The Meaning of Life in 5 Words
A Finnish philosopher shares his take on one of the knottiest questions we can ever ask.
What is the meaning of life?
I know, I know, I know. It’s a ridiculously clichéd question, probably the most protracted question that anyone could ever ask, but it’s still one that a lot of us are going to grapple with at some moment in our lives.
It might be in the aftershock of a close relative’s death, the first few weeks of a child’s birth, or after any particularly hard patch we go through, when we find ourselves in a quiet moment reflecting on what is the point of all this?
It’s a question that I found myself asking a philosopher as I sat across from him in his book-lined office at Aalto University in Helsinki last month. Located twenty minutes from the centre of Finland’s capital, the University is named in honour of acclaimed Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto.
The philosopher opposite me, Frank Martela, is a lecturer and one of the leading experts on the intersection between Finnish culture and happiness. Sitting in his office, surrounded by rows of books and neatly titled folders containing his research, we discussed a lot of thorny topics.
Frank was a thoughtful and creative child. When inquisitive people asked him what we wanted to be when he grew up, six-year old Frank would reply he wanted to be “a researcher of the world.” Several decades later, after a few wrong turns, that’s exactly what he is doing, focusing most of his time trying to understand big topics and questions. “I enjoy thinking about deep questions and what we should do with this thing called life,” he tells me.
When our conversation swings to meaning, Frank asks if he can make a slight tweak to the question. Instead of getting lost in the theological or metaphysical dimensions of debating the meaning of life, he thinks there’s more benefit to talking about the how we can find meaning in life. His answer to how to find meaning in life can be summed up in just five words: “Make yourself meaningful to others.”
“One of the key sources of meaningfulness is other people, as we humans are social animals,” he says. “We tend to derive meaningfulness from our close relationships when we feel that we care about somebody and somebody cares about us.” Frank’s solution to deriving meaning in life is to simply help other people - friends, colleagues, family, partner, strangers, anyone - in some small or large way. “When we're able to do something positive for the world or for other people, we feel that our actions are somehow contributing to some positive change in the world.”
Finding meaning in life is a lifelong effort, and something philosophers like Frank have been thinking about for a long time. One useful tool that has helped me personally to answer some of those broad questions about what they hell it is that we’re meant to be doing with our time is a concept that I explored a little bit in my first book. The Japanese concept of ikigai (pronounced ick-ee-guy) translates roughly as ‘reason for being’, and is a simple framework within which to figure out your reason to face the world every day, and start the process of understanding where you can derive meaning in your life from.
One Useful Thing for September 2023: Ikigai
Your ikigai looks at four areas: what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid for. Your ideal reason for being is when (if!) all four of these quadrants overlap in one central area that ticks all of those boxes.
This is what it looks like in a diagram:
How to use this tool:
To find your own Ikigai, just follow these simple instructions:
Write these headings on three blank pages of paper
Page 1: What I love
Page 2: What I’m good at
Page 3: In common
Fill out the pages
Under the headings, ‘What I love’ and ‘What I’m good at’, write down as many things as you can list. You can repeat things on both pages if they fall into the same categories. To give you some thought starters and inspire some answers use the following prompts as a guide.
What I love:
What would your dream day look like?
When you go on holidays, what do you love doing?
What parts of your work do you really like?
When you meet someone new, what’s a profession that gets you really excited?
When you were a kid, what did you want to do?
What do you love doing on weekends?
What were your favourite subjects at school?
If money were no object, what profession would you choose?
What sets your soul on fire?
What I’m good at:
If I asked your boss to describe you in three words, what would they say?
At your job, what do you get praise for?
What have you done over and over again and got pretty good at?What’s one thing you pride yourself on?
Have you ever received an award for something?
What positive feedback did you get in your last work review?
What was the last thing you did that you were proud of?
Underline your answers
Once you’ve filled the pages with answers, stop and take a good look at the lists you’ve created. Go through each of the items and underline any answers someone could get paid to do. Remember, people pay for lots of varied things so let your mind go wild. If you love getting out in nature and bushwalking, people pay guides to lead expeditions. If you love watching Netflix, people pay writers to review TV shows. Underline everything that could turn into an income for you in some way.
Fill out a third page with common words or phrases
On the page titled ‘In common’, write down any of the words that have been underlined on both of the previous pages. These are the rare traits you both enjoy and excel at.
What does the world need right now?
Go through these common phrases and circle any that you really think the world needs right now. Deciding what the world needs is extremely personal, so this is a real judgement call for you to make here.
If - and it’s a big if - you can circle something that fits into all four of the areas, then you might have just found your ikigai. Most people don’t, and that’s okay. Finding your ikigai is a lifelong journey; it constantly evolves and changes as you age. You should aim to re-do this exercise at least once a year to see how your passions and interests have evolved. What excites you today might bore you tomorrow, so keep checking in with yourself.
There’s been some valid criticism of the simplicity of this as a model, as well as people making funny memes that show how none of their Venn diagrams seem to ever overlap, like this:
But overall, it’s still a very useful exercise to get you thinking, at least in some way, about where you find meaning in your life, and how you can use that to ensure that you’re on the right path. Give it a try.
I’m back in Australia right now, before heading to Fiji later this week to speak at a conference. I’ve just handed the third draft of my next book into my publishers, and I’m so proud of how this one has come together. I’ve spoken to dozens of experts on the future of work as I try to unpack and explore how anyone can learn how to work and live better. It’s ambitious and bold and I can’t wait to share it with you very soon. It’s also my meatiest book so far, almost 50% longer than the first two, as I aim to capture and process this important moment in human history that we’re in. I just know it’s going to be able to help lots of people (that’s part of my meaning in life!).
In other fun news, I’ve started experimenting with posting videos onto my Instagram page where each time I’ll share a new tool or resource in a fun, fast, visual format. It’s usually just me and my whiteboard in my office, and they’re a lot of fun to think of and film. So come join me over on Instagram if you want to follow along.
Yours in usefulness,