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.
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.