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Interesting Points from Some Books and other material
The Good Life –
Hugh McKay
The Brain That
Changes Itself –
Norman Doidge
Requiem for a
Species –
Clive Hamilton
Reasons to
Stay Alive –
Matt Haige
A short History
of Progress –
Ronald Wright
Emotional Intelligence:
why it can matter

more than IQ -
Daniel Goleman
The Idiot Brain -
Dean Burnett


The Good Life: What Makes a Life Worth Living? 

by Hugh Mackay  - Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd - 2013

The book covers a lot of important topics.  Here are some of its messages.

 Initially the author considers what kind of life might be called ‘good’. He considers that Goodness might equate with:

 This type of life is marked by a courteous respect for others’ rights; a responsiveness to others’ needs and a concern for others well-being. A person living this life will be motivated by kindness and compassion.

 The natural habitat for humans is a peaceful, mutually supportive, harmonious community.

The ‘Golden Rule’– “treat other people as you would have them treat you”. Should be modified slightly to: “treat other people as they would like you to treat them” - a subtle but important difference.


In a chapter entitled Utopia, the author examines the complex field of “Positive Psychology”. He notes the strong emphasis on self-esteem and the way in which everything is supposed to be perfect.

Self-esteem can easily morph into an inflated view of oneself and a sense of entitlement that looks like narcissism.

 Under the positive psychology banner an exaggerated form of self-esteem can be developed in children. Children are often the centre of their parents’ universe; they are constantly told how good they are and what very special people they are.  In the long run this utopian view leads to problems for the children as they grow up in the real world.

 The Pursuit of Happiness

 The pursuit of happiness’ is claimed in the United States Declaration of Independence as one of the unalienable rights endowed by the Creator. Hugh Mackay points out that making the pursuit of happiness a primary goal in life will almost certainly make you miserable.

 Mackay points out that we need to experience all the human emotions available to us if we are to be “whole” humans. The proposition that we grow more through pain, and learn more through failure than success is both obvious and inarguably true. But we will only learn from our sadness, suffering and disappointments of failures, if we give ourselves time to experience them in full and reflect upon them.

 Emotional feelings are powerful, but they are easy to manipulate. Advertisers do it all the time, as do politicians, preachers and leaders of specialised groups. Their goal is the manipulation of emotions to replace genuine emotions with artificially induced ones, so that they direct people into thought patterns desired by the manipulator.

 Belief, Faith and Fundamentalism

 Hugh Mackay suggests there are many false leads in the search for a good life. He indicates that the pursuit of happiness is one of these; others include: a yearning for certainty, an unhealthy curiosity about our future, preoccupation with ‘finding yourself’, and the search for the ‘meaning of life’. He concludes that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these pursuits, but they can easily distract us from the goals for a good life – each has the potential to become an obsession.

 From earliest times humans have sought reasons for why we are here, why and how the universe formed, and what the future holds for ourselves and for the universe. These are the big questions, which we as humans cannot answer, but since we crave certainty we are quite capable of making up answers of our own. And civilisations from cave man days till today have set up many different belief systems; so that if one has ‘faith’ in a belief, one can obtain the comfort of certainty.

 There have been widespread beliefs in an afterlife even though this is unknowable. However if we don’t know and we want certainty, we believe: this is faith.

 Fundamentalists claim a belief as a certainty. There are a great variety of fundamentalists in the world today. Hugh Mackay points out that even atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, are fundamentalists in their strong denial of the existence of God, even though they cannot prove that non-existence.

 Fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, is like a steel trap that imprisons the sole and inhibits the freedom to wonder. Yet in the 21st century fundamentalism is on the rise with many new groups, as well as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Mackay suggests that people are increasingly seeking certainty in this time of social upheaval and insecurity; with global warming, international terrorism, the massive global refugee migration, economic upheaval and the very unhealthy rise in global population. Fundamentalists send out the message that they can overcome all these uncertainties if everyone will adopt their particular brand of faith.

 Fundamental beliefs, with no room for acceptance of other viewpoints, leads to divisive and disastrous consequences, as we see in the many conflicts around the globe.

It is a key point that Hugh Mackay is making. Humans are a diverse species with many experiences and backgrounds. We have the capacity for rational and creative thought, so it behoves us all to have empathy for the ways of life and the beliefs of others, rather than blindly attacking them for differences in their way of living and/or their beliefs.

 The Future

 We can never know the future with certainty, but if we don’t plan for it we will lose purpose and probably become depressed.

 We all know we will die – that is a given.

 Many people believe they must “find themselves” before they die and this becomes their preoccupation, perhaps even the reason living as though self-knowledge will open the door to a successful and satisfying life and afterlife.

 When the process of finding yourself is allowed to evolve naturally, it is likely to lead to an examination of your relationships and your social context, rather than being too intensely concerned about yourself as an individual. However, if prolonged, self-examination encourages self-indulgence and even narcissism.

 Mature self-reflection leads to acknowledgement that we are part of a greater whole: a drop in the ocean, a grain of sand on the beach, a star in the sky, as many poets had suggested. Who am I? turns out to be a less interesting and a less significant question than who are we?

 Plato wrote that Socrates had said “an unexamined life is not worth living”. This has been widely quoted and suggested as an important feature of a good life. However Mackay points out that is very harsh. What of the busy hard-working woman raising children, lovingly and responsibly engaged in her society; a life not worth living? Yes it surely is!

 If we have the cognitive skills and the luxury of time we can sit and examine our life, but in many cases this is not possible and we simply live life to the full, for the benefit of humanity around us.


 Intelligence comes with your genes, just like your height and the colour of your eyes.

 People with high intelligence can do wonderful things, but they may well suffer from mental health, depression and unhappiness.

 Together, intelligence and its application in good works is the recipe for a good life; as Albert Einstein said “try not to be a man of success, but rather a man of value”.

 The Meaning of Life?

 Hugh Mackay suggests that this question is as relevant as: What is the meaning of Thursday? What is the colour of 42? What does a soul eat? How fast are our streets? In other words Mackay is saying that the question is not relevant, because we have no knowledge of any vast external plan (if there is one).  But we do know that our lives are not pointless and have great consequences us and for others. Much of what we do is simply to keep us alive and to foster and nurture our personal relationships. Eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping, earning an income, loving and supporting our friends and relatives are all reasons are living.

 “A Good Life is a Life Lived for Others”.

We are all inseparably part of each other and it is our human destiny to accept and nurture our connections. We are each half of a larger whole: a family, friendship circle, a neighbourhood, a community, an organisation.

Love is the most powerful creative and fruitful force in the world.

 We are all born with the capacity for goodness and for evil. It is up to us to make choices.

The life of many people can be encapsulated in different labels: a full life, a charmed life, a productive life, a fortunate life, and authentic life, an exciting life, a blameless life, a passionate life, a creative life.  How would you like your life labelled? Clearly such a label cannot encompass everything!

 A Good Death

 The one certainty in this life is that it will end.  Yet many of us spend little time considering that reality. A common death-bed experience is the wish that we had loved more and desired less. The majority of us, in the developed world, will die peacefully.  If fortunate enough to be conscious of our approaching demise, our cares, worries, obsessions, strivings and anxieties are likely to be washed away by the sense of an ending; in many cases surrounded by loving family and close friends.

The approach of death highlights our anxieties about the future and if we have been essentially ‘Me centred’, then my demise would indeed seem like an unspeakable tragedy. If we can adopt the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness, as a relaxed, open, lucid, moment-to-moment present awareness, then we can slip comfortably into observing the stages of our death and continue to support and love our family and friends in the ways that we have developed while leading the good life.

 Your physical presence with a dying person is a critical moment for them and for you. People deprived of that final moment of intimacy with a deceased loved one, have regrets for a very long time. Goodbyes are not always possible, but people approaching death find those moments of leave-taking precious, and they are psychologically important for the survivors.

 Kindness, Compassion and Respect

In a ‘postscript’ chapter Hugh Mackay has planted an excellent recipe for a good life. “You don’t have to be rich to leave a positive legacy; you don’t have to be intelligent, famous, powerful or even particularly well organised, let alone happy. You need only to treat people with kindness, compassion and respect, knowing they will have been enriched by their encounters you”.

RH Brown June 2014

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