speak to them in their lives right now. And put it down on paper and hopefully have conversations with other students about it, conversations with us, and then once they leave the class.
It’s funny, a lot of the students after 14 weeks think, “I’ve got it. I’ve got my philosophical life plan now in this 10-page document on my computer.” And then we talked to them two years later, and many of our alums in the class said they still have the document, but they started changing their answers. Never in like drastic ways, occasionally a student has a complete flip on a big question. But usually, we find them just going a little bit deeper, getting a little bit more nuanced. Something happens in their life that causes them to rethink what love means to them, or causes them to rethink what it means to be part of a religion. And they keep adding and working on the document, and it becomes something that’s there behind the scenes.
And then, in really practical ways, that document can be quite helpful to them later in life, when they’re getting ready for a job interview or an interview for medical school. And they know they’re going to face this question. “What drives you? What motivates you? What are your long-term goals?” And we’ve all been in job interviews where people have given really shallow answers to those questions. Our God and the Good Life students, if they’ve been thinking about it for four or five years and have been kind of keeping tabs on that document, they might have more often than not, will have a really nuanced, really authentic answer to those kinds of questions. And they realize that it’s because they put the work in year in and year out starting with this class.
And we hope that for the readers too. We give lots of little exercises at the end of each chapter. Each chapter goes through different kinds of good life questions that get us towards this picture of eudaimonia. But working through the exercises, and trying them out, and seeing what your tentative answers are, hopefully, you build up over time an idea of this philosophical goal that you’re shooting for. And also a vocabulary for talking about it with other people. And that’s a deeply practical exercise.
Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Do you have one of these plans and do you have any examples of how you’ve referenced it in your own life?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Oh my gosh. One of the most sobering parts of working on this book was we asked thousands of Notre Dame students to write these good life plans and share them with us. And we’d given them advice, usually like gentle writing advice, but had great conversations with the students about their plans. Paul and I had never actually done the assignment from beginning to end on our own. And then, we’re writing this book, and we’re talking with our editor, and she’s like, “You guys got to put your money where your mouth is. You can’t ask these questions and then not try to answer them in your own lives.” And so we did, we started. We worked on some of the exact same assignments that we give our students. And in the book I write about my struggles with personal finances, and how, I think, I want my financial life to reflect my moral life and realizing like, “Oh my gosh, my boss is going to read this. My boss is going to know how I managed my money and what I think about work.”
Paul, my coauthor, writes very movingly about his son being born and had a very difficult delivery. He was in the NICU for a while. And Paul wrote really movingly about how he tried to think about his son’s suffering when it was happening and thinking about being a new father. And Paul’s very vulnerable in that chapter of the book. And I remember we were working on the manuscript and he’s like, “Solomon’s going to read this one day.” And Solomon is about to turn five, tomorrow’s his birthday. “Solomon’s going to read this one day and he’s going to know the philosophical questions that his birthday posed in my life.”
And all of that sharing in the book has given Paul and I pause, like, “Oh my gosh, this is way more vulnerable than we usually are in our jobs.” But also shows what we deeply believe, which is that these philosophical questions are everywhere in our lives. And so, in the course of writing the book, we had to really dig into the assignment that we give our students. And for both of us, it was absolutely transformative. I think it helped us. We were finishing this book during the pandemic. So it also gave us material to think about and process a very stressful period in our lives. And we hope for readers who pick the book up, they can see, warts and all, what it looks like to try to live philosophically and make that manifest in a really complicated, messy 2022 life.
Christin Thieme: And it takes some deep thinking, right? I mean, these are hard questions and really exposing, like you said. So how do you encourage your students? Or how would you encourage a reader who’s trying to create their own apology? How do you get into it when it’s tough?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: One of the things that we do in the book, and we do when we’re talking with folks about philosophy, and like doing some of these one-off events is tell people to start light. It’s kind of like an exercise regime, the ancient Greek philosophers always talk about doing philosophy like doing exercise. And I’ve come to appreciate that. You don’t start running a marathon right away, unless you want to blow out your knee. Likewise, don’t start on your very first day of 2022, trying to understand how you will deal with death when it comes for those that you love. The really big, very crushingly, hard, good life questions. Don’t start there. My undergrads always want to start there. That’s it that’s like running the marathon, way too soon. Instead, start with the questions where you think you’re kind of open to having conversations and to experimenting a little bit.
So if it’s January of 2022, you might think, “This year, I’d like to be a little bit more philosophical about my finances.” You read our book, we have a chapter on thinking about what generosity means and the kinds of questions that you should be asking yourself. Maybe you do it quietly on your own, or maybe you talk with your husband or wife, or you talk with some of your family members, and you think, “You know, just taking a look at things, here’s how much time I spend at work. Here are the kinds of needs I see in our communities that I really wish our family was putting more of itself into. And here are different ways of thinking about what it is to have an impact on strangers and what we owe to strangers.” That’s a huge philosophical topic we cover in the book. And then you start to have that conversation with the people who are involved in that dimension of your life and whom you trust, and you have a relationship with, and that’s where you start to try out your plan.
Maybe you say this year, instead of just kind of arbitrarily picking a charity to support, or creating a bunch of different budgets that you’re not going to stick to, you instead say, “We’re going to have four or five family conversations about what it means to earn money, and what it means to give money away, and what we’ve learned in our lives so far about those questions.” A lot of philosophy is reflecting on what you’ve already learned that’s formed your views, and figuring out which of those views you want to stick with you, and which ones you want to go forward. I think it’s easier to start with an area where it feels like it’s an open question for your life right now, and then hopefully you have a good experience with being a bit more philosophical about that dimension of your life, which is setting a goal and putting your philosophical reasons right behind it.
And you start to push out a little bit further. Maybe you’re going to create goals or spend some time this year having conversations with people you love about what it means to take risks or to have faith. And you kind of push out a little bit further, and maybe you read a little bit more of the philosophers that have spoken on that question. And then hopefully kind of like the training, the exercise regimen, you do those sprints, and you loosen up your muscles a little bit, and you grow in confidence. And then you’re ready to tackle some of the really big questions. And hopefully you’ve also, along the way, started to prepare yourself for those really big, good, life challenges that we know way down the road are going to come for all of us.
Christin Thieme: One step at a time.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Yes, exactly. I think a lot of people think philosophy is meant to be this very serious exercise and not something that you do fun and experimentally. Not the kind of activity that you do when you’re just on a long car ride with your teenager, and you want to have a conversation with them about what they think love means. Philosophy belongs everywhere, belongs in those really serious soul-searching moments in our lives, but it also belongs in at cocktail parties, and in long car rides with your teenager or long walks that you take on your own. And you think like, “I just want to think about the story I would tell about this principle in my life.”
Christin Thieme: So the book has largely come out of your course, which is called God and the Good Life. So I want to ask you about that other side of the name of your course when it comes to God. I mean, a lot of people would say we have a plan, it’s given to us in the Bible. So how does faith influence the plan that we should create for our lives?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: My coauthor and I have both found a lot of good life help in religious faith. We’re both Catholics. We both have very different experiences with good Christianity. I converted in college. My colleague Paul was raised in a really traditional Roman Catholic home. We both obviously talk about religious faith with loads of 18 and 19 year olds year in and year out. One of our biggest hopes for the book is to remind people that these conversations about faith and the good life are still fun to have. And believing that scripture is a guide for your life, or that this goal that you’re searching after includes God is kind of a core of that goal. And the book, we don’t try to convince anybody of that, but we do try to give them guidance about how to make those commitments practical and how to have enjoyable conversations with other people again about what that means to you.
I don’t know what your experience is, or what your listeners’ experiences are, but I think a lot of people right now are struggling to talk with folks who are different to them about religious commitments or why they don’t have religious commitments. People feel weird about talking about God or wondering about God. People feel sometimes at a loss, even if they believe the Bible is a source of wisdom, the ultimate source of wisdom and direction for my good life, figuring out how to get from Scripture, to making decisions about being a good parent. Or exactly how much money are we going to give away this year, or how am I going to talk to my children about death someday? That’s where you need to do some philosophy. I mean, the scripture is there, but it needs to be lived and breathed into your life, and your intellectual life, and your philosophical life.
And it’s something that you should enjoy doing. It’s part of your very being as a person to want to seek after that goal and those questions. And I think, one of Paul and I’s biggest hopes for this book is to remind everybody that reads it, regardless of the tradition that they’re coming from, that it is still wonderful to ask those questions and then we can still have productive, fun conversations about them. And we try to illustrate that with the ways that we wonder about those questions, and things that we’re very certain of, and things that we take on faith. But just showing this kind of middle ground where philosophers and creatives enjoy thinking about this again.
Christin Thieme: Yeah. And kind of help flesh out a lot of those bigger questions in our lives. So you write that you ask your students four crucial questions. And I’d like to turn one of them back to you. What, if anything, can you do to make sure your life is meaningful?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: So the four big questions are: How are you going to decide what to believe or who to believe? What do you owe other people? What are your moral obligations? Are you going to practice any religion? And if so, what is faith? How does faith show up in your life? And what’s the spiritual dimension of your life? And then this fourth one is, what, if anything, can you do to make sure your life is meaningful? That’s meant to be the summum bonum, like you get to that fourth question because you’ve been stretching your legs, and you’ve been practicing your sprinting, and now you’re ready to run the length.
So my answer to that question first, I think there is a whole lot that we can do to try to make our lives more meaningful. And a lot of people are under this mistaken assumption that meaning is either just all in your head, like if you consider your life meaningful, then it’s meaningful. That puts way too much pressure on you. There are actually activities that even if sometimes you’re feeling low, or the world is in a dark place, can still make your life meaningful. Like meaning is out there to be sought. It’s a goal that we’re aiming at in our lives. So the first way I personally answer this question is with a fair bit of optimism that meaning is out there. And if I am open to it and willing to work on discovering eudaimonia, discovering this good life, then maybe I have a chance of success. Same way if I start a running regimen, I don’t know, at the end of the day, if I’m going to be a world-class marathoner, but I can get better at running. I can get better at meaning too.
Second point is, what do you do to try to find that meaning? I think you spend a lot more time thinking about the habits of character, virtues, and relationships that you have the power to influence, and a lot less time worrying about finding external metrics for the consequences of your life. And we spend a lot of time in the book developing two competing ways of thinking about the good life. But let me explain, you might think, “It’s 2022. I’m going to come up with a dashboard for how well I’m doing at it in life. And the dashboard is going to be how much money I have in the bank. It’s going to be my weight. It’s going to be how many hours I sleep. Maybe I’ll buy an Apple Watch that’ll keep track of all these numbers for me. And I’m going to measure how well I’m doing in this pursuit of a meaningful life based on all of these outside numbers.”
That’s a really addictive, attractive way of thinking about being somebody who’s pursuing meaning, and it’s totally wrong. Another belief that I have is those are all distractions, they’re things that we get addicted to to try to measure meaning, but that’s not what meaning is. What is it? Well, what’s the story I can tell about my life, where I can see over time because of my efforts, and because of my relationships, I’ve become better at loving other people. I have developed a deeper understanding of what it is to have faith in other people, faith in God. I have a concern for the truth, and I’m not the kind of person that’s willing to accept half-truths or lies even about myself. I’m willing to do this kind of hard work, and I can see that work manifesting in the way I’m understanding this awesome life that I’ve been given so far.
And that’s not the kind of thing … Apple can’t do that work for me. There’s no software that you can buy that is going to keep track of how you’re doing on that front. But luckily, the most important piece of software you already have, which is human reason, and the fact that we are reflective creatures, and we’re capable of worrying, and being curious about these questions, and then trying to decipher the answers. And so I don’t think that meaning is just totally up to you or in your head. But I also think that when you’re leading a very meaningful life, if you’re doing really well … If I were doing really well in that dimension, then there might be a lot of insights about my life, which would be hard to share with you because, you know, you weren’t there when that really important event happened, or you didn’t understand how difficult it was to make that decision.
And so, I think … I’m young, I’m 38, I’m still young-ish. I’m right in the precipice, but I think I’ve got a long way to go, right? There are all kinds of all kinds of strange puzzles life is going to throw at me, and I hope I’ve got many more years ahead to deal with them. And I can tell my life is meaningful at the end if there’s this through-line of me getting better on these different dimensions and understanding that about myself, when we get to the end.
Christin Thieme: And you’ve given us a really great guide to working through it and learning how to reason through some of these big questions in that search for a meaningful life. So that is definitely a place to start. But I’m wondering, last question for you, what’s a tangible way for somebody listening to start on this path today, what’s your best piece of advice for starting today?
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: First best piece of advice is buy the book or the audiobook.
Christin Thieme: Absolutely.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: Second piece of advice is give this a shot. I mean, this is a book you can take on a train. You can take it to the beach. Not a lot of people go to the beach in January, at least not where you live. But, take it along with you. Don’t be intimidated. I think a lot of people are so intimidated that they don’t want to even start dipping their toes into philosophy. This is a book for dipping your toes, just open it up, and see if you’re enjoying some of the questions and stories that we share. And then in each of our chapters, we do something that we do to great effect with our students, which is to offer you some questions that if you think about the answers in your own life right now to get you doing philosophy.
Maybe not all the questions are going to resonate, but a lot of them we’ve tried out on a lot of people, and they do tend to get the philosophical aspects of our mind flowing. And you don’t have to answer the questions on your own. It shouldn’t feel like doing a homework assignment, unless you’re one of our students. They’re the kinds of questions that allow you to bring the book along when you’re at a family gathering and share with them a little bit of what you’re thinking about. Then ask them the questions, or just try to have a conversation. A lot of philosophy is about conversation and dialogue about the good life, and just see where that takes you. And again, you might be dealing with different kinds of good life challenges that are giving you the materials for philosophy right now in your own life.
In fact, we know this is true, that the life of contemplation was not a big challenge for me four years ago and became a really important part of my thinking recently. Look for the areas where you think, “This is where I want to slow down and have a much deeper or longer conversation.” For the other kinds of topics, read through the chapter, think about it, and then dog-ear it, and come back to it when it’s more relevant. That’s also totally fine.
But I think if you want to start adding philosophy to your New Year’s resolutions, or to your life this year, realize, one, you have everything you need to start. Just living your life right now and wondering about your goals is enough to start doing philosophy. And two, recruit your kids, your book club friends, your mom and dad, your next-door neighbor, to be part of the conversations with you, because these are meant to be fun human activities that help join us together. And I guarantee you people in your life are facing their own set of philosophical questions and can be a great source of help to you.
Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Well, I can attest that philosophy in college was not a lot of fun for me, but your book was fun and has a lot of heart and is a really great challenge. So I really enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend everybody pick it up and start the new year figuring out their good life plan. So thank you for this book that has given us so many things to think about.
Dr. Meghan Sullivan: We really appreciate it. And certainly, even if you’re a little bit intimidated, or traumatized, from a previous philosophy course, you can be interested in these questions just to see how two very well-meaning overeducated people in their thirties are trying to handle these really tough issues. And at least feel a little bit of empathy for other folks who are struggling. But we hope that folks will enjoy it, and will realize that philosophy is something fun and something that we share with each other.
- Read “The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning” (Penguin Press, 2022) by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blashko.
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