How to live a good life?
According to Finnish philosopher Frank Martela, the key to achieving personal happiness is to stop chasing it.
There is one theme central to philosopher Frank Martela’s work, a question he keeps coming back to again and again: How to live a good life. According to the UN 2018 happiness report, which ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world, the Finns are certainly on to something. Based on subjective reporting, all Nordic countries scored well on income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust, and generosity. Martela agrees that all these indicators support both individual and communal wellbeing.
Martela is nevertheless a firm believer that the key to achieving personal happiness is to stop chasing it. It’s all too easy to believe that happiness will follow after we fix certain aspects of our lives – buy a bigger home, get a better-paid job, or enjoy a lavish holiday – but Martela argues that life doesn’t work that way. “Striving to constantly optimise one’s happiness makes a person unable to be satisfied with anything. Chasing one personal goal after another means that we are constantly living in the future and working our way towards happiness, but never quite getting there – which is also called the hedonic treadmill,” he says.
“Happiness happens to you when you’re busy doing meaningful things.”
Martela maintains that it is more fruitful to study what makes life meaningful. He sees this as mainly stemming from two things: finding ways to realise oneself and connecting with others. “A good life consists of more than just wanting to be happy. We want to live well according to our morals and we want to feel that our life is valuable. A balanced combination of self-expression and the ability to support others produces both wellbeing and meaningfulness,” he says.
To apply this theory, Martela theorises that it would be beneficial to loosen the traditional hierarchical system where one person decides, and others obey. Instead, everyone should be given responsibility and autonomy. When everyone is committed to a mutual goal – whether to stop bullying, reach financial targets, or tackle environmental challenges – each individual can be given freedom to decide how to get there. When people feel valued they become more engaged, which improves productivity and leads to more personal fulfilment.
“John Lennon sang that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. I like to say that happiness is what happens to you when you’re busy doing meaningful things,” Martela concludes.
Text and photo Laura Iisalo