Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of fourteen books. Rachel Tyler Jones talks with him about his latest bestseller, The Good Life and how this can be achieved.
A journalist said to me, “I think this is an old man’s book – you wouldn’t have written this book ten years ago”. I agree, I wouldn’t have been game to address such big questions back then – I do feel that my own age has given me the courage to do this. Perhaps it means that people in my age group will more immediately recognise the truth of these propositions, because they will have grown up with them before the huge barrage of the ‘me’ culture.
Before I retired from hands-on social research, I was beginning to realise that there was a deep malaise in Australian society. After spending 50 years in people’s lounge rooms listening to them talk, I realised it was about knowing that we’re fairly prosperous and, for the bulk of the population, we ought to be getting great satisfaction. Somehow we’re still feeling a bit disenchanted. Why don’t we have respect for politicians? Why doesn’t the neighbourhood work like it should? On the face of it, it’s a bit of a golden age for us, but people have been distracted. Is this all there is? No, and people need to be reminded of this.
The starting point for describing the good life is to recognise that we humans are social creatures, herd animals. We belong in communities and neighbourhoods, and we are sustained by those communities. But communities don’t just happen, they have to be created and they have to be nurtured. Love or charity is the source of goodness in human experience and human behaviour. By love I don’t mean the emotion. I don’t mean that we have to love, or even like people in the emotional sense to have a charitable disposition. The idea of charity or having a loving disposition is about giving and receiving; it’s about engagement and responsiveness. If love is the source of goodness, then the good life is about our engagement with other people.
I think there are fewer people living the good life now than 50 years ago. Part of our nature is to be sel?sh and competitive, and equally, to be sel?ess and cooperative. It all depends on what we nurture. Over the last 50 years, especially the last 15 or 20, there have been two major distractions. One has been the rise of materialism as an ethic. We’ve got the whole caravan of modern marketing techniques, all designed to tell us that we will be better people if we buy more stuff, and this is what the good life is. This is very seductive. On the other hand, we’ve been seduced by the happiness movement, which has sold us the idea that the good life is about feeling good, which is an emotional state.
What makes us fully functioning, resilient human beings is our ability to recognise and respond to all points on the emotional spectrum. To realise that happiness is lovely, but only because it contrasts with sadness, in the same way that winning only makes sense if you’ve experienced loss or failure. My book is not an original thought at all, it’s just a reminder that the good life is a life characterised by goodness, not by wealth or happiness. It’s something much more basic.
One of the common responses from parents is “What a relief to be reminded that we don’t have to be happy all the time, and that our children are allowed to fail”.
I know a lot of people who are living a truly ‘good’ life. Most of my close friends are very attentive with relationships, not at all obsessed with happiness and they’re engaged with their communities. I don’t think it’s an unusual way to be.
I think the idea of society as a whole living the ‘good’ life is a utopian one. There have been times when we’ve been better at it than we are at the moment. The way we’re living now, with huge growth in single person households – heading towards 30 per cent in the next 10 years in Australia – will, in the short term, be a problem. It has created a feeling of loneliness and isolation. But longer term this will help to stimulate the life of local neighbourhoods. We are social creatures and we have to ?nd other herds with which to connect.
I try to live the ‘good’ life. When I started my own business in my 30s I was probably distracted and didn’t spend enough time at home, I was working too hard. But more generally I have always understood that the meaning of my life will be found in my relationships, so I’ve always tried to keep that in mind.
I don’t think a ‘sea’ or ‘tree’ change is necessary to experience a good life. It’s all about how you live; it’s not about where you live. In my own case I’ve always been drawn to a rural or semi-rural setting. Growing up I spent 15 years in Bathurst in NSW, which was rather under-built, and I’ve always gravitated towards non-urban settings.
When I left school at 16 my family made it clear if I wanted to go to university it would be as an evening student and I would have to work. I happened on a job in the public opinion research industry – this was 1955, when fathers still went with sons to job interviews – and I got this lowly job as a clerk in a research company. I was immediately intrigued. A colleague told me that I needed to study psychology for professional development. I eventually quali?ed and did a masters, part-time, which was far more enjoyable.
I sing in a choir to relax and it’s enormously therapeutic. I get great pleasure from choral singing – I’ve always felt it made me a healthier person. I love walking, ?lms, concerts and theatre, so there’s plenty going on when I’m not writing.
I maintain my energy in a way which is not stressful or frenetic. Lots of walking and lots of sleeping are my secrets. I don’t go to the gym or have any furious ?tness regime.
I feel most content when I’m at home in our little cottage in the southern highlands. I enjoy travel but I’m never as content when I’m on the move.
If I could pass one piece of legislation in Australia, there would be some big changes I’d like to make. I suppose I would legislate to put a cap on the density of housing, or on the size of cities. I’d like to see us developing smaller cities, as I think we would be a healthier society.
There are two misconceptions people have about me. One is that I made a lot of money out of research, which I didn’t. The second is that they think I’m an extreme, raging left-winger. While I would describe myself as a social democrat, I’m not an extreme socialist, and I’m often being caricatured as a rabid lefty.
Will I ever retire? I’m sure I’ll do less and less social analyses and commentary, but I think I’ll keep writing as long as I love doing it. Or until a publisher taps me on the shoulder and says ‘your sentences are no longer coherent’, and then I’ll take the hint.
‘The Good Life’ Pan Macmillan 2013
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