Vernon, Mark. Wellbeing: The Art of Living. Acumen, 2008.
In Wellbeing: The Art of Living, Mark Vernon focuses on the question of human wellbeing to develop a practical philosophy for the art of living a good life. To pursue welling being is to pursue the experience of being alive in all its depth and fullness. This includes pleasant experiences imbued with joy as well as the hardships of life that can invoke periods of suffering. Wellbeing is a worldview; that is, it is a way of being in the world that is grounded in the love of that which is innately good and a search for that good.
Vernon’s book is designed to retrieve and rehabilitate a philosophical ground for wellbeing. Self-help suffers from a psychological bias and a lack of philosophical ground. Its conclusions are often repetitive and in the form of glaringly obvious realities. Still, if a good life and the art of living well were obvious then we could all simply follow the method and the need for self-help would effectively vanish. Yet the self-help industry has never been larger and we, as a society, have never been ore stressed, anxious, and depressed.
Vernon makes a crucial distinction between wellbeing and happiness. Wellbeing is the foundation for a philosophy of living well, while happiness is a transient emotional state that is not enduring. This kind of backlash against the pursuit of happiness has become commonplace in more recent approaches to self-help. Happiness is important, but life isn’t merely about being happy all the time. To isolate an emotion and attempt to sustain it is contrary to human nature. To expect to be happy all the time leads to depression. Moreover, there is far more to the fabric of life than being happy: “Might there not be cases in which pain contributes to wellbeing?” (Vernon, 2008)
Wellbeing must allow for an “understanding of struggle,” “accommodating the necessity of pain,” and “meaningful suffering.” The notion that a life can be lived in a perpetual state of happiness and positivity is a source of anxiety. Adversity is a natural part of life. Depression may be a source of insight. Mourning may be a way to deepen our emotional being. Vernon acknowledges that pointless suffering is possible and unnecessary. Pain and suffering can also be glorified and worn like a macabre badge of honor. However, it is “wise pain” that is meaningful and essential to wellbeing.
Another crucial distinction is between knowing and doing. We can know what we should be doing and yet fail to do it. Knowledge is not enough. A fundamental issue is self-help is learning and the ability to transform words on the page to lived experience. Genuine self-help must therefore operate at the level of our deepest held assumptions, expectation, and beliefs about how to live a good life, otherwise it becomes a graveyard of unlived ideas.
The structure of the book invites the reader through increasing levels of depth about wellbeing. It begins by exploring pleasure and pain and the need to develop an art of living that faces the full force of life. He then proposes that seeking innate meaning and purpose in life is fundamental to wellbeing. Connection to the transcendent is vital because it establishes a sense of belonging to something greater than just ourselves. Vernon then moves toward the need to reclaim the mystery of being and of life because it helps us to navigate uncertainty and the unknowns of life. The book concludes with the power of love to inspire good in self and others at the same time. In other words, wellbeing is ultimately about achieving selflessness: “For if it is wellbeing you seek, there is one central challenge: to respond to love and to see how to live.” (Vernon, 2008)
I found the discussion about the nature of meaning to be important and compelling. Vernon offers two definitions of meaning. Utilitarian meaning refers to engaging in work that is instrumental to achieving a goal. The work involved may not be satisfying, but we endure it because it will lead to an achievement. Studying for an exam may seem like drudgery but doing well on an exam is meaningful. Or we may suffer a mind-numbing form of employment, but we endure it because it provides the financial resources for the necessities of life. In other words, the work isn’t meaningful, but it has practical benefit.
Innate meaning is engagement in work that is intrinsically meaningful regardless of the outcome. Unlike more utilitarian forms of meaning, innate meaning is not something we create. It is something arises or revealed inside an activity. There is an inspired sense of significance simply being engaged in an activity. For example, writing an article about wellbeing is, for me, a source of innate meaning that arises naturally. Innate meaning, not utilitarian forms of meaning, connect us to our sense of vocation in life and therefore serves to broaden and expand the feeling of being alive: “Mystery is not empty… Its prior sense is rather one of infinite wonder at what is good, what is beautiful, what exists.” (Vernon, 2008)
Some self-help authors are retrieving material from the ancient philosophers. Vernon retrieves Aristotle’s “eudaimonia,” which means human flourishing or living well. The core of Aristotle’s approach was to seek out practical wisdom that comes from living it. In its highest form wisdom is a way of being, not merely an intellectual pursuit. Wellbeing is a connection to the transcendent and the conviction that meaning is not the express domain of humanity. It is important to note that the word “transcendent” refers to the existence of realms beyond the human experience; that is, there are forms of meaning and presence in the external world that the human mind cannot fully grasp: “The transcendent is “a root impulse of the human spirit to explore possibilities of meaning and truth that lie outside of empirical seizure or proof.” (Vernon, 2008)
Vernon presents wellbeing as a way of being in the world that is guided by a deep abiding sense of the good in life. Vernon demonstrates that ancient philosophy can be practical, useful, and essential. He does not offer us ten steps, a course of study, a method to follow, a retreat to attend, or an online conference to watch. He doesn’t try to market a mantra. Instead, he creates an environment for deep reflection into the value of wellbeing as a way of being. He challenges us to focus on the genuine perception of the good in the world, which is not an easy task in our age of outrage, and reminds us that our task is
Wellbeing: The Art of Living is essential reading for anyone interested in self-improvement and pursuing the ideal of living a good life. It is not an easy read however, nor should it be. It is a book that requires concentration and reflection, but the rewards for the reader are significant.
Wellbeing is grounded in the belief that the universe is fundamentally good: “A good life, then, is close to a spiritual exercise. It feels like taking a long pilgrimage towards a holy place or an attempt to be so changed that it becomes possible to catch a glimpse of perfection.” (Vernon, 2008) This does not mean we can avoid adversity, pain, and suffering in life. It does mean, however, that embracing wellbeing as a philosophy for living a life worth living can add depth and vitality to the experience of being alive.