The primary aim of this study was to examine whether perceiving oneself to be living coherently with personal conceptions of the good life was associated with greater autonomous goal motivation and, subsequently, greater goal progress and greater SWB over time. We theorized personal good life philosophies to be situated fairly high in the motivational hierarchy and from this hypothesized that individuals who assessed their current lives as coherent with their ideas of the good life would also experience better motivational outcomes.
Indeed, results of the present study suggested that perceiving oneself to live in coherence with one’s personal philosophy of the good life was associated with a series of positive motivational outcomes that centred around “doing better” and “feeling good”; two common determinants of eudaemonia. As Ryan et al. (2006) argue, positive affect is both a correlate and consequence of eudaemonia or ‘living well’ (p. 141). As a product of pursuing meaningful goals, individuals will experience greater pleasure (Ryan & Deci, 2001). We suggest that perceived good life coherence demonstrates the sort of eudaemonia described by Ryan and colleagues—that perceiving oneself as living coherently in terms of one’s own philosophy of flourishing is associated with actual flourishing in terms of doing well (goal progress) and feeling good (change towards greater SWB). It could also be argued that good life coherence acts as a measure of basic hedonia, in which individuals are simply reporting the extent to which their expectations are being met. Another argument could be made that good life coherence acts as an indirect measure of basic need fulfillment due to its close association with autonomous motivation. Future research could further examine the directional nature of this relationship and the extent to which good life coherence is associated with autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Our findings also suggest that those able to follow their own life philosophies of the good life or perceive coherence between their current life and their ideal of the good life tended to report goals that were endorsed with greater autonomous motivation (Sheldon, 2014). It is noteworthy that good life coherence and baseline autonomous motivation for personal goals were not correlated, but that this relationship became significant over time. Specifically, autonomous goal motivation and increases in autonomous motivation both predict increases in goal progress. While the direction of this effect needs to be established with experimental replication, the relationship between good life coherence and autonomous motivation is consistent with previous research that has found traits that are associated with self-insight, such as “proactive personalities” (Bateman & Crant, 1993) and “positive core evaluations” (Judge, et al., 2005) tend to produce greater autonomous functioning. Although we did not directly examine whether self-insight is a necessary mechanism in achieving greater perceived good life coherence, the process and correlates of perceived good life coherence are comparable. Namely, both require an integration of abstract beliefs with more concrete behaviour and are associated with increases in autonomous regulation. Secondly, we hypothesized that greater perceived good life coherence, if associated with greater autonomous motivation, would also be associated with greater goal progress and subsequently higher SWB over time. This result replicates Sheldon and Elliott’s (1998) well-established finding that increased autonomous motivation predicts enhanced goal progress over time, and that increases in goal progress are associated with enhanced well-being (Klug & Maier, 2015; Koestner et al, 2002; Sebire et al., 2009). Significantly, these findings also shed light on a novel antecedent to the spiral of positive motivational outcomes.
Although the present study is observational, future research could examine whether good-life coherence serves as an intervention to enhance autonomous goal striving. Perceived good-life coherence may serve as a promising method to increase autonomous goal striving– by helping individuals to identify discrepancies between their highest ideals for living and their current reality. This may prompt volitional goal striving similar to how mental contrasting promotes goal prioritization (Oettingen, 2012). In mental contrasting, individuals are first prompted to visualize their wish for the future and then contrast that image with the obstacles in their present reality that stand in the way of fulfilling the wish. Mental contrasting has been shown to enhance goal commitment when the obstacles are deemed surmountable, while promoting disengagement from goals where the obstacles in one’s present reality are deemed insurmountable (Oettingen, 2012). Thus, while mental contrasting focuses on enhancing motivation and commitment for a specific wish, the “good life coherence” exercise may help to enhance autonomous motivation for a series of goals that target different lower-level components of the overall “good life” vision.
Future research is also needed to determine whether specific individual differences, such as trait mindfulness or trait self-control, explain meaningful variance in perceiving good life coherence. For example, a recent series of studies found that trait mindfulness was associated with setting more autonomous goals which was in turn associated with greater goal progress (Smyth et al., 2020). Likewise, a longitudinal study with university students found that individual differences in self-control promoted changes in motivation for personal goals, with individuals higher in self-control tending to feel more volitional in their goal pursuit over time (Holding et al., 2019). Thus, future studies examining good life coherence should control for various individual differences that may promote or enhance self-insight.
The central concern of this study, to investigate personal philosophies, was inspired by King’s (2001) suggestion to examine philosophies of life. Notably, the good life shares some conceptual overlap with King’s own construct of Best Possible Selves (BPS). Like the good life, possible selves also occupy a high position in the goal hierarchy and, subsequently, offer reference values to facilitate lower-level goals (Markus & Ruvulo, 1989, p. 213). Furthermore, in most BPS research, participants are asked to write, in narrative form, their own idea of their best possible future. This is similar to the measures used in the present study to capture personal philosophies of the good life. King has also found that this intervention has led to greater SWB (King, 2001, p. 804). Although the present study is observational rather than interventional, our results extend previous BPS literature by offering ‘good-life coherence’ as a new measure. Specifically, the present study is distinct from previous possible selves’ research due to (1) the minimized importance of the self when discussing the good life and (2) a lessened focus on the future. By asking individuals to articulate their personal conception of the good life, we hoped to provide a prompt that requires a greater level of abstraction and that is not necessarily future oriented, capturing instead abstract principles and system values. Our findings suggest that these higher-order beliefs and values, when reflected in perceived current functioning, are associated with greater autonomous motivation, goal progress, and SWB. Future research is needed to assess whether a similar pattern of results is obtained when individuals describe and rate their current life’s coherence with their conception of their “best possible selves”.
‘Good-life coherence’ is also similar in form and outcome to other measures that are theorized to capture higher-order values. Measures such as possible futures (Sheldon & Kasser, 1995) and life growth goals (Bauer & McAdams, 2004), despite varying in time and abstraction, are regularly applied in personality coherence research to examine cognitive representations of desirable or undesirable outcomes that individuals are committed to attain or avoid (Milyavskaya & Werner, 2018, p. 163). However, asking individuals to articulate their view of the good life is still theoretically distinct enough from these others to deserve merit as a new measure. For example, whereas Sheldon & Kasser’s 1995 study offered ‘possible futures’ categories for the participants to select, the present study instead offers space for the narrative richness evident in written articulations of the good life. This use of narrative writing is more clearly reflected in ‘life growth goals’ which are written paragraphs that “reveal not only what people want most in life but also the reasons for those goals” (Bauer & McAdams, 2010, p. 762). One important theoretical distinction, however, is that in “life growth goal” studies, the participants were prompted to write about two major goals in life (Bauer & McAdams, 2004, p. 117; Bauer & McAdams, 2010, p. 764). As previously discussed, Aristotle considers the good life to be the ultimate goal. Hence, even hierarchically high life goals may serve a subordinate role in order to achieve the good life. Furthermore, through asking individuals to articulate their personal philosophy of the good life rather than life goals, this present study instead attempts to examine abstract beliefs and values rather than goals that are theorized to be guided by such values. Nevertheless, future research is warranted to determine whether the outcomes of assessing good-life coherence differ significantly to conceptually related constructs.
This research was not without limitations. Firstly, our study composed its findings around a sample of students that were all attending the same North American university, which is not necessarily representative of the general population. This limits the generalizability of our findings and warrants replication in samples of different ages and backgrounds. Notably, the results were primarily drawn from an age group that belongs to the developmental stage of emerging adulthood. Individuals in this stage, which is characterized by identity exploration and attempts to form future visions of one’s life, may offer less stable good life statements than statements written in later stages (Arnett, 2000). Future research could explore the good life statements and good life coherence across different developmental stages.
Secondly, the correlational design of this study precludes us from making any causal inferences or excluding the possibility of confounding variables. Thirdly, although we hypothesized that individuals that expressed greater perceived good life coherence also demonstrated greater self-insight, the present study did not specifically examine this assumption. Future research could examine whether perceived good life coherence does require greater self-insight by measuring whether perceived good life coherence was associated with other measures of self-insight.
Another limitation in this study is the lack of an objective measure for assessing whether participants were living coherently with their philosophy of the good life. We cannot claim that greater perceived good life coherence demonstrated actual good life coherence as only self-reported assessments were measured. Likewise, the vagueness and brevity of the instructions for writing about the good life may be a limitation on the current findings. Future research could involve more elaborate instructions for writing about the good life, as well as holistic measures that go beyond self-reports, such as the use of experience-sampling measures and informant reports. Importantly, future studies could also re-assess participants’ view of the good life and measure to what extent the definition changes over time. It is also not apparent if the actual process of having participants write out their personal philosophies is necessary in capturing perceived good life coherence and if, instead, simply asking participants to rate the extent to which they are living their idea of the good life would result in similar findings. Future research could use an experimental design to determine if there is a significant difference.
Finally, the reported indirect effects were all relatively small as indicated by the partially standardized indirect effects. This is particularly true of the overall indirect effect of the full serial mediation model (i.e., perceived good life coherence → autonomous motivation → goal progress → SWB), where the confidence interval nearly contained zero (i.e., lower bound = 0.001). This is unsurprising, as mediation effects are often small, and particularly so when multiple mediators and changes over time are included (e.g., Walters, 2019). Nonetheless, caution should be taken in interpreting these findings; replication is warranted, and future research may examine alternative models.