While there's life there's hope.

After Atheism

By Mark Vernon
Hodder Education
ISBN 9781444112184
Published in hardback in 2010

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The Good Life Quiz

the good life:
30 steps to perfecting the art of living


Advice on how to live is hardly in short supply these days. And that fact, in itself, might give us pause for thought. Why is it such a growth industry? It’s 150 years since Samuel Smiles published the first self-help book, deploying the eponymous title, Self-Help. Think of all the advise that’s appeared since, all that good sense! So how come we’ve still not worked it out?

Many of the books that are published these days draw on new insights from psychology. Or at least, they are claimed as new insights. These, at last, are the correct tips and hints – about how to be happy, how to be persuasive, how to stay in love – and they are right because they are proven by science. However, if you’re like me, you’re already feeling wary.

What psychologists do, more or less, is assemble groups of people – often students, since they are cheap to hire and ready to hand – and ask them how they feel about, say, keeping resolutions or being liked. The psychologists then process the responses, with statistics, and publish the means and averages. Voila! New insights.

Now, I don’t want to offend any students, but I’m not so sure. The science certainly produces empirically-based results. And you want that if you’re having heart surgery. But what about the more subtle, less mechanical question of living? If you, an individual, apply those means and averages to your life, is it surprising that the benefits can seem a bit mean and average? I notice it when I become exhausted by self-help’s relentlessly upbeat tone. The only way is up. Things can only get better. I can’t help but feel that what’s being peddled is a flat-pack life lite, not the infinitely textured, often troubling and always fascinating thing that hits me, day by day.

What is lacking is what might be called wisdom. I don’t think that can be derived in a lab. It comes from the careful, often exceptional, experience and reflection of those individuals who have been best at the art of living. It’s like music, one of the subjects we’ll consider here. Science and psychology can tell us a certain amount, and it can freshen up what has been learnt before. However, Mozart and Moby can tell us a whole lot more besides.

In fact, Samuel Smiles might have made the same point. Many of his best ideas come from the ancient Greek philosophers, a source we’ll draw much from too. They’re often forgotten today, as we’re so enamoured by the new. But what’s new can also be a little green, a little untried and untested. My hope here is to reopen some of the oldest and deepest seams of insight, and to mine others that are newer but perhaps overlooked.


  1. Anger, the discomforting opportunity
  2. Art, beyond consumption
  3. Anger, the discomforting opportunity
  4. Art, beyond consumption
  5. Beauty, as a guide in life
  6. Community, or the ties that free us
  7. Earth, our island home
  8. Forgiveness, and having a future
  9. Freedom, by giving stuff up
  10. Friendship, its perils and promise
  11. Gratitude, and the surprise called life
  12. Hope, and the courage to be
  13. Humour, its humanity and humility
  14. Individuality, not individualism
  15. Love, or how to be seriously promiscuous
  16. Me, being true to yourself
  17. Meaning, or why it’s good to talk
  18. Money, our frozen desire
  19. Mourning, and avoiding depression
  20. Music, and learning from mistakes
  21. Pets, and the value of strangers
  22. Religion, and filling the God-shaped hole
  23. Responsibility, or what you would die for
  24. Seeing, a lesson in looking at the world
  25. Sex, and what makes it good
  26. Stillness, its intensification of life
  27. Stories, and your moral imagination
  28. Tolerance, or the wisdom of others
  29. Uncertainty, and the value of doubt
  30. Wisdom, also called love’s knowledge
  31. Wonder, in the ordinary
  32. Work, and becoming what you are
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