“‘Futile! Futile!’ laments the Teacher. ‘Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”
“I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind!”
We come from the dust, and to dust we return. The Book of Ecclesiastes is a powerful manifesto of the futility of all human strivings – even though the book eventually comes to emphasize that everything is in the hands of God and we should not doubt his plan. Written somewhere around the 3rd century BCE, I have yet to see other examples from the same era where the vanity of existence in the face of death is so clearly articulated.
However, through Enlightenment and the rise of the scientific worldview, a new way to understand the human condition started to slowly emerge, culminating, around the turn of the nineteenth century, with the invention of a new phrase: the meaning of life.
Read more about the history and emergence of the modern notion of meaning of life in my new blog post for Journal of History of Ideas…
If you had everything else you wanted but your life lacked meaning, would it still be worth living? For the rich Russian count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the towering author of such classics as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this was not a merely theoretical question. This was a matter of life and death: “Why should I live?… What real indestructible essence will come from my phantasmal, destructible life?” was the question he asked himself. In his autobiography, My Confession (1882), he wrote that as long as he was unable to find a satisfactory answer to the question of meaning, “the best that I could do was to hang myself.” What makes ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ such a powerful question that inability to deliver a satisfactory answer can push a person to the brink of a suicide?
…Read more about my take on Leo Tolstoy and his quest for meaning in this article recently published in Philosophy Now.
Watching video footage of protests and unrest on the streets of Rochester in upstate New York reminded me how I trained for a marathon there a few years ago. To make jogging more interesting, I switched my routes regularly to explore new neighborhoods. So there I was jogging through these various, predominantly white, neighborhoods. And never realizing what a privilege it is to be able to jog there without a second thought.
It breaks my heart to read the various precautions that men of my age have to go through to be able to walk in their own neighborhoods, just because of the color of their skin. Like me, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood. He was shot to death. Shola Richards, in turn, explained in a viral post how he has to take one of his daughters with him to walk the family dog in his own neighborhood: “When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner…. But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks.”
In the four years they have lived there, he has never taken a walk alone. This athletically-built man has to hold his eight-year-old daughters hand when walking in his home street, “in hopes that she’ll continue to keep her daddy safe from harm.”
The outrage over George Floyd’s death is totally understandable. It is anguishing to helplessly watch the video where Derek Chauvin cold-bloodedly holds his knee on Floyd’s neck, keeping it there for several minutes even after the man has passed out. But the current protests are ultimately not about it. This incident was just the last straw in a series of previous major incidents and thousands and thousands of more minor incidents, where the bias of the police and society against the black community is visible. Most of the racism is structural and invisible for a white man like me. Floyd’s death just provided a horrible symbol for all the everyday injustices the black people have to endure. A middle-aged African American business man told Barack Obama how he cried when he saw the video: “It broke me down. ‘Knee on the neck’ is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help.”
What then to do as a white man? Protests and civil disobedience are often necessary to make the political system to pay attention to injustices against various marginalized communities. So supporting and participating in peaceful protests, raising awareness, and using one’s platform to give room and amplify the voices of those who don’t have similar platforms is the first step.
But, as Barack Obama aptly notes, “eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.” And because in a democracy every vote counts, transforming the political system and institutions requires broad alliances.
In analyzing how the apartheid ended in South Africa, economists Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson emphasize how “it was founded on a new coalition, between the ANC, the black middle classes, and the white industrialists.” This was part of Mandela’s brilliance. He realized that to make the transition, he needed allies from within the white elite. And from white industrialists he found those allies, and their relationship was strengthened through joint initiatives like the Black Economic Empowerment program. Through these collaborations they grew the mutual trust and respect that allowed them eventually to overturn the apartheid regime — without a civil war — and turn a new page in the history of South Africa.
Herein is the key responsibility of us white people. Passivity is not enough. Thinking that ‘I am not racist so I can stay out of this’ is not enough. The societal injustices don’t disappear without majority of people condemning them. The unjust policies and structures don’t get reformed until enough people vote for political candidates vowing to change them.
There is no neutral middle ground one can take between persecutors and those persecuted. Not confronting the persecution is passively supporting it. The often-repeated words of Martin Luther King remind us that “the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the glaring noisiness of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” In our times the same message is put forward powerfully by professor Ibram X. Kendi: “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.”
Research shows that the most effective interventions against school bullying don’t focus on the victim or the bully — they focus on changing the attitudes of the classmates. When the bystanders turn against bullying, the bully quits. When they don’t, they silently support the bully.
This is the lesson we whites, who consider ourselves as not racist, should take to our heart. It is our silence that enables the racists to continue. The racists don’t stop shouting until they note that they are not only condemned by the black community but also shunned upon by their white friends. Only when we turn ourselves into antiracists — actively working against racial structures in our society and racial attitudes in our community and in ourselves — can we consider ourselves as allies in this fight against oppression.
Nobody is perfect. I am not perfect. I surely carry some racist baggage around in my attitudes and behaviors that I will be ashamed of tomorrow. This very writing might contain inadvert legacies of racist ways of thinking. The important thing is to realize that we are all learning together, and commit oneself to be part of this growth and development. “The movement from racist to antiracist is always ongoing”, as Ibram X. Kendi puts it in his book How to Be an Antiracist. In addition to acknowledging that I still have biases and blind spots, this movement involves making an effort to seek out and listen to the experiences, insights, and arguments of people of color. By, for example, using resources like this, this, and this.
Being ‘not racist’ is a passive state, being antiracist is a constant journey. A journey of growth. It plays out in two fields: Within society, as citizens and as members of various communities, we should make our voice and our vote count in the fight against racist attitudes and policies. Within our own minds, we should commit to actively educate and develop ourselves.
So my fellow white friends who consider themselves as not racist. That’s nice. But not enough. Let’s start the journey towards being antiracists.
Lately, I’ve had some trouble concentrating on my work. As it has slowly dawned on me that the Coronavirus pandemic might very well be the biggest global crisis of my lifetime – both in terms of the death toll and in economic terms – somehow many work tasks I was excited about a few weeks ago now feel meaningless.
What point is there in writing a scientific article when people around me are in a lock-down, fighting for their income – and some fighting for their lives?
It can be devastating to just watch from the sidelines how the pandemic spreads. I want to somehow, in however small way, contribute. Do what is in my own hands to alleviate the situation. Accordingly, I have tried to think where would my efforts have the biggest impact on helping the current situation.
What could I do?
Now, I don’t have any specific skills to directly fight the virus. I don’t have medical expertise; I am not an epidemiologist; I am not a trained nurse. Generally, my special skills are found on the conceptual level: Having practiced philosophy and empirical psychological research for the last ten or so years, I have acquired expertise in certain areas of knowledge. If I could utilize that expertise in a meaningful way, I could perhaps offer something unique to the situation. Therein lies most likely the biggest positive impact I could deliver.
With this question in mind, I quickly identified three potential pathways where my expertise could be channeled to answer some presently urgent questions:
- This crisis has an impact on people’s sense of meaningfulness – the reflection I do here about my own work being a case in point. Accordingly, being an expert on research on meaningfulness, I’ve been thinking how do people find meaning in times of crisis. While crises cause anxiety, depression and suffering, we know from research that some people also experience post-traumatic growth. In the long run, they gain something from what they have gone through. And here meaningfulness, being able to make sense of the situation and find some positive purpose for it, is one key mechanism leading to such post-traumatic growth. Accordingly, I’ve been doing some reading on post-traumatic growth and acceptance and commitment therapy, trying to figure out are there some guidelines to be derived from that literature that could help people to cope.
- Research has made clear that economic growth does not equal citizen well-being. Case in point is the US where the last decade looked very good from the economic perspective – increasing stock prizes and GDP, decreased unemployment – but where citizen well-being and even average life expectancy were decreasing. Economy was improving, people’s health and well-being was regressing. Accordingly, when we are soon starting to discuss how to restart the economy and how to get out of the cycle of unemployment, bankruptcies, and lower demand for products, this conversation should not only focus on economic growth. Some measures to improve economic growth will help the citizens. But not all. In order to participate in that discourse and to remind the policy makers of the importance of thinking about the well-being impact of various policy measures – a topic I have been writing about – I have now read about national levels of trust and social capital and how they impact the nation’s ability to be resilient in times of crisis.
- How governments and policy experts communicate their guidelines to citizens can have a big impact on whether the citizens will follow these guidelines. Demonstrating that one trusts the citizens, being honest and transparent, delivering clear guidelines, appealing to people’s willingness to help each other, and emphasizing that we are in this together are a few effective ways of ensuring positive response from the citizens. Here my expertise on research on self-determination theory and how to be autonomy supportive can offer insights on effective and empowering communication.
So if you ask me what I’ve been doing this weekend, this is what I’ve been doing: Reading a pile of scientific articles in the hope that reading them will bring some insight that I could capitalize on next week at work to do something meaningful.
Instead of focusing on the trivial, I want to ensure that whatever I do at work is linked to the current situation, with the potential of somehow helping in what we are going through.
That is my way of coping and finding meaning in all this: Trying to make some kind of small positive contribution to the humankind.
My book, A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence – came out today to quite a different world than where it was written. Right now, I was supposed to be in New York, starting my book tour that would take me to Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and so forth. Instead, I am at home, all events cancelled, my three kids home from school and daycare, and my workplace, the university, shut down. The next weeks will reveal how big is the death toll and turmoil in my city and yours.
Instead of celebration and sparkling wine, I am asking myself: Is now the appropriate time to publish a book entitled A Wonderful Life?
Last summer, when the name was decided during a warm and sunny weekend – I remember staring at a lake, contemplating the proposal –, it seemed like the perfect title to capture the spirit of the book. Right now, talking about a wonderful life sounds banal. When people’s lives and livelihoods are threatened, it’s a matter of preserving and saving lives, wonderful or not.
This crisis has put things in perspective. The many petty strivings and complains we’ve occupied us were revealed to be trivial. Did your local barista serve your flat white with the wrong label of oat milk? Well, now the whole place has closed down, the baristas lost their income, and the owner is fighting to avoid filing bankruptcy in the next coming weeks.
The life-as-it-used-to-be was taken away from us, making us aware of how many comforts of the everyday life we took for granted: being able to hang out with our friends, visit our grandparents, kids having a school and us having a workplace to go to.
Even more seriously, we’ve become aware of the fragility of life. How everything we have, anybody close to us – and even our own lives – can be taken away from us at any moment. As Paulo Coelho put it: “Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.”
And this is where my book fits in. Behind the uplifting title, it aims to confront our existence bare and naked. It aims to stare at the void of meaninglessness and even death straight in the eyes and boldly state: I am aware of you. I know you. But I refuse to be dragged down by you. I am still alive, the music is still playing for me. Whether or not I have years, weeks, or days more to live, I will make the best out of them. The meaningfulness of my days are decided here and now, by the everyday choices I make. And as long as I am still alive, I aim to make the best out of this unique opportunity called life.
The book thus aims to be a manifesto for how life can be meaningful, even when facing our own mortality. In fact, it aims to show how becoming aware of the fragility of our existence can help us to appreciate even more the unique life that we are given to live. Adversity wakes you up to take charge of your own life. And meaningfulness can exist alongside adversity. When trying to cope with a crisis, having a strong sense of meaningfulness can be your key ally.
How then to approach life to make it more meaningful, especially today?
There is much that is beyond our control in this situation, and occasionally it can feel overwhelming and scary. To remain sane and functional, it is crucial to focus on those areas of life that are within your own control. Instead of ruminating over what you can’t influence, identify what you are still capable of doing to improve your own situation and the situation of those around you. Concentrating on that is enough to make your life meaningful. Washing your hands have never been as meaningful and as valuable act as it is today. By doing that regularly you participate in an activity that literally saves human lives.
My key message in the book is that meaningfulness is not something grand and given to you from above. It is something happening within your life, and typically what makes your life meaningful are very mundane things like spending time with the family or having fun with your friends. While the present situation makes some of these things tricky – instead of beer in a bar, you’ll have to have a beer over a video call with your friends – most of the elements of meaningfulness are still up for grabs even today.
Most importantly, both research and our everyday experience confirm that a key pathway to more meaningfulness is helping others – friends, neighbors, local community, the society. The present crisis offers abundant opportunities to help others. Many vulnerable citizens should avoid all public places and need help in getting food from the grocery store. Shop for them. Many artists, restaurant owners, and other small businesses face bankruptcy as they’ve lost all customers for the coming months. Support them.
Now is not the time for despair. Now is the time for action. Rarely have you had the change to help so many with so little. Just by staying home and avoiding social contact you are doing a tremendous service to the society. Sitting in your sofa has never been more meaningful than today.
Even though the present crisis might involve despair and suffering, it can simultaneously offer you a change to live your life more meaningfully. Through helping others today, by doing your own part in stopping the spreading of the virus, you are not only making the world a better place, you are also making your own life more meaningful.
Read more in the book:
Life is short. As Samuel Beckett wrote in Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” The best remedy is to resolve to make life choices that ensure that while the light still gleams, your remaining days, weeks, and years are worth it.
The above words are from my book, A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence, which comes out this week to a world quite different from the one in which it was written months ago. When writing it, gloomy thoughts about sickness, tragedy, and death seemed remote – something one had to remind oneself about. Memento mori – remember, you will die – has been the slogan of various ascetic and spiritual traditions throughout Western history.
I wrote how death, instead of being the ultimate meaning-nullifier, can actually imbue our lives with meaning. This is because we too easily let our lives happen to us. We dedicate more time in one evening to deliberate what film to watch than we do in a whole year to deliberating what would make our lives more meaningful, as philosopher Iddo Landau has pointedly noted. We do what others want us to do, we react to whatever requires our attention right now. Days, months, years pass by, without us ever stopping to think whether this is actually how I want to live my life. Life slides by while we do what is convenient, easy, and expected of us.
Death awakens us to the briefness and uniqueness of our existence. Given that I only have this one life to live, given that it can be taken from me any moment, why not live life fully. Why not make the best out of the limited time I’ve got? Why not choose to live according to my own terms, instead of letting someone else decide what I ought to do in life?
That’s why there are so many stories of people going through a tragedy – a life-threatening illness or losing a loved one – and emerging on the other side with a new-found clarity about what is truly important in life and what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
Right now, we don’t need to be reminded about the limitedness of our existence. The spreading epidemic has made everyone all too aware of how fragile the ordinary life can be. This is a tragedy on a global level, and the coming months will reveal how serious the consequences are and how will people and societies cope with this unprecedented situation.
While I don’t have anything unique to say about how to stay alive and safe during this crisis – wash your hands, engage in social distancing – I can help to make these days feel more meaningful. The recipe for meaningful existence, namely, is the same, whether you have days, months, or years to live.
Meaningfulness happens during living, not after it. Living takes place in the present, the present moment is all we have – and all we will have. Past is simply a compilation of memories we experience in the present. The future is the projection of hopes and predictions we make in the present. As philosopher Gregory Pappas puts it, “foresight, hindsight, and present observation are all done in the present for the present.” Here he follows America’s most important public intellectual from hundred years ago, philosopher John Dewey, who summarizes his recipe for meaningfulness as follows: “So act as to increase the meaning of present experience.”
Life is composed of temporal moments, some of which are more meaningful than others. And them not lasting forever doesn’t detract from their meaningfulness as already Aristotle pointed out: “Moreover, the good will not be good to a greater degree by being eternal either, if in fact whiteness that lasts a long time will not be whiter than that which lasts only a day.”
No matter what your situation is or how much longer you have to live, what you can do is to make the present moment more meaningful. When your focus is on making this moment and this day more meaningful, instead of longing for some metaphysical truths to drop from the sky, you’ll soon realize that the most meaningful moments typically consist of a few simple ingredients.
One is connection with others. Being together is one of the most meaningful things for us – this is confirmed both by research and our everyday experience. The crisis offers us a chance to evaluate who are the truly meaningful people in our lives. If I have to be isolated from the rest of the human kind, with whom do I want to be isolated? Now is the time to connect with those people – if not physically, then through phone calls, video calls, and other modern means that keep us physically distant but emotionally close.
Second is contributing. When I am making meaningful contribution to the lives of others, this makes my own life feel more meaningful to me. Backed up by several research studies I and other researchers have conducted, we know that a great way to experience meaning is to help others – friends, neighbors, local community, the society. The present crisis offers abundant changes to help others. Many vulnerable citizens should avoid all public places and need help in getting food from the grocery store. Shop for them. Many artists, restaurant owners, and other small businesses face bankruptcy as they’ve lost all customers for the coming months. Support them.
Connecting with others is thus crucial for meaning. But it is as important to connect with yourself. This is done by seeking activities that you find personally interesting, valuable, and fulfilling. What makes you tick? What do you enjoy doing when nobody is judging? Use the quarantine to engage in those activities. Put the music on in the living room and dance like no one’s watching. Similarly, we experience meaning when we master something – when we get to put our unique mix of skills and abilities to full use. Now is the time to learn something you’ve always wanted to master, be it a musical instrument or a certain software. Being able to express oneself is part of a fully lived life, and such self-actualization can make our lives feel truly worth living.
Meaningfulness isn’t something remote or rare. It’s an experience that exists in many of our everyday moments in stronger or weaker form. As workers, as parents, as friends, as neighbors, as ourselves – we have the chance to experience tiny moments of meaning every single day if we just pay heed.
Life may end one day. Every other day it doesn’t. During all those every other days we have opportunities to appreciate beauty and cultivate meaning. Meaningfulness resides in the small wonders of our everyday life. The famous Zen teacher Alan W. Watts compares life to music. He notes that in music one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. In playing a song, the one who plays it fastest doesn’t win. What is meaningful in music is not getting to the end but what happens during the moments when the music is played. Too often we approach life as a kind of project with a serious purpose at the end. We focus so much to getting to that end, be it success or whatever, that we miss the whole point along the way. ”It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”
One day the music will stop. What happens afterward no one knows. But there’s no point in waiting for the silence. If you’re reading this, then the music is still playing for you. So go out and dance – alone or with friends through a video call.
Finland was ranked happiest country in the world for a third year in a row. This can help us understand why Finnish society will be especially robust in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.
World Happiness Report ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world. Right now, when people’s lives and livelihoods are seriously threatened, mere happiness might sound unimportant. But the same root causes that explain Finnish happiness can explain why Finnish society will most likely be exceptionally resilient in the face of the Coronavirus epidemic.
Since the inauguration of the World Happiness Report in 2012, the Nordic countries – Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland – have consistently resided in the top 10, with Finland the happiest three times, Denmark twice, and Norway once. This year is no exception, with the seven happiest countries including all five Nordic countries as well as Switzerland and the Netherlands.
In this years report, you’ll find an article written by me and my Nordic colleagues, professors Bent Greve, Bo Rothstein, and Juho Saari, aiming to explain this ’Nordic exceptionalism’. Through an examination of the scientific literature, we identified three key factors explaining why people in the Nordic countries are so happy with their lives:
First, institutional quality is exceptionally high in the Nordic countries. It consists of two factors: Democratic quality is about access to power involving factors such as free press, free elections, and political stability, while delivery quality is about exercise of power involving rule of law, lack of corruption, and government effectiveness. Only countries to receive full 100 points in Freedom House’s index of political rights and civil liberties are Finland, Norway, and Sweden. And research shows that institutional quality can be as important predictor of national happiness as GDP.
Second, welfare state generosity is about how well the country takes care of its citizens in terms of pensions, unemployment benefits, and income maintenance for ill or disabled. The offering of such benefits has been found to be significantly associated with people’s life satisfaction. And the Nordic countries are famous for their welfare state model, with public health care, free education and relatively generous benefits for those facing various setbacks in life. The Nordics probably don’t have more extremely happy citizens than other countries. Instead, the state taking care of its citizens means that there are less extremely unhappy people in these countries.
Third, sense of trust within a country is robustly correlated with citizen happiness. Both trust in fellow citizens and trust in institutions seem to be important for people’s happiness. Again, Nordic countries are characterized by exceptionally high levels of trust, with 91 percent of Finnish citizens being satisfied with the president, 86 per cent trusting the police, and 79 per cent of citizens being happy to pay their taxes. A recent study examined social cohesion in terms of three factors: how much people experience connectedness to other people, how good are their social relations, and how much they focus on the common good. The study found that each of these three dimensions was associated with higher citizen happiness. And the three Nordic countries included in the analysis – Denmark, Finland, and Sweden – occupied the top three positions of this index.
The secret of Nordic happiness thus seems to be a virtuous circle where peoples’ trust in each other and institutions leads to trustworthy institutions, which further enhances people’s sense of trust. When well-functioning and democratic institutions are able to provide citizens extensive benefits and security, people tend to trust these institutions and each other, which leads them to vote for parties that promise to preserve the welfare model. As economist Jeffrey Sachs noted in a recent conference: The Nordic countries are probably the only countries where a politician can run a campaign promising more taxes and get elected.
How will Finland and the other Nordic countries cope with the raising wave of the coronavirus epidemic? There are several factors affecting the severity of the virus outbreak such as the timing of the various shut-downs and the availability of relevant tests and oxygen ventilators that don’t have anything to do with national happiness. Furthermore, some experts have speculated that cold weather could help the virus spread, making the Nordic countries more vulnerable.
However, beyond these factors, the strength of the society will also play a key role. With this I mean how the citizens will react to the exceptional situation. When times get tough, will people respond with every-man-for-himself mentality, looking out only after themselves, buying more guns, looking for ways to profit from other’s misery, and hoarding whatever resources they can get hold on? Also, will people trust the government and respect the commands and orders coming from authorities as regards how to behave and how to help stop spreading the virus? If trust in government is low, people are more prone to ignore any precautionary measures, and more prone to fall prey to various misinformation and conspiracy theories being spread.
This is where the high societal trust of the Nordic societies kicks in. While all sorts of opinions can naturally be found on social media, the overall reaction in Finland has been one emphasizing trust and unity. When the president or the prime minister have held a public speech, people of all stripes – also those voting for opposing parties – have pledged their loyalty and urged everyone to commit to the actions suggested by the government. Almost overnight, various campaigns and platforms have emerged that aim to provide help to various vulnerable groups and support those whose livelihood has been most affected by the lock-down: New neighborhood food delivery campaigns, online concerts to support artists, gift card campaigns to support barbers, masseurs and small restaurants, and other grassroot measures to help each other are emerging everyday.
The Nordics are high-trust societies. This plays a big part in explaining their happiness. But it makes them also strong and robust in facing a crisis. Some research has actually indicated that high levels of social capital seem to make people’s well-being more resilient to various national crises.
It can’t be predicted how many people will get hospitalized or die in Finland and other Nordic countries. But the high levels of trust and social capital mean that no matter the severity of the crisis, people will have a sense that we are in this together; by being united we will get through this. This makes it easier to engage in coordinated action and more likely that people will help each other during the crisis. This will also mean that after the worst is over, the Nordic countries will emerge from the crisis even more united and committed to the common good than before.
How to design a life? I recently lectured a whole course on this topic in Aalto University, Finland, trying to help twenty-something undergraduate students to find motivation, direction, and meaning to their lives. While preparing the last lecture, I thought what general advice could I give them — or anybody else for that matter. I believe that engaging in life designing is something we all should regularly do no matter our age.
Finally, I distilled my advice into these four key principles:
1) Choose your aspirations and write them down
As active beings we humans are constantly gravitating towards certain goals and destinations. If we don’t choose our direction ourselves, somebody else does it for us. We end up doing things that please others, that look cool in advertisements, and that would make our parents proud. We live somebody else’s dream.
This is not a recipe for authentic and good life.
Yet surprisingly few of us have truly taken the time to think about our values and goals in life. So reserve time for this in your calendar. Do some exercises where you have to write down your interests, goals and values. By writing your values and goals down you make them more tangible. By making a conscious choice about them you ensure that they guide you towards your kind of life.
2) Choose goals that inspire you, and where you also enjoy the process
A good aspiration is autonomously motivating: You are enthusiastic about it and see high value in it. So choose goals you yearn to do with your whole heart.
Remember also that the peaks are few and far between. Most of life is about the journey.
So choose goals where you enjoy the journey itself and where you are willing to accept the sacrifices involved. Who wouldn’t want to be an Olympic gold medalist? But very few are willing to commit to the extremely disciplined training and lifestyle that getting to the podium requires. So in choosing your goal, ask also what pain do you want in your life, and accept the pains as part of your choice.
3) Life design is not house building
First you design a house. When the plan is ready, you build the house. Life is not a house.
Life is dancing along to a constantly changing music. You can make plans. But then life happens. You change. The world around you changes. Suddenly your inspiring goal has become an anchor that drags you down. So don’t choose your values and goals only once. You have to regularly re-choose them. At least once a year it is wise to take a critical look at your life goals and update them to correspond with your current life situation.
4) Life is not a project
Clarifying your values and goals is essential, as they are the only counterforce to drifting and reactive fulfillment of other’s expectations. Yet they are only a tool.
Goodness of your life is independent from you ever achieving your goals. When you are too attached to your goals, life flows past you while your gaze is only fixed at the future.
This is the key paradox of life design: Best attitude to your life goals is simultaneously extremely heavy and extremely light. The goals give you direction and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But often enough you have to push them aside to awaken to the present moment and take in the rich tapestry of happenings, meetings and sensations that life offers us every day, if only we are open to experiencing them.
The original Finnish-language version of this post was published by Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper. Translated and published with permission.
Who invented the question about ’meaning of life’?
Although we think about it as some sort of eternal question asked since the dawn of mankind, actually the first recorded use of the phrase ’meaning of life’ occured only in 1834. Who was responsible for inventing the phrase? And why did the question become so burning in the 19th century that Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and others all made it into one of the central questions of their philosophies?
Also, a survey of 134 countries around the world shows that the richer the country, the more likely its citizens answer negatively to the question “Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?”
Why is this so? Why do people in more wealthy countries find it harder to identify the meaning of their life? And where can we members of modern Western secularized societies find meaning?
Find an answer to all these questions from this TedX HelsinkiUniversity talk I recently gave:
Also, the talk ends with a one-sentence answer to the grand question about meaning of life.
My grandfather was only 19 when the Soviet Union aimed to invade Finland in 1939 and he was sent to the front line to defend the independence of his home country. Of the next four years of his life, most was spent in trenches. What he brought with him from there was not only a strong sense of duty towards serving his home country, but also a deep sense of mutuality and care towards his fellow citizens. Living in the trenches with a mix of people from all sorts of social backgrounds gave him an understanding that we humans are all similar and all deserve to be treated with respect. This was a lesson he remembered well when he later became the CEO of Finland’s largest steel company. He was remembered as a boss who treated the employees fairly and was willing to take care of their well-being way beyond what the legislation would have required.
We need the moral equivalent of war. This was what the American philosopher William James called for in a speech delivered at Stanford University in 1906. War had the power to rally people around a common cause and bring a sense of unity and mutual care. As a pacifist, James aimed to find a way to bring these qualities forth without the necessity of finding an enemy to kill. Instead, his home country went through a period of three severe crises: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. While these brought devastation and millions of deaths, the period afterwards was indeed a period of greater unity: Both economically and politically, United States has never been as committed to mutual welfare than in the decades after the second World War.
Now, we are living through a period of record-breaking economic inequality combined with increasingly polarized political divisions. Nobody wants a war, so the question becomes: How can we develop a sense of unity and a stronger sense of compassion towards our fellow human beings in a time of peace?
John Dewey, the successor of William James as the leading American philosopher in the beginning of the 20th century, already knew the answer: To enact a societal-level change in values or human character, education is the key. School is the place where you can reach a whole generation and shape what they will become.
Unfortunately the agenda of the school is nowadays too often shaped by short-term economic interests. In this narrow-minded agenda, it is often forgot that one of the key tasks of the whole educational system is to grow children into citizens, into adults capable of administrating a democratic state. The democratic crisis that we are currently seeing not only in the US, but in other countries as well, is partially due to this neglect in the curriculum.
In order to build citizens, we need to build their character. This truth was already recognized by Aristotle as well as by the founding fathers of United States. However, since the WWII we have lost touch with this tradition. Being a citizen has reduced to having certain rights, instead of also requiring certain virtues.
Thus, to defend democracy, to build citizens, and to strengthen people’s capacity to experience compassion, three things should be made a mandatory part of curriculum from pre-school to universities (adjusted, of course, to the developmental level of the students):
1) Reading books and engaging with other forms of art
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum sees that there is nothing better than a good book in building our capacity to put ourselves in others’ shoes. She argues that the value of teaching humanities is due to the fact that through great art — a good book, movie, play and so forth — we learn to see the world from the point of view of others. My protected middle-class childhood couldn’t be further away from the challenges that Baltimore inner city youth must go through. But through watching the award-winning TV series The Wire, I can at least get a glimpse into that life. Even as this understanding is always partial, it expands our moral horizons and grows our capacity for compassion. And compassion for fellow citizens is a necessary requirement for a functioning democracy.
2) Designing meeting spaces across demographics
Given that neighborhoods and other social spaces have become increasingly segregated, we have less exposure to people from different social backgrounds than our own. This is one of the key reasons behind the current ‘empathy gap.’ To counter this development, one should build deliberate meetings between various groups into the curriculum. Our trust and compassion towards others is built in everyday encounters. Accordingly, just the chance to meet with others, work on a common project, engage in sports or arts together, will remind one that beyond the surface differences, we are all humans after all. When stereotypes and prejudices have already being cemented, it is hard to push people to open-heartedly meet each other. Thus, the earlier we are able to make people connect, the better.
3) Exercising mindfulness and meditation practices
Based on an increasing amount of scientific knowledge, we nowadays know that practicing mindfulness meditation is associated with various positive outcomes as regards practitioners’ health and well-being. However, it can also serve as a surprisingly powerful way of cultivating compassion. Mindfulness meditation training can increase participants’ prosocial behavior afterwards, even when delivered by a smartphone app. As regards children and youth, there has been a limited number of high-quality randomized controlled trials (considered the ‘gold standard’ in scientific research) on the topic, but the few existing studies are encouraging: Brief forms of mindfulness practice could improve the children’s social skills and school-related functioning. For example, an 12-week mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum in preschool strengthened children’s social competence and social-emotional development while leading to decreased selfish behavior. The benefits of such programs seem to be especially pronounced for youth with academic or behavioral problems — i.e. those people who most need support.
Beyond education, these same three practices are, of course, effective in any other context as well. As adults, as citizens, as employees and employers, we need to strengthen compassion. And exercising mindfulness, encountering people from different social backgrounds as well as encounters with books and arts can help here.
But ultimately, we need even more.
“My religion is compassion.” This is what James Doty, professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and the founder of Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, claims at the end of his autobiographical book. His life experiences had thought him that what he wants to manifest most through his actions is “a world where people not only did not harm to one another but reached out to help one another.” And he is not alone. Charter for compassion was drafted in 2009 and has been signed by over 2 million people, including such well-known names as archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, H.H. Dalai Lama and Mohammad Ali. The charter notes how “compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions” and calls us to “restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion.” Regular religious practice — be it a prayer, a mass or anything else — is a powerful way to remind us about key values and strengthen the influence of the better angels of our nature.
Thus, what is ultimately needed is to make compassion into a religion. People would be better of if they were part of a community that would help them to cultivate their capacity for compassion. Human kind would be better of if most of us would be part of such communities. Building such communities and practices — both within existing religions and outside of them — thus holds the potential to help each of us better realize the inherent potential for compassion that we carry as part of our human nature. Building such future is not only necessary but (morally equivalent to) a battle worth fighting for.
This post was inspired by the speeches I heard and the conversations I had at the Compassion in the Age of Disruption -summit at the University of Edinburgh I attended as one of the speakers on Dec 1st.