How to Be Happy in Life

There are many different ways of life, of course, and each person has to choose the way that fits his or her personality and intuitions about what life is all about and how to be happy. There is the way of the adventurer. The way of the businessman. The way of the scholar or priest. There is the way of the artist or mystic. There is even Gurdjieff’s Way of the Sly Man, the secret mystic who lives like an ordinary business man. But because I studied Aristotle at a young age, I’ve always been persuaded that, when considering how to “structure” your life, you should consider how best to use whatever God-given talents you’ve been given. In his Nicomachian Ethics (1095a15–22), Aristotle said that happiness (eudaimonia) comes from the full exercise of your powers… from using your gifts… and I’ve always thought that is true. And that is why, for me personally, one of the dominant themes of my life has always been what I call balance – the attempt to arrange your life, in so far as its possible, so that you have some balance in life and are able to use as many abilities as possible. Perhaps this is actually the Way of the Dilettante but I prefer to think of it as the Way of the Renaissance. In other words, I wanted a life in which I could marry, raise a family, think, create, study, make money, travel, play sports, stay in shape, play music, read books, and, in general pursue my interests and passions. I tried to make choices, as life went on in its haphazard way, that created conditions in which this multi-faceted, balanced life would be possible.

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For example, I knew early on that I wanted to be my own boss – both because I would probably make more money with my own businesses but also because it meant I would have more free time, the ability to travel, the ability to see my children growing up, and so on. As a result, I never really pursued any sort of corporate job or career. This has its disadvantages, of course. We’ve always had to pay for our own health insurance and medical costs, for example – and to this day marvel when friends complain about their $30 “co-pays” and rising insurance costs. We paid for each of our children’s deliveries, about $5,000 each, almost literally in cash. We’ve also had to create our own Defined Benefit Pension Plan with its myriad federal regulations, its mandatory reporting requirementss, its frequent demands for cash, and what I like to call the “adult supervision” of a professional pension fund administrator – a delightful woman, the “dragon lady,” who is an Orthodox Jew and who does her best to keep us out of trouble with the Feds.

But overall, being self-employed, in my opinion, gives you many more opportunities for the “full exercise of your powers” and be happy than working in a nine-to-five corporate job. I am revisiting all these issues afresh because, as I write these words, my eldest son is plotting his own career trajectory in the corporate world of high finance – and I marvel both at his ambitious determination and at the assumptions that underlying his plotting. It is so utterly alien to my own way of life – trying to fashion a career in a corporate setting – that I am only now appreciating the stubborn but quite deliberate choices that went into our way of life.

Another part of living a balanced life is making money – not a lot of money, perhaps, but enough to provide a safe and comfortable home, in a quiet and secure neighborhood, and so that you can afford such luxuries as sports teams, music and language lessons, health care, good schools and so on. If you want to marry and raise children – which, for most people, is the most realistic path to becoming a decent human being and whatever enlightenment is granted us on this earth — a minimum amount of money is a requirement. The practical upshot of this, for me, was that I didn’t want to choose businesses or jobs that would make me too poor. I’ve never really been all that materialistic (as anyone who sees the old truck I drive or my clothes would confirm) but I do like to travel, buy books, study Aikido and philosophy in my spare time, and provide educational opportunities for my children. This meant that my wife and I had to figure out how to make money – and thus becoming a starving artist wasn’t a choice I was prepared to make. I admire artists for their single-minded dedication to their art… and I actually would encourage anyone with serious talented to pursue art or music as a career choice… but you still have to earn a living, artist or no.

When young people call me up, as some do, and ask me if they should become writers, I always say the same thing: Absolutely! It’s the best way of life in the world! My only caveat is that, to be happy, most people will want to marry and have children, to exercise all of their powers – not just their artistic ones – and that you therefore have to balance your artistic pursuits with the need to make money and provide a comfortable home. You want to enjoy your body and stay in shape. Play tennis or softball. Go to yoga classes. This is self-evident to many people but not to all, especially not to all of my children. When you are young and idealistic, you want to give yourself over to a great artistic passion or project – to spend years working on plays that never get produced, or a great novel, or painting, or a rock band. In your early twenties, that’s what you should do – test out your abilities and explore different ways of making a living. But if you want to have a happy life, you need to know that you have to balance the desire for creative pursuits with the need to make a decent living – not to “sell out” but in order that you can “exercise your full powers,” so you’re able to become a full human being.

Again, I am only thinking about these issues because I have so many children. But I really do believe balance in life is essential, perhaps even a key to happiness – even if you decide that your talents lie in science, or engineering, or medicine. For example, my eldest daughter is thinking about becoming a doctor. My wife likes this idea because her sister is a doctor and she likes the economic security that being a doctor can provide to women, especially in an increasingly competitive global economy. I think that’s great, of course, and will do everything I can to help my daughter through medical school, if she decides to pursue that course. My only caution to her would be to strive for balance – to think about how to balance the demands of a medical career with the needs and expectations of family life, her musical talents, her passion for swimming and athletics. Medicine is a fairly demanding and monomaniacal profession… but I know it’s possible to build a balanced life as a doctor, as my younger brother and my sister-in-law have proven. But it takes effort and deliberate choices.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).