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An Ethics Professor on Figuring Out What the ‘Good Life’ Means to You

Our brains don’t always know what makes us happy. But there’s plenty of research to help point us in the right direction.

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In a consumerist age, there’s no shortage of marketers promising us happiness, meaning, and authenticity…but how do we sort the wannabes from the legit? As a professor of ethics and host of No Small Endeavor, the acclaimed public radio show and podcast that explores what it means to live a good life, I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with that question. And through hundreds of conversations with scientists, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists and more, I’m fascinated with the numerous habits and practices that repeatedly surface as we discuss what it might mean, in fact, to pursue a good life.

A tip to frame this whole pursuit: Be open to questioning your definition of “a good life.” There’s a lot of fascinating research which points to the ways our brains “mis-want.” That is, our brains are often very poor judges of what will in fact make us happy. This fact provides a psychological openness to question our presumptions about happiness, and the pursuit of a good life.

Here’s a list of seven episodes and resources that might be helpful to you as you explore such questions.

Malcolm Gladwell: Becoming Malcolm [LISTEN]

No Small Endeavor with Lee C. Camp

LCC: “Be curious, not judgmental. I got to spend a long weekend with Malcolm Gladwell and interview him twice in front of live audiences. I was interested in investigating the sources of why Malcolm is Malcolm. Our conversation, I think, is a great window into specifically what healthy curiosity looks like, and the sort of human flourishing curiosity might engender.”

John Dear: How to Be Nonviolent [LISTEN]

No Small Endeavor with Lee C. Camp

LCC: “Don’t seek comfort first. I traveled to California to conduct this interview in person with Catholic peace activist John Dear. John straightforwardly challenges the notion that the good life is a merely comfortable. He says: ‘A good life is not the easy life. It's not being comfortable, and therefore it's not about making money, or being successful… But how do you live a good life in a world of thirty wars, thirteen thousand nuclear weapons, four billion people in subhuman poverty, racism, gun violence, child hunger? One could go on and on—and then, catastrophic climate change...So for me, doing the good life is actively working to make the world better.’”

Elise Hu: Obsessed With Beauty [LISTEN]

No Small Endeavor with Lee C. Camp

LCC: “Pursue beauty. Numerous philosophers have maintained that truth, goodness, and beauty are central to a good life. But I was surprised at how Elise Hu’s deep dive into South Korean beauty culture illuminated what true beauty might actually be. What’s more, I think her vulnerability about her own relationship to beauty as a mother of a young daughter is both comforting and practical.”

Ending Violence Through Forgiveness: Azim Khamisa [LISTEN]

No Small Endeavor with Lee C. Camp

LCC: “Forgive those who have hurt you. My conversation with Azim was one of those that I found devastatingly beautiful and hopeful. Here I was talking to a man whose 20 year old son was murdered by a 14 year old gang member. What did Azim do? In time, he forgave the young man who murdered his son, and befriended him. And out of his pain, Azim began to teach hundreds of thousands of school-aged children principles of non-violence, compassion, and conflict management. His lessons on grief, and how to transform destruction into some new beauty, are crucial.”

Jennifer Wiseman: How Science Produces Wonder [LISTEN]

No Small Endeavor with Lee C. Camp

LCC: “Engage in wonder and awe. This was a special night: sitting with one of the country’s top astrophysicists, who is also a senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, under the expanse of Sudekum Planetarium in Nashville, gazing at the marvel that is our universe, being invited to awe. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman discussed the ways the pursuit of scientific discovery produces wonder, and the centrality of wonder in being human.”

David Brooks: Can We Save Society by Knowing Each Other? [LISTEN]

No Small Endeavor with Lee C. Camp

LCC: “In a world of such intense social and political hostility, and with a platform as vast as that available to a New York Times Opinion columnist, why would David Brooks set aside political punditry to profess the crucial importance of learning the skills of knowing another person? Precisely because he does in fact think we are in the midst of a social crisis, and one of the great needs we have in the midst of this crisis is learning to see another deeply and well, and allowing ourselves to be seen deeply and well.”

Too Much Pleasure Can Lead to Addiction. How to Break the Cycle and Find Balance

Elise HuAudrey Nguyen

LCC: “We are grateful to be a public radio show and I love the colliding of worlds in this episode. One of our previous guests, Elise Hu, interviews another previous guest, Anna Lembke on a public radio podcast, NPR's Life Kit. Anna Lembke's research on dopamine and addiction has helped me have practical tech boundaries and I think will help you too!”

Running a Marathon, One Mile Every Hour [WATCH]

Beau Miles

LCC: “Do things ‘just because.’ I love Australian YouTuber Beau Miles. He’s a zany adventurous kind of guy, but also quite thoughtful. Here’s one of his many films that reminds me that living a good life sometimes involves going on a silly adventure because… well, why not? He’s an expert at making-up ridiculous challenges for himself that imbue his life with meaning that wasn't there before.”

Lee C. Camp

Lee C. Camp is the creator and host of No Small Endeavor, an acclaimed podcast series and public radio show exploring what it means to live a good life, distributed by PRX. He is an award-winning teacher and Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. Following seminary (M.Div., Abilene Christian University), Lee completed a graduate degree in Moral Theology (M.A., Ph.D., University of Notre Dame). Lee is an Alabamian by birth, married to Laura with whom he shares three adult sons, and has happily made Nashville home for the last 25 years.