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Searching for The Good Life

Whistler's annual food and wine festival only part of the answer

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I'll let you in on a little insider's secret — we know we have it good living here in Whistler.

This pleasure dome of fun, this place where people stop by momentarily to eke the most out of life before heading back home to reality, this is our little piece of heaven on earth, and we like to share.

We know people come here to feel good — to feel happy, replete and fulfilled — even if it's just for a quick long weekend getaway.

They come to celebrate Cornucopia, billed as a food and drink extravaganza. It sounds pretty close to living the good life; the detox and the diet can begin again on the way back down the highway.

They come for Crankworx, to race down the mountain on a bike; to take in the shows, to celebrate one of Whistler's favourite sports — the rat race is always waiting back home, after all.

Some even come to live like a rock star on the slopes and at the parties of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival — the celebration to mark the end of the snow season, over in the blink of an eye.

These are just a few of the pleasures in the hedonistic world of fun designed to tempt the mind and the senses, to feel good about yourself, to keep you coming back for more.

But is that really living the so-called good life, that life of fulfillment, that happy life?

Or is it all just an illusion?

"We have various ways we think we aim at happiness and various ways we grab hold of happiness at particular times," says Dr. Darcy Otto, a philosophy professor at Quest University in Squamish, who will offer up some context for this in a lecture at the Whistler library Nov. 13 titled: How to Lead a Good Life — Choices.

"You could live a life in which you pursue travel, or in which you pursue food or in which you pursue sport — these are all choices of lives. And so the question becomes: what is the criteria for the life that's most likely in the long term to make it fulfilled, and which of those lives line up with that?"

Tell me more!

Isn't that what everyone wants to know? Isn't that what Oprah tries to teach us, what the Bible tries to preach to us, what every lifestyle magazine puts on its cover?

There are lists of what makes us happy, golden rules to follow, happiness projects to tackle that vow to show us the way, all with the ultimate goal of helping us live a better life, a good life.

"I think it's one of the most fundamental questions we have as human beings," adds Otto.

"That is, we want to know what it would be to live a good life. If we knew the answer to that we could make a good deal of progress."

  The search for answers in Whistler

As the first flakes of snow hit the valley floor this week, Whistler's collective happiness went up a notch or two on the Gross National Happiness scale.

You could feel it, that palpable tension, that undercurrent of excitement, fizzing across the valley.

That feeling that change is just on the horizon, that winter is coming and rather than battening down the hatches, we're getting psyched to feel that connection with winter, with nature, with something that is more powerful than we are.

"It provides a grounding force for us as humans," says psychotherapist Greg MacDonnell.

Whistler, it's true, has a way of getting under your skin.

MacDonnell agrees that Whistler often attracts people who may be looking to find something or running away from something else. He sees first hand people of all ages who are questioning their happiness.

He's been in private practice as a psychotherapist for the past five years, and immersed in the community for a decade prior to that with his work through the Whistler Community Services Society.

MacDonnell knows Whistler; he sees its dichotomies.

This place of everlasting fun and enjoyment may look like the epitome of the "good life" on the outside but is it sustainable as a lifestyle?

"We tend to numb ourselves out from that which we feel vulnerable to," he said of the dark side of the pursuit of happiness.

That numbing can take any form — drugs, alcohol, even exercise — he adds.

"Unfortunately when we numb ourselves... we also numb happiness," says MacDonnell.

Take young adults, seasonal or otherwise. They're here to have fun, make the most of a hiatus from "the real world."

But it's doesn't always work out that way if it's a path without intention.

"As we all know, not everyone leaves here feeling like they had the best time of their lives," says MacDonnell. "Some people struggle on that pursuit of happiness."

And it's not just the young struggling with this pursuit.

By middle age people are starting to confront those big existential realities.

"That can stop people dead in their tracks," he says. "Hence, the mid-life crisis."

And in the twilight years those realities become more profound as seniors grapple with their own mortality on a deeper level.

But through all this questioning, there is choice.

"You've got the people who are starting to become deliberate and purposeful about how they're feeling," says MacDonnell.

And that's when things become more profound.

"This is where people take ownership of how they're feeling and they can start to incorporate some positive values and some positive psychology into their everyday experience," he adds.

Take the current thinking in pop psychology around the idea of the laws of attraction.

If you decide you're going to have a good day and put that decision out there, you'll probably have a good day. Conversely, if you wake up and decide the world is against you, it's hard to shake that feeling.

By learning to be deliberate and purposeful in our choices, we can, to some extent, influence how we feel.

One of the keys, says MacDonnell, is to find balance — enjoy the good times and all Whistler has to offer, but figure out to how to cope with life's demands, too.

A question of faith?

Those questions around balance come up often in Jeremy Postal's line of work. He's the new pastor at a small local church, Church on the Mountain.

He moved to Whistler two years ago with his young family, in search of a place that would give more meaning to life, a place where they wanted to raise their kids.

They think they've found it here.

On the surface it may seem like a strange choice, he admits. Whistler?

A place whose character Outside Magazine just defined as "The Spring Breaker."

Not the "The Ring Leader," like Canyons (Utah) and Killington (Vermont) and not "The Family Adventurer" like Squaw Valley (California) and Jay Peak (Vermont). But "The Spring Breaker."

The moniker is a nod to not just the great snow, but the party side of life here too.

The reality of Whistler, however, is just so much more, as Postal soon found out when he moved here, despite the fact that he's been visiting enough that he understood the power of the physical place itself. It was always part of the draw.

"When people start driving up the road, as soon as they hit Horseshoe Bay, they go 'ahhh,' "says Postal, of that feeling of unwinding, releasing. "The forests and the mountains and the lakes and the streams, they create a place for creativity, a place for restoration, even redemption. I think there's something really special about this place that is attractive."

That is clearly part of the equation when it comes to the quest to figure out how to lead that good life.

And for Postal he also looks to his faith.

"As a Christian for me living the good life is really informed by my faith," he says. "And as I look at the Bible, there's a pretty clear and distinct rhythm that the Bible outlines of what a good life means or looks like."

It's pretty simple he says.

Work hard. Rest well. Do good works. Celebrate often.

It's a balance.

If you work too hard, you burn out, get sick.

If you rest too much, you get lazy, can't put food on the table.

If you celebrate too often, you'll never get first chair up the mountain on a powder day.

"For me, I've found that living the good life is hitting that rhythm," says Postal.

And it doesn't just apply to the Christian life — many faiths, many lifestyles mirror these same foundations.

Postal is no stranger to these questions about life, about happiness, about our place within it. Perhaps even more so in Whistler, a place many a lost wanderer comes to call home.

"There's something about that seeking, that discovering, that journeying, that idea, as cliché as it is, that the destination is the journey, that Whistler really personifies," he says.

  Lessons from the ancient Greeks

It might be surprising to learn that the term, "The Good Life" has its genesis with the Aristotle of Ancient Greece.

Though his thoughts on achieving this are wide-ranging, and encompass many factors, at their root is the idea that the happiness starts on the inside — in some way at it's most basic form it means that if someone is unhappy it's because they have not chosen well.

Part of this journey to choosing well, Aristotle hypothesized, was to wonder and journey and discover — some favourite past-times pursued in Whistler no doubt.

It may be hard to believe but, says Quest's Otto, this idea of using reason to find happiness may be part of the key to achieving it — just part of the subject matter Otto will cover in his lecture Nov.13.

What people in Whistler wanted to know is what everyone wants to know — how do you live a life that maximizes happiness? A good life, if you will. A fulfilled life.

Otto doesn't proclaim to know the answers to that but he believes the Greeks of 2,300 years ago may have been on to something in offering up some answers.

It's challenging to boil down a philosophy talk dealing with hefty existential issues to a few pithy Pique paragraphs, so you'll have to go to the lecture to really find out what it's all about.

But Otto will begin by looking at what the Ancient Greeks believed was the function of a human being — knowing a function makes it possible to define its virtue.

"Happiness comes out of doing that function as reasonably as possible in a sustainable (able to maintain it) way as possible," explains Otto.

Take, for example, the life of someone who loves great wine and food. Eating great wine and food all the time may make that person happy (hard not to be happy, admittedly) but from the perspective of the Ancient Greeks it's not a sustainable lifestyle.

So what did the Greeks believe was the human function?

It was the capacity for rational thought, the capacity for compassion that distinguishes us from other things that live.

"So from a Greek perspective, that is a clue as to what our function is," said Otto. "That is, exercising our mind in various ways. And so from a Greek perspective, what is going to maximize our happiness is pursuing that sort of life."

Questioning. Searching for answers. Rationalizing. Confronting difficult concepts that push our comfort levels.

Surely, however, that can't make us all happy?

That can't be what will get the best life for everyone? After all, isn't "one man's happiness is another man's sorrow?"

Perhaps, agrees Otto. Perhaps Aristotle's good life is not the good life for everyone.

But using the food and wine analogy, Otto explains that the person who has poor taste buds simply can't experience and appreciate good wine as much as the next person.

That would mean that person simply isn't as fulfilled as other people.

"Similarly, the notion of... what the best life is doesn't change because people run into certain limits," says Otto.

"Aristotle wants to say that it's the life of the mind, but the life of the mind is an attitude and disposition which is constantly questioning the world around it. It's not as if you get the answer and then you run away and do it. It's more complicated than that. If only the answer were easy."

That's not to say Aristotle was right.

"I think it's more important to ask the question," says Otto of the philosophical debate.

"Unlike many other subjects where you do it by doing it, you don't learn about it, (in philosophy) you actually engage in it directly. It's an attitude that's valuable in how we look at the world. The ultimate goal is to have people turn themselves around to start asking questions that they're generally uncomfortable asking."