Category: Happiness, meaningfulness and good living

What brand of individualism are you wearing? The original noble individualism, the watered down consumer individualism or the new alternative: compassionate individualism?

Modern western societies have been characterized by individualism. It is said that no other time or place has seen such a strong form of cultural individualism than what we are experiencing right now. But what does this individualism mean? And have we actually forsaken the liberating promises that this individualism originally held for us?

Modern individualism started as a battle cry against the constraints of a collectivistic culture where your position and possibilities in life and society were by and large determined by the time you were born. In medieval times you were given a role from the outside and then you were your role: as a farmer, father, woman, citizen and so forth certain behaviors were expected from you. And you didn’t have much saying against this.

As the cities got bigger and new bourgeois class got stronger in the 19th century the possibilities to determine one’s faith in life increased. This development was accompanied by philosophers who preached that man should not take the values of the society for granted but rather oneself craft one’s own values. This noble individualism was preached for example by Ralph Waldo Emerson in America and by Friedrich Nietzsche in Europe. Man has a right to carve his own way of living. And this quest for claiming one’s own life into one’s own hands starts with searching from within the values that one is willing to commit oneself to.

Then something went wrong and this noble individualism was watered down. Some claim that the horrors of First World War are to blame. Too many stubborn gentlemen followed their ’duty’ to senseless deaths. Others see that nazi propaganda stole the concept and transformed personal moral strength into mass obedience to a sociopath. As Roy Baumeister puts it: ”When it comes to bad PR, there’s nothing quite like a personal endorsement from Adolf Hitler.” Still others claim that the new consumer society and advertising industry with the slogan ’you are what you buy’ transformed inner moral convictions into outer displays of identity.

In any case, what we seem to have now is quite far removed from the noble origins of individualism. The right to define yourself through finding your own values has been transformed into a right to define yourself through wearing certain brands. I have desires and I have a right to fulfill them all. That’s what modern consumer individualism is about. This attitude was displayed most naked in recent riots in London. Instead of demanding some political changes the disillusioned protesters just broke into luxury shops to steal the products they couldn’t afford in normal life. As criminologist and youth culture expert Professor John Pitts commented on Guardian:

”Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy … A generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising had been unleashed.”

So how to fight this watered down version of individualism where the cultural norm seems to be that everyone should maximize their hedonistic pleasures in life? I don’t believe that the noble individualism is an answer. First of all, writers proposing that everyone should create their own values vastly overestimated the capacity of us human beings – including themselves – to transform our basic values just like that. On the other hand, too much nobleness easily leads one to overlook those fellow citizens that are not so noble. A self-proclaimed Übermensch can have a hard time tolerating that he or she has to spend time with us normal human beings.

What I propose instead is what could be called compassionate individualism. This brand of individualism puts less emphasis on what one looks like and more on what one really feels like. We all have the capacity to be compassionate and care for others. It is just often hidden beneath the cultural propaganda that shouts at us that we should only care about our own happiness. Compassionate individualism is about being able to ignore these messages and listen instead to oneself and what one’s own heart has to say. And this listening leads most of us to find more capacity for compassion than what we were mislead to believe by our dominating culture.

This explains the paradox revealed by research done in US that found that ”people who were the most individualistic were also the most likely to value doing things to help others.” People who were most individualistic were least influenced by the cultural propaganda and most able to follow their own way of living. As they followed their own path, they found that within them there was a heart that cared about others. And this lead them to live a life in which they put more emphasis into helping others than the weaker individuals around them.

Consumer individualism is reactive individualism. It is a feeble attempt to be individual by consuming the products that marketers say will make us individuals. Compassionate individualism is active individualism. In it the person truly listens to oneself to find from within the values one wants to follow in one’s life. The question is, what path do you want to follow?Modern western societies have been characterized by individualism. It is said that no other time or place has seen such a strong form of cultural individualism than what we are experiencing right now. But what does this individualism mean? And have we actually forsaken the liberating promises that this individualism originally held for us?

Modern individualism started as a battle cry against the constraints of a collectivistic culture where your position and possibilities in life and society were by and large determined by the time you were born. In medieval times you were given a role from the outside and then you were your role: as a farmer, father, woman, citizen and so forth certain behaviors were expected from you. And you didn’t have much saying against this.

As the cities got bigger and new bourgeois class got stronger in the 19th century the possibilities to determine one’s faith in life increased. This development was accompanied by philosophers who preached that man should not take the values of the society for granted but rather oneself craft one’s own values. This noble individualism was preached for example by Ralph Waldo Emerson in America and by Friedrich Nietzsche in Europe. Man has a right to carve his own way of living. And this quest for claiming one’s own life into one’s own hands starts with searching from within the values that one is willing to commit oneself to.

Then something went wrong and this noble individualism was watered down. Some claim that the horrors of First World War are to blame. Too many stubborn gentlemen followed their ’duty’ to senseless deaths. Others see that nazi propaganda stole the concept and transformed personal moral strength into mass obedience to a sociopath. As Roy Baumeister puts it: ”When it comes to bad PR, there’s nothing quite like a personal endorsement from Adolf Hitler.” Still others claim that the new consumer society and advertising industry with the slogan ’you are what you buy’ transformed inner moral convictions into outer displays of identity.

In any case, what we seem to have now is quite far removed from the noble origins of individualism. The right to define yourself through finding your own values has been transformed into a right to define yourself through wearing certain brands. I have desires and I have a right to fulfill them all. That’s what modern consumer individualism is about. This attitude was displayed most naked in recent riots in London. Instead of demanding some political changes the disillusioned protesters just broke into luxury shops to steal the products they couldn’t afford in normal life. As criminologist and youth culture expert Professor John Pitts commented on Guardian:

”Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy … A generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising had been unleashed.”

So how to fight this watered down version of individualism where the cultural norm seems to be that everyone should maximize their hedonistic pleasures in life? I don’t believe that the noble individualism is an answer. First of all, writers proposing that everyone should create their own values vastly overestimated the capacity of us human beings – including themselves – to transform our basic values just like that. On the other hand, too much nobleness easily leads one to overlook those fellow citizens that are not so noble. A self-proclaimed Übermensch can have a hard time tolerating that he or she has to spend time with us normal human beings.

What I propose instead is what could be called compassionate individualism. This brand of individualism puts less emphasis on what one looks like and more on what one really feels like. We all have the capacity to be compassionate and care for others. It is just often hidden beneath the cultural propaganda that shouts at us that we should only care about our own happiness. Compassionate individualism is about being able to ignore these messages and listen instead to oneself and what one’s own heart has to say. And this listening leads most of us to find more capacity for compassion than what we were mislead to believe by our dominating culture.

This explains the paradox revealed by research done in US that found that ”people who were the most individualistic were also the most likely to value doing things to help others.” People who were most individualistic were least influenced by the cultural propaganda and most able to follow their own way of living. As they followed their own path, they found that within them there was a heart that cared about others. And this lead them to live a life in which they put more emphasis into helping others than the weaker individuals around them.

Consumer individualism is reactive individualism. It is a feeble attempt to be individual by consuming the products that marketers say will make us individuals. Compassionate individualism is active individualism. In it the person truly listens to oneself to find from within the values one wants to follow in one’s life. The question is, what path do you want to follow?

Birth of a child – or when you expand from an individual into a duovidual

I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I was fully absorbed in one of the greatest miracles of my own personal life: The birth of my first child! To keep up with the philosophical intentions of this blog I will resist the temptation to proclaim to everyone how wonderful event this was, how the child is the cutest ever and how great it is to be a father! Instead I will use this opportunity to reflect the deep-going changes in identity and worldview that this event gives rise to.

In west we have an atomized view of the individual: I am separated from all the others. I ought to be faithful to what is inside of me, to my unique personality. In the end of the day it is my own responsibility to make myself happy, to look for my own interests and make sure I am living the life I want to live. Accordingly, I should be primarily interested in the maximization of my own personal happiness only.

"The so-called Western view of the individual" is about "an independent, self-contained, autonomous entity" - Markus & Kitayama

Having a child challenges all this. The little fellow is not just another person who I can use to increase my own happiness. In terms of identity and motivation he is quite much inseparable from myself. My interests and the baby’s interests is the same; what is good for him is what is good for me; what I want is that the baby feels good. My happiness is embedded in him, his fortunes and misfortunes influence my mood at least as strongly as my own fortunes and misfortunes.

So we can say that I have deeply transformed through becoming a father. Or more accurately, what is ’I’ has expanded. The individual I was before no longer exists: I have become a duovidual. The newborn has become part of my identity, part of what I see as myself.

There is nothing mystical or unusual in this. When the sense of belongingness in some social relationship becomes deep enough it makes better sense to think of the relationship as the functional unit of what it means to be myself. In fact, a historical look reveals that most of our history we human beings have been so deeply embedded in our social relationships that it has made better sense to talk about ”an interdependent view of the self” instead of the modern ”independent view of the self.” In fact, the word individual as referring to a person didn’t exist before the 18th century.

We humans are social animals, deeply embedded in and defined by our close social relationships. Nothing brings this fact more at home for a western individual than having a child. A child is born, the individual is dead: Long live the duovidual!

I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I was fully absorbed in one of the greatest miracles of my own personal life: The birth of my first child! To keep up with the philosophical intentions of this blog I will resist the temptation to proclaim to everyone how wonderful event this was, how the child is the cutest ever and how great it is to be a father! Instead I will use this opportunity to reflect the deep-going changes in identity and worldview that this event gives rise to.

In west we have an atomized view of the individual: I am separated from all the others. I ought to be faithful to what is inside of me, to my unique personality. In the end of the day it is my own responsibility to make myself happy, to look for my own interests and make sure I am living the life I want to live. Accordingly, I should be primarily interested in the maximization of my own personal happiness only.

"The so-called Western view of the individual" is about "an independent, self-contained, autonomous entity" - Markus & Kitayama

Having a child challenges all this. The little fellow is not just another person who I can use to increase my own happiness. In terms of identity and motivation he is quite much inseparable from myself. My interests and the baby’s interests is the same; what is good for him is what is good for me; what I want is that the baby feels good. My happiness is embedded in him, his fortunes and misfortunes influence my mood at least as strongly as my own fortunes and misfortunes.

So we can say that I have deeply transformed through becoming a father. Or more accurately, what is ’I’ has expanded. The individual I was before no longer exists: I have become a duovidual. The newborn has become part of my identity, part of what I see as myself.

There is nothing mystical or unusual in this. When the sense of belongingness in some social relationship becomes deep enough it makes better sense to think of the relationship as the functional unit of what it means to be myself. In fact, a historical look reveals that most of our history we human beings have been so deeply embedded in our social relationships that it has made better sense to talk about ”an interdependent view of the self” instead of the modern ”independent view of the self.” In fact, the word individual as referring to a person didn’t exist before the 18th century.

We humans are social animals, deeply embedded in and defined by our close social relationships. Nothing brings this fact more at home for a western individual than having a child. A child is born, the individual is dead: Long live the duovidual!

What are the ways that a life can be good? There are three of them

What makes a life good? The question is quite broad, we can admit that. One might answer by listing nice things; a cappuccino at a pleasant café on a Sunday afternoon, a gathering of good friends at the summer cottage and so forth. But there is also a deeper question: What do we mean by good life anyway? Or rather, what are the ways that a life can be good?

This question has haunted me but only when I read Dan Haybron’s book The Pursuit of Unhappiness did I find an answer that would appeal to me. He suggested that there would be essentially three different ways that a life could be good and these dimensions are well-being, morality and aesthetics. Let’s look what is meant by them.

Firstly life can be good simply by feeling good from my point of view. So we could say that a good life is a life that is good for me. A good life is a life that we have a positive feeling about. Some might call this happiness but I feel that it is a too narrow concept. Well-being covers better the broad array of ways through which a life can feel good for a person. In any case, one’s own well-being is a quite straight-forward way through which one’s life can be good.

But we can also say that someone’s life is good from the moral point of view. A certain life can be good disregarding one’s own feelings about it if one has been able to make a positive contribution to the world through one’s actions. Someone might sacrifice his or her own happiness for the sake of others and thus decrease the goodness of that life from the well-being perspective. At the same time, however, that life has reached a certain nobleness as regards morality.

Thirdly, the life of a person can be aesthetically pleasing. We can read a tragic story of someone who suffered immensely within his or her life, did the wrong choices and caused misery to those around him or her. This life might not be good from the well-being perspective nor from the moral perspective. Yet there might still be some aesthetic value in the life; it might demonstrate a certain tragic beauty.

It is easy to see that these three ways to look at good life are independent from each other. The same life can be good within one perspective but lacking in others. We can demonstrate this by looking at four persons, let’s call them Arthur, Bertha, Cecilia and David.

Arthur is an arrogant guy who knows how to make the life pleasant for himself but at the same time doesn’t care at all about the well-being of others. For him others are just instruments to be used for his own pleasures. His life might (although even this can be doubted) be good from the first perspective but bad from the second and indifferent from the third.

Bertha, in turn, has given up everything to fulfill a duty of helping the poor in some remote corner of earth. For her this duty is a heavy burden and she is not really happy out there. In addition, her life might be so repetitious that it doesn’t make an aesthetically pleasing story either. But from the moral point of view we could say that she lived an exemplary life.

Cecilia is then this tragic girl who was born into poverty, was ill most of her life, stole things to come by and even murdered someone under obscure conditions before killing herself after the love of her life abandoned her. Happiness and morality were absent from her life. Yet there might still be some tremendous beauty present in her melancholic life story.

David then is mister Right. He always does the right thing; he has cool hobbies, engaging work, perfect wife and three kids to be proud of. In addition, he is friendly towards everybody, does voluntary work in some NGO and helps the poorer kids of the neighborhood to get a good education. His well-being is excellent and his morality intact. But nobody wants to make a movie out of his life because there is not a single flaw in it that would make it interesting. Aesthetically, his life is boring.

The question about good life is the most fundamental question that a human being can ask. When you ask it the next time remember that there are three different ways to answer it. What dimension is your strength and what is your weakness?

Is there a dimension that is missing from here? How do these three dimensions resonate with your life? Share your comment!What makes a life good? The question is quite broad, we can admit that. One might answer by listing nice things; a cappuccino at a pleasant café on a Sunday afternoon, a gathering of good friends at the summer cottage and so forth. But there is also a deeper question: What do we mean by good life anyway? Or rather, what are the ways that a life can be good?

This question has haunted me but only when I read Dan Haybron’s book The Pursuit of Unhappiness did I find an answer that would appeal to me. He suggested that there would be essentially three different ways that a life could be good and these dimensions are well-being, morality and aesthetics. Let’s look what is meant by them.

Firstly life can be good simply by feeling good from my point of view. So we could say that a good life is a life that is good for me. A good life is a life that we have a positive feeling about. Some might call this happiness but I feel that it is a too narrow concept. Well-being covers better the broad array of ways through which a life can feel good for a person. In any case, one’s own well-being is a quite straight-forward way through which one’s life can be good.

But we can also say that someone’s life is good from the moral point of view. A certain life can be good disregarding one’s own feelings about it if one has been able to make a positive contribution to the world through one’s actions. Someone might sacrifice his or her own happiness for the sake of others and thus decrease the goodness of that life from the well-being perspective. At the same time, however, that life has reached a certain nobleness as regards morality.

Thirdly, the life of a person can be aesthetically pleasing. We can read a tragic story of someone who suffered immensely within his or her life, did the wrong choices and caused misery to those around him or her. This life might not be good from the well-being perspective nor from the moral perspective. Yet there might still be some aesthetic value in the life; it might demonstrate a certain tragic beauty.

It is easy to see that these three ways to look at good life are independent from each other. The same life can be good within one perspective but lacking in others. We can demonstrate this by looking at four persons, let’s call them Arthur, Bertha, Cecilia and David.

Arthur is an arrogant guy who knows how to make the life pleasant for himself but at the same time doesn’t care at all about the well-being of others. For him others are just instruments to be used for his own pleasures. His life might (although even this can be doubted) be good from the first perspective but bad from the second and indifferent from the third.

Bertha, in turn, has given up everything to fulfill a duty of helping the poor in some remote corner of earth. For her this duty is a heavy burden and she is not really happy out there. In addition, her life might be so repetitious that it doesn’t make an aesthetically pleasing story either. But from the moral point of view we could say that she lived an exemplary life.

Cecilia is then this tragic girl who was born into poverty, was ill most of her life, stole things to come by and even murdered someone under obscure conditions before killing herself after the love of her life abandoned her. Happiness and morality were absent from her life. Yet there might still be some tremendous beauty present in her melancholic life story.

David then is mister Right. He always does the right thing; he has cool hobbies, engaging work, perfect wife and three kids to be proud of. In addition, he is friendly towards everybody, does voluntary work in some NGO and helps the poorer kids of the neighborhood to get a good education. His well-being is excellent and his morality intact. But nobody wants to make a movie out of his life because there is not a single flaw in it that would make it interesting. Aesthetically, his life is boring.

The question about good life is the most fundamental question that a human being can ask. When you ask it the next time remember that there are three different ways to answer it. What dimension is your strength and what is your weakness?

Is there a dimension that is missing from here? How do these three dimensions resonate with your life? Share your comment!

4 reasons why you should believe that dreams come true – and 3 reasons why you should not

I wrote a sentence in my last post that started to haunt me. The sentence was: ’Most of the dreams we are really committed to work for are actually achievable.’ Do I really believe it to be true? Isn’t that something that all those cheap happy-happy-self-help-gurus proclaim with their false smiles? On the other hand, there is a grain of truth in it. In the end, it is good to believe in it – but only under certain conditions.

First reason to believe in the power of your dreams is that the clearer goals you have the more possibilities you see. When you have a clear idea of what you want then you are able to see how your actions in different contexts can advance that dream. An optimist who believes that the dream can come true is much more prone to achieve that dream. This is mainly because he or she is always on the lookout for opportunities to take steps towards its fulfillment.

Similarly, when you believe in your dream you have more energy and courage to work towards it. When you see a weak possibility you jump at it and see where it takes you. The one who tries knows whether something leads to success or not. The pessimist will not even try – and thus never will find out whether there would have been a path of possibilities available. This is the logic behind the saying of Henry Ford according to which: ”Whether you believe you can or believe you cannot, you are probably right.” There might be a possibility or there might not be. As a pessimist you will never find out.

Thirdly, the world tends to help those who believe in their dreams. When you get enthusiastic about your dream then you most probably share it with those around you. And they might be able to give you invaluable advice, resources or contacts thus greatly increasing your change of success. Additionally, engagement is highly contagious and the kind of disease that people really want to get infected with. So when you are really engaged in a project it usually is easy to find other people who want to go with you in the same direction. Transforming your dream into a clear and communicable form activates not only the resources of yourself but also those around you.

Finally, the bigger and clearer the dream is for you, the more you are willing to sacrifice for it. Our time and other resources are limited and if you want to achieve something extraordinary you usually need to focus quite a large portion of them towards this one thing. Having a clear goal makes clear that you don’t get sidetracked but really work towards that dream of yours.

There are thus a number of good reasons to believe that all dreams are achievable. The more you believe in it, the bigger chance you have to actually achieve your dream. But there is – as always – another side of the story.

Life doesn’t always go according to the plans. It isn’t a coincidence that happening and happiness have the same first four letters – it reflects the ancient idea that happiness is what happens to us rather than something we can control. A surprisingly big part of our success or failure is due to external factors. In Silicon Valley they have recognized this. Therefore someone who has few bankruptcies behind him- or herself is not seen as a failure but as an experienced entrepreneur.

Believing that everyone can always achieve their dreams if they just try hard enough is totally untenable believe in the real world where a hurricane or a global economic crisis can undo everything you have worked for in a single sweep of fate. More specifically, this attitude leads to three detrimental consequences:

Firstly, you are too harsh on yourself. When you don’t achieve something you blame yourself. You see that it was your own fault that you failed. You become depressed thinking that you are a-good-for-nothing. You loose your ability to try again because you are sure that it will only reconfirm the fact that you are not able to make it. You doom yourself into cynical and embittered passivity in the face of life.

Secondly, you are too harsh on others. If you see people who are worse off than yourself you believe that it is their own fault. This attitude of superiority is one of the plagues of our modern times. There are far too many arrogant hotshots who don’t know anything about life but who are sure that their success is totally their own merit and that they deserve every kind of privilege that puts them above the others who have only themselves to blame. A person’s success or failure in life is quite much dependent on the economic, social and educational capital they have at their disposal. When you read those from-rags-to-riches stories you realize that almost always there was somebody who helped the protagonist on the way and provided the necessary means to make the journey to a new world. How many potential achievers are out there that didn’t have that necessary mentor at the right moment? And the statistics show that at least in America those stories are becoming more and more rare. American dream seems to be most achievable in countries where free education and other welfare policies make it possible for those starting at the bottom to reach their full potential.

Thirdly, by concentrating too blindly on your target you miss everything else that is worthwhile in life. It is always heartbreaking to read those stories about highly successful men who realize in their 60s how they missed out on the whole family thing and how they then try to compensate by spoiling their grandchildren. Be careful about what you dream because by choosing what you dream about you also choose away those things that are not part of your dream.

So what to do? In some situations, the believe in dreams coming true seems to be very fruitful. In others it leads to a dismal worldview. Which to choose?

Luckily we don’t have to choose and blindly follow only one of the beliefs. Instead we can be flexible and look at the world through the one that better suits any particular situation. As long as things work out as they should you can follow the success framework – it gives you energy to reach even further. But when life hits you with a hard hand straight in your face you should have the agility to change framework and not blame yourself or others but accept the situation that lady Fortuna has prepared for you. And then go on to find a dream more suitable for your new situation.

How is your bucket list doing? Want to know what are the 20 items I want to do before I die?

What are the most awesome things that you definitely want to do before you finally ’hit the bucket’? Answering this question right now can be a revealing or even life-changing experience. I’ll tell you why and then you’ll have an exclusive look at the 20 items that ended up on my own personal bucket list.

Why bucket list is so powerful? The answer is simple: Because most of the dreams we are really committed to work for are actually achievable. And getting clear of your dreams is the first step in this process. Additionally, even if you already have a certain dream you’ll be amazed by the power that the simple act of putting it on a paper has for committing to it and realizing it. So even if it sounds a bit cliché and silly, do it!

For me the wake-up call to do the list came in early morning hours of a bus trip between El Salvador and Nicaragua. I woke up to see Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman chat with each other in Spanish on the bus TV. Even though the movie was dubbed into Spanish the subtitles were in English (twisted, isn’t it) and captured by the charm of these two older gentlemen I watched the movie to the end. The movie was Bucket List and it is about two men from different backgrounds who are united by the approaching death and decide to join forces and do the things they always wanted to do. The plot is somewhat predictable but was still able to raise important issues about how one should live one’s life – and also move me to tears at few points.

The most obvious question raised by the movie is of course: Have you done your bucket list yet? If not, then do it! Not tomorrow, but right now!

To practice what I preach I did the exercise myself.

The first thing I realized when I started to answer the question was that I intuitively try to put my life in some kind of categories through which to think about the question. Two dimensions immediately came to my mind: the professional dimension of creating and achieving something. And the personal dimension of those people that stand close to me. After that I realized that I want to give something to the world also beyond my immediate social relations. And finally I thought that perhaps I should also ask what personal joys would I want to experience before I die. Beyond these four dimensions I really couldn’t think of anything that would be worthwhile to include on a bucket list.

So here are my dimensions for the bucket list (please comment if you feel that something important is missing):
1. Professional life: What targets I commit myself to aim to achieve during my limited lifetime?
2. Personal life: What beauty I want to experience in my relations to those near to me?
3. Giving: What do I want to give to the world before I die?
4. Experiencing: What memorable moments do I want to encounter before hitting the bucket?

So what items ended up on my bucket list?

In professional life my mission is to explore the eternal question about how to live a good life. I want to deliver some fragments of wisdom that could enhance people’s actual capacity to live a good life. But with the bucket list I had to get more concrete than that. And the first concrete target that came to my mind is to write and publish at least three different books: one in professional academic philosophy (preferably published by Oxford University Press, if I am allowed to dream big), one book about good life targeted at a more general audience and one fictional novel. In my trade, the books are the milestones of the progress of our thinking. Hence, items 1, 2 & 3.

1. Write a book in academic philosophy.
2. Write a book about good life for a more general audience.
3. Write a fictional novel.

Secondly, good philosophy is rarely done in isolation and one of the most exciting experiences in my short career have been the thrilling conversations I have had the honor to have with many wise people. This is a dimension I want to have more of and to put it into concrete targets I came up with items 4 and 5.

4. Have at least five professor-level contacts whom I can call day or night if an exciting idea hits me.
5. Give a lecture in one of the top universities in the world.

Thirdly, during my short initiation into philosophy and the scientific community I have encountered many great mentors that have unselfishly given so much guidance and invaluable advices to me that I am forever thankful for them. This is a debt I want to pay back for those that come after me. This is items 6 & 7.

6. Be amongst the persons that a future philosopher thanks in the acknowledgment section of her or his breakthrough book as one of the most important advisors in making his or her work possible.
7. Get some form of award for good teaching abilities.

Personal life proved to be a tricky section in terms of clear targets. One of my strongest personal dreams is to have children and be a loving father to them. But how to remake that into a clear bucket list item? Or how can one reduce love story or friendship into certain measurable bucket list items? Finally I came up with four items, 8, 9, 10 & 11.

8. Be able to support each one of my children in achieving what they dream about, whatever that might be.
9. Have a person to whom I can honestly tell that I love her until death do us apart.
10. Be the first person that a friend calls to when a major turning point of life hits him or her.
11. Organize at least every other year a huge party where around 100 good people I know gather together for a long night of joy and companionship.

Giving. Life has been fortunate for me. I have won the lottery of life by being born into a loving family in a peaceful and democratic country with strong social security system and good educational opportunities. Not all people are so lucky and therefore I feel that it is my responsibility to enhance their possibilities to live out a good life. I know that I could give quite much of my possessions away without it affecting significantly my happiness level. At the same time the amount I am giving away could change the life of a big number of people, save them from a disease, give them education and so forth. Let’s start, however, with a quite moderate monetary goal (item 12).

12. Give constantly at least 10% of all my income to good causes.

But I would like to get more personal than that. Martti Ahtisaari received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts for world peace in, for example, Namibia, Kosovo and Aceh. Yet even more impressive demonstration of his good work is the fact that in Namibia there are now lots of boys carrying his first name, Martti. Naming one’s child after someone is perhaps the greatest gesture of honour one can give. I don’t believe that my contribution will ever be as grand as Ahtisaari’s. But the true test of one’s devotion to helping others is not in numbers. It would be mind-blowing if some people felt that my contribution to their life had been so great that they want to honor that by giving my name to their son – or why not a daughter. Of all the items here I believe that this (number 13) is the hardest to achieve but in the bucket list you are allowed to put also your more ’impossible’ dreams.

13. Have a baby named after me.

Experiencing. Finally, why not have some fun in life while it lasts? These things need not much explanation. I’ve wanted to try paragliding for many years but haven’t got into it yet. Meditation sounds very interesting but despite a few tries I haven’t had the patience to really make it into a daily habit. I enjoy traveling and love the sea. And some sporting challenges are always rewarding to achieve. You’ll find these items (14-21) below.

So here is my bucket list as of now, written just around the time I turned 30:

Professional life:
1. Write a book in academic philosophy.
2. Write a book about good life for a more general audience.
3. Write a fictional novel.
4. Have at least five professor-level contacts whom I can call day or night if an exciting idea hits me.
5. Give a lecture in one of the top universities in the world
6. Be amongst the persons that a future philosopher thanks in the acknowledgment section of her or his breakthrough book as one of the most important advisors in making his or her work possible.
7. Get some form of award for good teaching abilities.

Personal life:
8. Be able to support each one of my children in achieving what they dream about, whatever that might be.
9. Have a person to whom I can honestly tell that I love her until death do us apart.
10. Be the first person that a friend calls to when a major turning point of life hits him or her.
11. Organize at least every other year a huge party where around 100 good people I know gather together for a long night of joy and companionship

Giving:
12. Give constantly at least 10% of all my income to good causes.
13. Have a baby named after me.

Experiencing:
14. Paragliding.
15. Cross an ocean with a sailing boat.
16. Be able to uphold a state of meditation for an hour.
17. Live at least a half a year in three different countries.
18. Run the marathon.
19. Conquer a few cool mountains.
20. Complete a Worldloppet cross-country race in ten different countries.
21. Participate in the Jukola orienteering competition.

If reading my list didn’t move you to make your own list, watch the movie for additional inspiration. Even if for just to see how the dying character played by Jack Nicholson is finally able to complete the list item ’Kiss the most beautiful girl in the world’. For me, seeing that scene was one of the moments when tears filled my eyes. The answer was so simple yet so surprising.

P.S. I would really love to hear your story. What items would you include in your bucket list? What kind of experience was doing the bucket list for you?

Jumping on a grenade: To become a hero you have to think beyond self-interest

19th December 1941 Sergeant-Major John Robert Osborn showcased the ultimate limits of human heroism As his group became divided from the main battalion in the hills of Hong Kong and had to withdraw against an overwhelming enemy he stayed behind to single-handedly engage the enemy while others ran to safety. After joining the others they soon found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Several enemy grenades were thrown towards them but the soldiers picked them up and threw back. Suddenly, a grenade landed in a position where it was impossible to return it in time. To protect his troops, Osborn shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade. He was killed instantly.

There are many lessons to be learned from this dramatic real-life story. One of them is about human motivation. All too often we hear people saying that people are motivated solely by their own happiness. That human beings are self-interested creatures whose every single act contributes towards their own well-being. It would be quite absurd – and dishonoring – to say that John Robert Osborn was motivated by self-interestedness when jumping on the grenade. Instead we should see that he was moved by something that he considered to be so worthwhile that he was willing to sacrifice his life for it.

Many people love to debate about whether human beings are essentially egoistic or altruistic creatures. In my opinion the whole distinction is founded on a mistake. The mistake is to think that altruistic behavior must be something which is against your personal motives. Instead we human beings can be motivated by many different things, some more related to our own well-being while others are more about the well-being of others. Osborn’s case was not an isolated incident. There are several recorded incidents of similar deeds of saving your comrades by sacrificing yourself. Less dramatic acts of self-sacrifice are a significant part of everyone’s life.

So instead of this imaginary polarization between two opposing positions the real question is this: To what extent a certain person is motivated by his own well-being and to what extent by some wider concerns? Some people lean more towards egoistic end of the continuum while others are more able to take others into account. Test here where you are located.

How egoistic or altruistic we are is largely determined by our cultural upbringing. Some cultures put more emphasis on self-interest while others learn children to value more the perspective of the others. In this regard there haven’t been many cultures during the course of human history that would have emphasized more egoism and self-regard than the current western culture. The catch is here: The way we see ourselves and others is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more the politicians, economists, media and we all as individuals talk about human beings as rational and strictly self-interested, the more we become such cold and calculating creatures. And the more we have to suppress our natural tendency for empathy and regard for others. No wonder economy students demonstrate the least other-regarding behavior in tests.

Yet despite this cultural propaganda to behave egoistically all of us transcend the limitations of such a selfish lifestyle and demonstrate remarkable deeds of acting in the name of the well-being of those around us. When the situation calls for it there are greater capacities for other-regarding behavior in us than most of us would ever imagine. John Robert Osborn’s act is a testimony for this.

By emphasizing such acts and the general human capacity for empathy we can strengthen the other-regarding tendencies in our society and in our own lives. Therefore the most essential question as regards egoism and altruism is this: In what direction do you want to develop yourself and those around you?

Statue of John Robert Osborn19th December 1941 Sergeant-Major John Robert Osborn showcased the ultimate limits of human heroism As his group became divided from the main battalion in the hills of Hong Kong and had to withdraw against an overwhelming enemy he stayed behind to single-handedly engage the enemy while others ran to safety. After joining the others they soon found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Several enemy grenades were thrown towards them but the soldiers picked them up and threw back. Suddenly, a grenade landed in a position where it was impossible to return it in time. To protect his troops, Osborn shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade. He was killed instantly.

There are many lessons to be learned from this dramatic real-life story. One of them is about human motivation. All too often we hear people saying that people are motivated solely by their own happiness. That human beings are self-interested creatures whose every single act contributes towards their own well-being. It would be quite absurd – and dishonoring – to say that John Robert Osborn was motivated by self-interestedness when jumping on the grenade. Instead we should see that he was moved by something that he considered to be so worthwhile that he was willing to sacrifice his life for it.

Many people love to debate about whether human beings are essentially egoistic or altruistic creatures. In my opinion the whole distinction is founded on a mistake. The mistake is to think that altruistic behavior must be something which is against your personal motives. Instead we human beings can be motivated by many different things, some more related to our own well-being while others are more about the well-being of others. Osborn’s case was not an isolated incident. There are several recorded incidents of similar deeds of saving your comrades by sacrificing yourself. Less dramatic acts of self-sacrifice are a significant part of everyone’s life.

So instead of this imaginary polarization between two opposing positions the real question is this: To what extent a certain person is motivated by his own well-being and to what extent by some wider concerns? Some people lean more towards egoistic end of the continuum while others are more able to take others into account. Test here where you are located.

How egoistic or altruistic we are is largely determined by our cultural upbringing. Some cultures put more emphasis on self-interest while others learn children to value more the perspective of the others. In this regard there haven’t been many cultures during the course of human history that would have emphasized more egoism and self-regard than the current western culture. The catch is here: The way we see ourselves and others is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more the politicians, economists, media and we all as individuals talk about human beings as rational and strictly self-interested, the more we become such cold and calculating creatures. And the more we have to suppress our natural tendency for empathy and regard for others. No wonder economy students demonstrate the least other-regarding behavior in tests.

Yet despite this cultural propaganda to behave egoistically all of us transcend the limitations of such a selfish lifestyle and demonstrate remarkable deeds of acting in the name of the well-being of those around us. When the situation calls for it there are greater capacities for other-regarding behavior in us than most of us would ever imagine. John Robert Osborn’s act is a testimony for this.

By emphasizing such acts and the general human capacity for empathy we can strengthen the other-regarding tendencies in our society and in our own lives. Therefore the most essential question as regards egoism and altruism is this: In what direction do you want to develop yourself and those around you?

Statue of John Robert Osborn

What is the most fundamental question in life? Hint: It is not about meaning of life or about what exists fundamentally

Have you ever wondered what is the most fundamental question for you or for any human being? There are a few candidates but in the end only one stands a closer scrutiny. The nominees that come most readily in mind are the classic questions about the origin of the world, about what exists fundamentally and about the meaning of life. Mesmerizing as they are, they nevertheless aren’t the most fundamental for us.

The two first-mentioned questions could be understood as questions about the nature of the universe. Where did it come from and what is it like? Other way to put them would be to ask in what kind of world do we live in? The reason they are bad candidates as the fundamental question for us human beings is that they haven’t given adequate attention to the one asking these questions, the human being itself. If we would be eternal, disengaged and god-like creatures then that kind of noble question might be worthy of our attention. But instead we have a limited time here on earth, we care about our faith and therefore we have to choose carefully how we spend that restricted time. Devoting oneself to answering these questions means that one has made a choice in which one has given priority to this activity instead of – for example – trying to find a cure for cancer or be a good father to one’s children.

We are thrown into a world in which we need to act. As sociologist Hans Joas has put it: ”Action is the way in which human beings exist in the world.” Every moment we make a choice about what we do. Whether we want it or not, we have every second the possibility to act in a multitude of ways. Therefore the most fundamental question for any human being is about what to do. What to do right now and more generally within one’s life. All the other ’fundamental’ questions are only derivatives of this more general question. For example, finding the meaning of life, true nature of happiness, reason for the existence of the universe, whether god exists, what is morally right and wrong and so forth would give us good reasons to act in certain rather than other ways. But all of them can only answer subquestions such as what to do, given religion, or what to do, given our interest in our own happiness. What we need to answer, however, is what to do, given all.

Other way to phrase the same question is to ask ’How to live a good life?’ This is so for the simple reason that we have an interest in living in better rather than worse ways. Already Socrates recognized this to be the most fundamental of all questions. For the great philosophers of ancient Greece, the question about good living formed the most fundamental question of all philosophy. The aim of philosophy was not theoretical but about aiding people in their quest to live a good life.

Curious fact about the question of good life is that every single human being answers it but only a small amount of people ask it seriously. This is because we answer it through the way we actually live. Your life is at every moment your best answer to the question of good life. You can’t escape your life and therefore you can’t escape answering this question through your way of living. The problem is that if you haven’t answered the question yourself then somebody has answered it for you. You are either guided by values and needs chosen by you or then you are guided by values, desires, wishes and so forth that the surrounding culture and media has given you.

The most important step towards a good life is to start taking responsibility for it. This means that you start to seriously consider whether the model of good life that you are living today is really what you would have wanted to choose. It means that you start to seriously think what is the best way to live given your unique personality and situation. Carving your own values and path of good living doesn’t happen in a day. It requires long-term engagement in serious reflection and dialogue with other people. But then again, the reward is the best there can be: A good life designed just for you!