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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Deep Connections

I’m a psychologist in Finland, the No. 1 happiest country in the world—here's the real meaning of life

By Frank MartelaJune 9, 2023

Alexey Karamanov | Getty

As a Finnish philosopher and psychology researcher, people often ask me: “What is the meaning of life?” 

But the bigger question isn’t about some cosmic meaning of life. It’s about how to find meaning in life. What makes life feel worthy and valuable to you?

For six years in a row, Finland has ranked No. 1 as the happiest country in the world. And having lived here my entire life, I’ve learned that finding meaning in life boils down to five words: Make yourself meaningful to others

You can do this by opening yourself up to deep connections with both your community and your passions. Here’s how:

1. Live for yourself, not someone else’s expectations.

There tends to be less status anxiety in Finland because people aren’t so concerned about adhering to a rigid, societal definition of success.

It can be hard to live with purpose if you’re going through the motions, burned out, or filled with resentment because you’re on a path that someone else picked for you. Even a meaningful job like being a doctor can feel empty if your heart isn’t in it.

Before you can give to someone else, you have to understand what makes you happy, and start doing more of it.

2. Become an expert and share your knowledge.

One of the best ways to serve others is to find something that meets three requirements:

  1. You’re good at it.
  2. It excites you.
  3. It has a positive impact on others.

Once you’ve found a job or a hobby that makes you feel fulfilled, put all your focus into becoming an expert in it. Then share it with your community.

3. Practice random acts of kindness.

In my courses on well-being, I encourage students to do three random acts of kindness a day. It can be as simple as offering a glass of water to the mailman, spending an afternoon with a grandparent, or helping a tourist find their way. 

It’s incredibly uplifting to hear about the unexpected deep bonds that my students develop with others as a result.

Helping people doesn’t just feel good in the moment; it benefits your long-term health, too. Studies show that people who give emotional support to their family, friends and neighbors are more likely to live longer.

4. Be a good neighbor.

Talkoot is an old Finnish word that translates to “working together to do something that one would not be able to do alone.”

In agricultural times, when someone had a big project at their farm, such as building a barn roof, they’d hold a talkoot. Neighbors would gather voluntarily and put in a day’s work to help, then celebrate with food and drinks.

The tradition carries on to this day. Last summer, my neighborhood spent an afternoon planting trees. That evening, we set up tables and had a jolly evening with snacks and beverages.

This kind of culture extends to why Finnish people often feel positively about civic duties like paying taxes. They see it as essential for the good of the whole.

5. Embrace quiet time together.

People don’t need to make grand gestures to be an important part of your life. Being together in silence is enough to make us feel connected and loved.

For me, going to the sauna with my father or a friend, then silently sitting outside of it and watching nature — the waves of the sea crashing to the shore, the birds singing, the trees humming in the wind — are moments of deep meaning and connection.

As the Finnish saying goes: “Speech is silver, but silence is gold.”

    "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." - John Quincy Adams