"Only interaction will get you close to others"

The philosopher Frank Martela learned in practice at the University of Helsinki what a classic novel had told him about the world while at upper secondary school: different ways of living are not better than others but equally good. It is a question of what makes an individual’s life meaningful to them personally.

Further down this article will describe the link between a famous novel by the German author Herman Hesse (1877–1962) and get-togethers of students of philosophy at the University of Helsinki in the 2000s.

However, let’s start from something also relevant to the matter at hand, the meaning of life itself. The philosopher, researcher and University of Helsinki alum Frank Martela recently published a book on the subject.

It would be easy to think that the meaning of life is something that has preoccupied mankind throughout the ages. Questions related to the ultimate meaning of life may indeed have been a source of contemplation over centuries and millennia. 

However, the term ‘meaning of life’ is quite a recent invention: it first entered speech and written sources only in the 19th century. This surprised Martela when he was planning his book.

– A group of people inspired by the thoughts of the poet Goethe used to meet in Jena, Germany. They spoke of ‘der Sinn des Lebens’, and the term for ‘meaning of life’ first came into use in German, Martela recounts.

The development of individualism played a part: the new more scientific world view had started to question the idea that human life has a meaning external to itself. Romantics began to search for a meaning within themselves. 

Martela has been fascinated by the question of the meaning of life for a long time, ever since he was a teenager.

– I remember that one of the first impulses to take an interest in the theme was Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, which made a great impression on me. The two protagonists of the novel live their lives in very different ways. Hesse takes no stand on which way is better.

Reading the book was an ‘awakening’ to Martela: wait a second, maybe there is no one right way to live – just different and equally good ones. 

– It is precisely a question of what makes an individual’s life meaningful to them personally. 

An endless selection of yoghurt won’t make you happy

Martela’s book A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence was published in 2020. Since then the philosopher has been asked what constitutes meaning in his own life.

– My answer is kind of boring: work and family. Many others also feel that work and close relationships provide meaning to their life. My work allows me to do precisely what interests me. I also feel that I contribute positively both to scholarship and people’s lives through the books I write.

It seems that there is a great deal of discussion about meaningfulness and values at the moment both in traditional and social media. Could the philosopher explain why?

Martela says that first of all, value discussion increases in times when values have to be redefined.

– For example, at the moment the environmental crisis challenges ideas about what goals we should have in relation to, say, economic growth. It has been necessary to increasingly question the idea that economic growth produces wellbeing, Martela points out.

– It is likely that after the first shelf metre of yoghurt, a second or third additional metre of new yoghurt varieties does not increase happiness either.

The rise of value speech is also currently influenced by the era of individualism we are living in: right now, perhaps more clearly than ever before, everyone should find their own values instead of those predefined for them. 

Hesse, technology students and philosophy students

Martela had two major subjects. At what at the time was known as the Helsinki University of Technology, he swotted up on information networks while studying practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki. 

– I didn’t have a clear idea about what I was going to do when I grew up.

Swaying between two sets of studies was partly swaying between two worlds. In different student groups, values partly differed and that suited Martela well. 

– I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of moving about in slightly different circles. It allows you to learn more than just staying with a group of like-minded people. The various possible ways of approaching things opened up my worldview. This was one of the most important lessons I learned at university.

For example, if at a get-together with technology students the subject of someone going to non-military service instead of military service pops up, people tended to ask why, whereas, in a get-together of philosophy students, the question would have been reversed: why had someone chosen military service?

– In one context, a certain choice was self-evident, in another context another choice was taken for granted. This confirmed to me what Hesse’s book had taught me at the time, that is how varied our beliefs, values and habits can be.

– Research provides an opportunity to search for universal truths about what it means to be a human. But to get to them, you must let go of your single narrow point of view, Martela says.

– This can only be achieved by seeking appreciative interaction with others.

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