At the 50th anniversary of Abraham Maslow passing away, a bold new book provides an updated version of his theory of needs by integrating it with the latest developments in empirical psychology. But what exactly are these new growth-oriented needs of humans?
Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is undoubtedly one of the most iconic psychological images. Reprinted countless of times, the pyramid depicts physiological needs such as breathing, food, and water at the base of the pyramid. The next layer is safety and security, then comes love and belonging, then self-esteem and respect, with self-actualization at the top.
Once you’ve seen it, the idea of a pyramid of needs sticks with you. It is intuitive, it is memorable – and it is wrong. As an image of human needs, Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs is mistaken on two accounts: It’s not Maslow’s pyramid. And the needs don’t form a pyramid.
First, rather surprisingly, Abraham Maslow himself never created a pyramid of needs. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1908, Maslow is still regarded as one of the most influential Twentieth-century psychologists who is indeed especially famous for his theory of human needs. Reacting to the atrocities of the WWII, Maslow wanted to develop a psychology of human potential, the good in each of us, and what humans ultimately need to flourish.
However, the shape of a pyramid is nowhere to be found in Maslow’s writings. It was a bunch of management scholars who in the late 50s and early 60s drew the pyramid as a mnemonic for managers wanting “maximum motivation at lowest cost.” The pyramid, thus, does not have anything to do with Maslow himself but rather the iconic shape spread through management textbooks and business consultants eager to sell the pyramid as a tool to extract motivation from unsuspecting employees.
Second, the scientific community realized already decades ago that while humans certainly might have psychological needs, these needs don’t arrange themselves into a clear hierarchy. Furthermore, the list of needs provided by Maslow has been challenged by newer, more empirically supported theories.
In a bold new book, entitled Transcend – The New Science of Self-Actualization, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman aims to make Maslow relevant again by retaining the healthy core of his theory, while integrating his ideas with the developments of empirical psychology that have taken place in the five decades since Maslow passed away in Menlo Park, Ca., on June 8, 1970, when his eager writing to revise his theory came to an unfortunate halt through a fatal heart attack.
Kaufman argues that the part of Maslow’s theory that has stood the test of time is a distinction between two types of needs. First, there are the deficit needs, which dominate our motivation and trump any higher needs when they are urgently lacking. If I am underwater and start to be out of oxygen, self-realization is not the first thing on my mind. The only need I care about is the necessity of being able to breath again. The more precarious a physical need becomes, the more it preoccupies our mind. Hunger is a powerful motivation. However, as long as my access to water, food, and shelter feels secured, I don’t think about them much. Deficit needs thus become activated mainly when we are lacking them.
Human existence, however, is not mere passive reactance to deficits. As the movie character Solomon Northup memorably states in 12 Years a Slave: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” We humans are not mere survival-machines, but active and growth-oriented, eager to take on challenges through which to manifest our full potential. A human being has a tendency for self-fulfillment, “to become actualized in what he is potentially”, as Maslow put it. In this quest to realize ourselves, we are guided by what Maslow called growth needs. While deficit needs are driven by fears, anxieties, and a push to quench what we are lacking, growth needs pull us towards what we find intriguing and valuable. They are the sources of intrinsic fulfillment we are drawn towards when we don’t have to worry about mere survival.
The pyramid fails to capture this fundamental distinction between deficit and growth needs. In its place Kaufman proposes a sailboat. Life isn’t a project or a competition; it is a journey to travel through “a vast blue ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty.” The hull of the boat is what keeps us afloat, offering security from the waves. It represents the deficit needs essential for survival. Kaufman proposes three such needs: feeling safe, feeling of belonging and not being rejected by others, and protecting our self-esteem. In other words, we need to feel safe both in the physical realm, in the interpersonal realm, and in our relation to ourselves.
But having a protective body is not enough for real movement. Kaufman quotes Seneca: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” What we need to do is to open our sail and dare to embrace life and direct our efforts towards actualizing ourselves. As for the growth-oriented needs, Kaufman again proposes three: exploration, love, and purpose. We explore our environment for the sheer pleasure of it, we want to feel a deep sense of connection and love with others, and we seek goals worth pursuing to energize our activities. The growth needs are thus not depicted as a pyramid to climb; they are ultimately about opening up to life, daring to treat life as a quest. Of course, the stronger the hull, the easier it is to boldly open up the sails.
However, I would dare to go beyond Kaufman’s contribution by offering three other needs to fill in the sail of the boat. In 1970, the same year that Maslow passed away, Edward Deci, a young psychologist inspired by Maslow, got his PhD from Carnegie-Mellon University. He was soon joined by Richard Ryan and guided by a Maslowian vision of humans as inherently self-motivated beings actively following their internal motives, goals, and values, this dynamic duo of professors founded Self-Determination Theory. The research around the theory has exploded especially in the last two decades, with the number of empirical articles on the theory counted in thousands, and it being applied in contexts ranging from education, work psychology, and sports coaching to promotion of health behavior and parenting, to name but a few. This has made self-determination theory one of the most empirically validated theories of motivation and well-being available in psychology.
At the core of the theory is the idea that humans have three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy as a need is not about independence and standing apart from others but about a sense of volition: We humans need to feel that we are the authors of our own lives, endorsing our own actions, rather than being forced to do things. Competence is about the sense of fulfillment we get from learning and getting better at something and the sense of mastery of being at the top of our game and getting things done. Relatedness is about having deep, mutually caring relationships in one’s life. Chronic frustration of these needs has been shown to hurt our motivation, leading to deviance, depression, and other psychological ill-adjustments. The satisfaction of the three needs, however, has been associated in hundreds of studies with becoming more energized and engaged, more intrinsically motivated, and experiencing a higher sense of well-being.
My own encounter with Self-Determination Theory started on a riverboat in Moscow in 2012. Attending a psychology conference, I had just heard a keynote speech by professor Ryan when I saw him in the bar of the riverboat, where the conference dinner was held. I decided to approach him. In hindsight, he treated me surprisingly encouragingly, given that I was a student who had just first time heard about the theory he and hundreds of others had spent decades in developing, and in the naïve hubris of youth I was already proposing a bold revision of the whole theory.
Long story short, half a year later I was, with my family, boarding a plane to Rochester, NY, to move there to join Ryan and Deci’s Motivation Research Group. My own research has especially concentrated around psychological needs and meaning in life, aiming to demonstrate that the three needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are not only important for our sense of well-being but also for our sense of meaning in life. They indeed seem to be the higher needs Maslow was trying to identify that go beyond mere survival and point the way towards what makes this human life of ours truly worth living.
In investigating meaning in life, I am fortunate to live in a time when it has become a legitimate topic for empirical research, with new studies on the nature and sources of meaning proliferating. Here, psychological science is finally aiming to fulfill Maslow’s vision. He was not content with merely listing the psychological needs of humans. In his later years, he was working towards a humanistic revolution in psychology. In one of these drafts, Maslow confides that his ultimate aim is to spell out “the consequences of the discovery that man has a higher nature and that this is part of his essence.“ He wanted to work towards a world where each of us would have the means to transcend the mere strive for survival, and be in better touch with what is higher in us.
Maslow’s message to us, as distilled by Kaufman, is that “each of us is capable of transcendence in this brief, suffering, and yet sometimes miraculous lifetime.“ The better angels of our nature already live within each of us. As Maslow put it, “human beings can be wonderful out of their own human and biological nature.” We just need to ensure that each of us is in a secure place, where our inherent tendency for growth is supported, and our basic needs satisfied. The worse in humans – passivity, selfishness, aggressiveness – is typically a reaction to one’s basic needs having been frustrated for too long.
Maslow wanted to democratize the opportunity to live a growth-oriented life through removing the obstacles for it, like material scarcity, emotional coldness, and institutions crushing our dreams. This is the legacy of Maslow worth fighting for: To build a culture and institutions that support the ability of each of us to grow and become the best versions of ourselves. This is done through ensuring that as many as possible can grow up, live, and work in environments that support the satisfaction of our basic psychological needs.
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As an increasing number of people struggle with a spiritual crisis, the man who invented the question of meaning of life in 1834 can offer a surprisingly solid answer.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the Scottish author celebrating his 225th birthday today on 4th of December, was a towering figure in 19th century literature, praised by everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Stuart Mill to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Charles Dickens dedicated his Hard Times to Carlyle, a portrait of Carlyle hung over Emily Dickinson’s writing desk, and James Hutchison Stirling noted that in the 1840s Carlyle “was every literary young man’s idol, almost the God he prayed to.”
What he usually doesn’t get credit for is that he was the man who coined the phrase “meaning of life” in English language.
In Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, published in 1833-34, the protagonist loses his faith in God, plunging into an existential crisis that Carlyle called the Centre of Indifference, where nothing really mattered. From a stellar point of view, “What is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth; what art thou that sittest whining there? … thou art wholly as a dissevered limb.”
In what Carlyle described as an atheistic century, where the Torch of Science burns so fiercely that “not the smallest cranny or dog-hole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated,” the comforting religious worldview is “parched away, under the Droughts of practical and spiritual Unbelief.” Repeated disappointment gave rise to doubt, “and Doubt gradually settled into Denial!”
In the midst of this crisis, where “to die or to live is alike to me,” we hear for the first time the modern cry for meaningfulness: “yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force.”
Carlyle, like many of us today, felt that he lived in an era during which the voice of God had been silenced, suffocated by the triumph of the scientific worldview. This is the context where the phrase ‘meaning of life’ was first needed. In using the phrase, Carlyle was directly inspired by German Romantics Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel using the German equivalent to the phrase, der Sinn des Lebens, a few decades earlier in their similar revolt against the rational and mechanistic modern worldview.
“Meaning of life” thus emerged to describe something that no longer could be taken for granted. It became the symbol of a riddle at the heart of our existence: If human life is arbitrary and impermanent occurrence leaving no trace on a cosmic scale, then what could make this life worth living?
Carlyle, fortunately, had an answer. His protagonist emerged from The Centre of Indifference with a new foundation for meaning. This is what electrified the young generation in the 19th century. As historian R.L. Brett notes: “It was Carlyle who held out the promise of a vitalistic philosophy which could replace the materialist and mechanistic thought of the preceding century.”
The Ideal is in thyself” Carlyle proclaimed, “the thing thou seekest is already with thee.” Whether or not there is God out there, there is something God-like within us: Our freedom to not succumb to our animal desires but instead be guided by the better angels of our nature. Carlyle’s days of indifference were over when he realized that there is a mandate which “lies mysteriously written, in Promethean, Prophetic Characters, in our hearts; and leaves us no rest, night or day, till it be deciphered and obeyed; till it burn forth, in our conduct, a visible, acted Gospel of Freedom.”
What we find in our heart, according to Carlyle, is a call of duty to work. “Work thou in Welldoing” is our mandate. By engaging in purposeful work, we fulfill our role, and make our existence meaningful.
What you ought to do in life is not found in some abstract ideal but by carefully examining the situation you are currently in: “In this poor, miserable, hampered, despicable Actual, wherein thou even now standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal.”
Carlyle’s recipe for a meaningful existence is thus simple. Assess your current situation: What are your capabilities and resources? What could be better in your life and in the lives of those around you? What could you realistically do to make these good things happen? By this kind of realistic assessment of your current situation, you already know what ought to be done:
“To each is given a certain inward Talent, a certain outward Environment of Fortune; to each, by wisest combination of these two, a certain maximum Capability. But the hardest problem were ever this first: To find by study of yourself, and of the ground you stand on, what your combined inward and outward Capability specially is.”
If you have much capacity, do much. Tackle some grand challenge of our time like malaria, climate change, or poverty. If you have little capacity, do what little you can in your immediate social surroundings. Don’t wait for some commands carved in stone to drop from sky to provide absolute clarity and direction. Instead, start from where you are right now. Examine your current situation, your interests, your capabilities, and the ailments around you that you could realistically address. Then go out and ”Do the Duty which lies nearest thee.” Meaningful existence is that simple. It is a call to action, using what is within you to bring forth a slightly better world. And you’d better start today. For as Carlyle notes:
“’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.”
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“‘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.