Heaven, Hell and OTHER People: Finding Happiness in “The Good Life”

French philosopher and playwright Jean Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, “No Exit,” envisioned a hell devoid of searing flames, torture devices or red-eyed devils pitchforking inhabitants for eternity. But that doesn’t mean the punishment for unredeemed sinners wasn’t awful beyond imagining.

Sartre instead placed multiple people in a locked room—in this case, two women and one man—carefully selected to provoke maximum and mutual psychological discomfort upon one another by picking astutely at the scabs of the moral failings that landed each of them in this dreaded situation, yes, for all eternity.

“Anything but that!”, we can hear ourselves saying in sympathy with these otherwise despicable characters. (Military desertion, vicious marital infidelity, seduction, sadism, infanticide…)

The prospect of spending eternity locked in a room with others capable and committed to driving you crazy without relief led to this famous passage near play’s end from the male protagonist:

“What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers.

That last sentence in all caps stands as an oft-quoted signature line from the play, representing the push-pull of human relationship and all the power dynamics that require delicate negotiation if one party is to avoid being crushed or at least severely disadvantaged by the other. Sartre later went on to clarify that he didn’t mean all human relationships are doomed—only that people fashion their own hells by being…

“…too dependent on the judgment of other people. But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.”

That “capital  importance of all other people” brings Sartre and us squarely into the orbit of a recently published (January, 2023) book that will occupy most of the remaining discussion in this post.



A couple of months ago, I gathered for the better part of a week at an Air B&B with four buddies of mine dating back to junior high school. All of us have stayed in touch to varying degrees over the last 60 years, reconnecting in earnest at a pre-pandemic high school reunion and trying to meet annually since.

Probably just as important, we continue to engage in almost daily text and email streams about sports, politics, the arts, more sports, and a seemingly endless catalog of high school and college hijinks (some of which we’d prefer never to fall into the public domain).

I should note that just prior, I’d met up for several days with another, college-based pals group of four, pictured below. (The fact these gatherings occurred back-to-back represented a miracle of timing, the likes of which I don’t anticipate experiencing again in this lifetime.)

If I read authors Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, PhD, correctly in their 2023 book, “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness,” my groups’ ongoing contact and the care that goes into their maintenance both suggest and enhance a welcome level of happiness in our individual lives.

And those friendships are ideally part of a vast relational web, a consistent pattern of engagement with other friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues of both long and recent standing, from intimate to casual. (Your kindly, regular exchange of pleasantries with your mail carrier and handyman also qualify—spread that joy!)

En toto, these relationships represent the golden wand most responsible for human happiness, the authors strongly maintain.

Money, career, killer looks and a vacation home in the Hamptons? Distant seconds, all.

On virtually every measure not only of emotional satisfaction and happiness but also physical health and longevity, “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.”

Though these insights are not exactly world-shattering to anyone paying close attention to their own lives, there’s a difference between an almost rote recitation of, “Yeah, I know, I know, money can’t buy happiness and workaholism is a killer,” and the actual application of that and similar knowledge to one’s life.

Witness the seeming epidemic reports of loneliness as a mental health problem—not only in the U.S., where one of four adults reports feeling regularly lonely, but around the world.

China has acknowledged widespread loneliness among older adults in particular—one study suggesting one-third of that population is affected. Great Britain appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” in 2018 to address the issue on a national scale, given reports there of 9 million people feeling “often or always lonely” and 200,000 seniors reporting the lack of even a single conversation with a friend or family member in the previous month or more.

“Spoiler alert,” the authors tell us on page 3. “The good life is a complicated life. For everybody.”

One of the complicating factors is the other people whom Sartre claimed were hell personified but that Waldinger and Schulz insist—with abundant data rather than philosophical speculation on their side—are the key to happiness.

But the other people we need for relationships sometimes move far away, or find a soul mate and grow scarce on us, or even worse, they die. Others become parents and fall right off the face of the earth for an indeterminate period.

This is where the therapists leave little doubt they agree with the philosopher that relational happiness doesn’t just fall into anyone’s lap unbidden.

“A good life—a rich life—is forged from precisely the things that make it hard,” they write. “Life, even when it’s good, is not easy.”

Fortunately, the second half of the book explores the basic psychological dynamics at play in successful relationship-building, sketches out problem-solving strategies, and includes abundant encouragement that no matter where one lies on the age spectrum or introversion-extroversion scale, it’s literally “never too late to be happy.”

They also emphasize that happiness is not so much an achievement as it is an orientation—an embrace and contentment in the journey rather than a pining for arrival.

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s concept of “eudaemoniaa state of deep well-being in which a person feels that their life has meaning and purpose”—applies here. Collecting hedonistic experiences and the “fleeting happiness of various pleasures” does not make for happiness, which is not a collection of highs leading to a destination called “Happiness,” but rather a journey undertaken with human relationship at its core.
Hedonism says, “We’re having a good time!” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it lacks the far deeper and lasting dimension of eudaemonia: “Life is good.” In the authors’ estimation, the latter is far better suited to endure the inevitable ups, downs and reversals that befall every mortal life.

Not everyone comes into that orientation. Waldinger and Schulz detail lives of some who never manage to align themselves, who fall to unresolved childhood trauma, feelings of unworthiness, or wariness of intimacy that prevents them from ever attaining the meaningful friendships and joie de vivre so central to life satisfaction.

And indeed, one advantage of a study such as the one chronicled in “The Good Life” is that it holds a mirror up to participants on a regular basis in their lives, leaving them little choice but to keep living the “examined life” that Socrates cited even before Aristotle as the only one worth living.

Which means those of us outside the study just have a little work to tend to.

But who better to tend to it with than the very friends and loved ones who are the keys to the happiness we seek?



Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!

A pdf version of the full play “No Exit” can be found here. (About a 60-minute or so read.)

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.


Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Devils near top of page by Thomas Hawk, San Francisco, California https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

Boy buddies by Aman Shrivastava, India  https://unsplash.com/@amansks91

Adult buddies by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

11 comments to Heaven, Hell and OTHER People: Finding Happiness in “The Good Life”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Being one of the five who recently gathered together at the Oceanside Air B&B, I can honestly say it was well worth the price of admission. It’s amazing how after 60 years we can make our ancient memories seem like they happened only yesterday. That’s the great thing about being over 70. So much seems new because we’ve actually forgotten what we had for dinner last night. We roasted old friends. “Hey, I saw Ron last week.” “You did? How’s he doing?” “Looks like shit.” We talked about family. “Well, Drew, how’s it feel being a grandpa?” We discussed our health. “Spence, they did what to your what and you didn’t feel a thing?” We watched the Padres beat the Cards at Petco Park. We had a great time interacting with the fans in the trains to and from the game despite having to say, “Dave’ not here.” We sat around Sunday morning, all sober, and discussed our most intimate feelings because we couldn’t get a football game on the damn TV. Maybe it was for the better. One of us lives in Colorado, and the Dolphins scored 70 on the Broncos. On our last day, we drove north to Los Angeles and met another middle school buddy at an Italian restaurant that bore an uncanny resemblance to the one in “The Godfather” where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and Captain McClusky. Loved the lasagna and took the cannoli. I suppose the takeaway from all this is pretty simple. It’s hard to beat good friends. It’s the good life.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Pretty entertaining rundown, Mr. Spencer—almost as much fun as being there!

      But what’s this….no mention of Cornhole???

  • Deanna  says:

    Sometimes my faith flags, but my vote still goes with people. I like the way The Good Life stands up for them.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Another interesting post Andrew, I must confess to not thinking of JP Sartre in many a moon! Being a psych major in the late ’60s required my semi-serious explorations of the so-called Existentialists (who, of course, could never agree on what the term actually meant!). I certainly loved the vision of cafe-life in Paris engaging in endless BS-ing on various pithy topics and, along with my cronies, we did our best to imitate it in our naive collegiate style (love, death, art, freedom, meaning of life/death, politics, sports, etc)… Camus was more to my liking but that’s another story. The notion of happiness and how it appears to be, at least to me, more of an outcome of living a full life than a goal in and of itself, is without doubt fascinating. I was fortunate to spend 3 weeks in Greece recently (2 weeks of it on Crete) and was struck by how so many Greeks seem to have figured out this formula for health/happiness & the good life. Their lifestyle appears to be grounded in the family, community, etc., I was struck by how many older folks were ever present, often walking, hanging out in coffee shops and Tabernas right along with everyone else. The combination of strong social/familial networks, healthy eating of primarily locally sourced foods, and plenty of exercise is woven into everyday life. I saw very few gyms but plenty of folks out walking, hiking, working, playing sports, etc), and lots of time allocated for chatting with whomever one encountered. It is no accident that one of the so-called “blue zones” (unexpected robust longevity) involves Greece & the Mediterranean Diet (with lots of top-shelf Grecian Olive Oil!!). It’s not a surprise that the “blue zone” descriptions fit pretty well with “The Good Life…” study you described in the post. One of my favorite profs in Grad School, Max Lerner who was in his 80s & still teaching masterfully, had a clever little quote I still remember, – a playful addendum to Socrates’s famous quip:
    “An examined life is not worth living”, to which Max adds, “The unlived life is not worth
    examining”. Toche’

    PS As an example of how Max lived this philosophy, he spent much of his life in academia as a professor, yet also wrote a regular column for the NY Post! He said to have any chance of really understanding what’s going on, neither the smoke-filled bars of NY nor the hallowed halls of the University alone are sufficient, but some kind of synthesis gets one closer to the complex reality of our lives. (and I am sure he would add is a helluva lot more fun!)

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Deanna. Amidst the awful news cycles of awful things happening all over the world every day, it can be difficult sometimes to remember that most people are kind and decent most all the time. And we forget that truism at the risk of our own cynicism and the world’s great peril. Thanks for making this point.

    Kevin, haven’t been over the pond in a while and time is a wastin’ and I had better get on with it, for sure, but yes, it often does seem that most Euro countries, oh hell, most ALL other countries, have a better handle on what constitutes a “good life” than we do. Of course, this likely has just a teensy weensy bit to do with their “socialist” (no, make that “communist” in the currently popular lexicon of one of our political parties) practices of family leave, human-scaled vacation time, and the general sense that life can and should happen outside the workplace, in great abundance and pleasure.

    Didn’t know (or just forgot; hard to distinguish these days…) that Max L. wrote for the New York Post, but makes perfect sense. Those were the pre-silo days, much lighter on the echo chambers we now mostly live in, and when there truly was a “mass” rather than radically splintered media. Does the Post even exist anymore? (Just checked, it does, cover story major cleavage shots of Jeff Bezos’s girlfriend; I see little has changed!) God bless Max for considering that audience worthy of his attention—maybe I should pitch them for a column and tell them he was a friend of mine?? :-)

  • Jay Helman  says:

    One of the four amigos pictured in this post often said during our youth “if you’re not sweating, you’re not having fun.” Nothing quite like being with old pals with whom we sweated and laughed, and played and, ultimately grew. Robert, the clear curiosity and admiration displayed by those we met on the train to the Padres game indicated a fundamental appreciation (envy?) people have for a group of lifelong friends still teeing up a good time 50-60 years later (even though “Dave was not there.”)

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Had almost forgotten that maxim, Jay, strikes me it would make a fine & worthy epitaph!

  • Kirk  says:

    “Hell is … Other People,” conjured up the scene in Soylent Green where Edward G. Robinson, soon after having his last supper with closest friend, Charlston Heston, decides that the living hell depicted in the movie was intolerable, so he chose one final glimpse of heaven, our planet as it was. Later Heston finds the origin of Soylent Green and subdued by officials, shouting, “Soylent Green is People!”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kirk, I’ve forgotten a whole lot more movies than not in my life, but I shall never forget “Soylent Green”—both Heston’s horror at discovering the true nature of the edibles gliding down the conveyor belt and Robinson’s ecstasy as he willingly heads into the great beyond in front of giant movie screens depicting how life on earth was in the Before Times. Might have to revisit the theme by revisiting the movie, prescient as it appears to have been…

  • Robby Miller  says:

    Andrew: Don’t talk with you, or for that matter any of my friends, that often, but knowing you/they are there (at least for the time being:>) brings comfort.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, Robby. I will return to your so-very-basic-and-lovely sentiment when I occasionally find myself asking to the ethers, “Oh, what’s the point of this exercise, anyway?” Glad I can reach you occasionally from here, and meanwhile, now that science has proven how valuable human contact is, we have no excuse not to increase it in our lives, eh?

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