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22 August 2008
The Life is good.® T-shirt as cultural artifact

The days of summer are waning and everyone we need to get in touch with is on vacation—so here’s a vacation-themed “five questions.”

We’ll admit up front that you are more likely to be familiar with this week’s installment if your vacation spot could be a candidate for Stuff White People Like. The first ten times Andy spotted a Life is good.® T-shirt he was in either Vermont or Maine, and the last time he saw one was Thursday, on the adorable red-haired seven-year-old son of some beloved white friends, who had just come back from visiting the Statue of Liberty (from the New Jersey side). Of course, Life is good.® is much more diverse than clothing—consider the popularity of the slogan on spare-tire covers for Jeep Wranglers. Which are, come to think of it, also very white. Okay, so there’s just a smidgen of ethnic specificity to this consumer trend.

Nonetheless, it’s a trend worth examining. With its insouciant, grinning mascot Jake and his trusty sidekick Rocket, Life is good.® seems to fly in the face of reality—war, economic uncertainty, pretty much the entire front page of any given day’s New York Times. Yet, like much art, it has a strangely persuasive effect. It’s hard to stare Jake in his stick-figure face, read the jaunty slogan beneath, and feel quite as cynical as you did before. Especially, perhaps, if you’re driving along a New England highway, passing the aforementioned Jeep Wrangler, and noticing that the sky is awfully blue, the pine trees are a dark dusky green, and the air is crisp and fragrant. Could it be that Life is good.® is an invitation to gratitude? Would that be such a bad thing?

Weigh in with your own observations below—and bring us down to earth if you must. What does Life is good.® make of the world?

1. What does the Life is good.® T-shirt assume about the way the world is?

Having already been quite outed as Very White by the SWPL people, I’m going to jump on in on this one. I think the T-shirt assumes that despite whatever else may be going on that is NOT good, there is a basic goodness to being alive. There are always things to look around at and be thankful for. If you can ride a bike, or eat an ice cream cone, or hike, or golf, then you are blessed.


I’d say that it assumes just about the opposite of what the T-shirt assumes that I had made up for my erstwhile colleague, John Franke, and myself. The T-shirt I bestowed upon him says “bad.” on the front, and “it’s all bad” on the back.

Rich Mouw talks about the difference between folks who focus on the world as “created good, but FALLEN” vs. folks who focus on the world as “fallen, but created GOOD.” It seems that each t-shirt falls on one side or the other. (I’ll be selling mine in back during the break.)

For my part, I like to go with “created good and fallen, but REDEEMED.”

J. R. Daniel Kirk

“Life is good” assumes that MacBeth was having a case.

2. What does the Life is good.® T-shirt assume about the way the world should be?

I think the T-shirts do assume a certain athleticism and outdoorsy nature to their target wearers. Jake is thin, he plays sports, he is happy. Sure, he indulges in the occasional ice cream or layabout on the beach, but a study of these T-shirts would lead an observer to believe that athleticism and regular outdoors activity go hand-in-hand with a positive outlook. The T-shirts in a way encourage people to adopt Jake’s lifestyle and with it gain his optimism.

3. What does the Life is good.® T-shirt make possible?

When wearing one of these T-shirts out in public, it is hard to walk around and be grouchy to people. At least, if one does, one looks like a bit of an idiot. Imagine Jake’s enormous grin topped by some angry red face abusing a cashier for giving the wrong change - I’m sure it’s happened, but if I saw it I would perceive a startling incongruity. On a personal level, I have a Life Is Good(tm) baseball cap, and I actually do wear it sometimes to remind myself to be grateful. Usually, if I am wearing a ball cap it is because I have not had the time to make my hair look presentable, and if I have lacked that time then it is likely I am stressed out or rushed or otherwise out of sorts. So if the cap I’m wearing is THIS one, I am prompted at least to behave in the world as though my life IS good, which, let’s face it, it is.

I’m realizing in answering these questions that I sound very unabashedly pro-Jake. I’ll be really interested to read any responses from any people who don’t appreciate the line!

4. What does the Life is good.® T-shirt make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

This question is not nearly as easy to answer as the first 3. Does wearing the T-shirt make it harder to sympathize with people whose lives are not good? Does it cause the owner to focus on their own good fortune and vibrant health, to the neglect of those less fortunate? “Sure, war is hell and maybe I ought to get involved in the political process, but instead let’s take our Labrador and Subaru out to the Gorge for some windsurfing! Life is Good!”

5. What new culture is created in response?

I don’t really know that I can answer this with any kind of certainty. But I think these T-shirts want to create a culture of recreation, of enjoying nature and what our bodies can do in nature, and yes, I think gratitude that we have those joys. Recreation, games, sports - these are central to the human experience. Modern recreation has to some extent moved the fulfillment of this human need indoors - to ever-more-sophisticated video games, movies, answering really interesting Internet surveys….  Life Is Good reminds us that there is stuff outside that is really really fun and is good for us at the same time.

Does anybody know if there is a backlash to Life Is Good the way there has been to other lines that push positive motivation? I’m thinking of Successories ( vs. the Demotivators ( Are there T-shirts out there with some unhappy person declaring “Life Sucks”? If there are not, does that say anything about the sincerity or accuracy of Jake? What does it mean if there are?


Sounds like Daniel (in question 1) is a one-person backlash with the “it’s all bad” T-shirt. :)

Andy Crouch

The revolution starts here!

Seriously, that t-shirt was created in part as a playful jest in response to a co-worker who had “it’s all good” emblazoned on her walls and t-shirts. So, yes, a playful backlash.

J. R. Daniel Kirk