An immutable characteristic of life is adversity. Even for those who manage to pursue and achieve “the good life,” a certain amount of trauma, adversity, and challenge is inevitable. Family discord, illness, accidents, deadly storms, deaths of loved ones, and pandemics occur, often with little warning. To pursue and achieve the good life, then, requires us to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable a resilient response to life’s inevitable challenges.
What Is the Good Life?
What are the prerequisites for the good life? Philosophers, religious leaders, and others have given this thought to millennia. Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle wrote extensively on what constitutes flourishing. Contemporary philosophers Andrew Peterson and Kristján Kristjánsson of the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues identify six components of the good life, based on Aristotelian thinking. These include a healthy and nourishing childhood coupled with a good education, a well-functioning and just government, sufficient wealth to avoid the ravages of poverty, a life long enough for one’s virtues and strengths of character to manifest themselves, physical and psychological health, and strong during friendships and family ties. If these are present, a productive and flourishing life is possible.
The good life must also be a virtuous one. Aristotle and more recently positive psychologists have identified several categories of virtues. These include moral, intellectual, civic, and performance virtues. That is, the good life is characterized by highly developed and internalized moral/ethical standards of beliefs and conduct, a rational and logical mind, involvement in and support of an interdependent and functional civic society, and psychological attributes or character strengths that enable us to achieve difficult goals.
Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, based on an extensive review of religion, philosophy, and social and behavioral science postulate six universal virtues. These are wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Moreover, each of the six virtues is supported by individual character strengths. For example, the virtue of humanity is supported by the capacity to love, kindness, and social intelligence. The other virtues are supported by three to five distinct character strengths.
The Good Life in the Face of Hard Times
Given the inevitability of trauma, adversity, and challenge in life, it may be reasonable to postulate that resilience should be thought of as a core virtue. Resilience—the ability to return to form following stress—is essential for optimal functioning and adaptability. To lack resilience impedes one’s ability to achieve the components of the good life previously discussed. Expressing virtues depends on the ability to bounce back from adversity. One cannot be fully functioning if impaired by depression, hopelessness, despair, anxiety, or other dysfunctional states triggered by the bad things of life.
The essential nature of resilience as a requisite for the good life was powerfully illustrated to me recently while I conducted a character assessment workshop for teenage children with military parents. About half of these teens had a parent who had been disabled from wounds or trauma associated with their wartime deployments.
The teens completed an online assessment that rank-ordered their 24-character strengths from highest to lowest. In one exercise, they were asked to describe how they used one or two of their strongest character strengths to overcome a difficult situation or to achieve a challenging long-term goal. These teens were high-achieving young people, leaders in their schools, and well-liked by their peers and teachers. But some were living with significant life challenges. One described how she could not communicate with her father de ella who was diagnosed with severe posttraumatic stress disorder. She explained how she used humor — one of her signature character strengths de ella — to break through this wall of silence. Another, whose father was physically disabled from war wounds, told of how, at age 17, he shouldered much of the responsibility of raising his six younger siblings. He said he relied heavily on his ability to love — one of his highest character strengths — to manage these responsibilities while also excelling in school.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides an example of adversity that we can all relate to personally. Many of us have experienced illness or death of a loved one, lost a job, found ourselves socially isolated, or suffered economic distress during the pandemic. Most (but of course, certainly not all) people have manifested a resilient response to these challenges. Resilient people capitalize on a number of strategies to succeed and flourish in tough times, which is to say, they continue to live the good life. Good nutrition, a healthy diet and adequate sleep, physical fitness, and the ability to harness one’s character strengths and other positive attributes enable resilience.
So, What Would Aristotle Think?
Would Aristotle consider resilience a virtue, alongside moral, intellectual, and civic virtues? I suspect he might indeed. But at the very least, he would agree that resilience is necessary to live the good life. Like the military teens with war-torn parents, we can overcome unimaginable hurdles. We can bend, but not break, and in doing so live a productive and meaningful life.
Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.