Frank Martela and Atte Palomäki

In Conversation with Frank Martela

10 min read

31 Mar 2021

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Atte Palomäki

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Craig Houston

10 min read

31 Mar 2021

Text:

Atte Palomäki

Photo:

Craig Houston
 

Philosopher and scholar Frank Martela has researched extensively on the question of what makes people happy. In this interview, he discusses why the Nordics are at the top of the world happiness rankings as well as how corporations can help create a happy society.

 

What actually is happiness?

I think there's no straightforward answer to that question. There are several different things that are labelled as happiness, and it might be better to keep them separate. When happiness is measured in psychological surveys, we might be talking about how satisfied you are with your life as a whole. But another way of conceptualising happiness is regularly experiencing positive emotions, such as feeling joy, laughing, and smiling. At the same time, happiness could be considered the lack of negative emotions. When we research this topic, we have to separate these different constructs, because they predict different things and are affected by different things. 

 

How dependent is happiness on the individual, and how dependent is it on society and our surroundings?

 

Both factors matter, and it's hard to say whether one is more important than the other, but there are quite significant differences in people's levels of happiness around the world. When Finnish people are asked about their life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10, their average is around 7.7. Other Nordic countries are mostly in the same range. But in a country like Afghanistan, people's life satisfaction will be around 3. So, in that sense, the country where you live and the society where you live have quite a big impact on happiness. But at the same time, within each country, there are people who are extremely happy and people who are extremely sad, and sometimes the reasons for their happiness and sadness are something that society cannot really impact. Society is better at removing the sources of unhappiness than building the sources of happiness, and the factors of happiness are sometimes more dependent on the individual situation. 

When you say that the factors of happiness differ country by country, are there certain things that pop up more than others regardless of the location?

 

There are basic needs of human beings that people, no matter the country or the culture, always need in order to experience wellbeing. I’ve been doing a lot of work with self-determination theory, and this theory has identified three basic psychological needs that seem to contribute to people's happiness in every country where it has been studied. One is the sense of autonomy – being the author of your own life. Another is the sense of competence or mastery – that feeling that you're able to master your environment, be efficient and effective in what you are doing, and accomplish things. Then, of course, there are relationships – human beings are social animals, so no matter what wellbeing research we are looking at, we always find that close relationships seem to be the one key factor that makes people happy. Here it's not about the quantity of the relationships, but the quality. It's not about how many people you know or how many friends you have on Facebook, but it's more that you have a few high-quality relationships with people you can trust completely. This also means that, as regards the country differences, in many poorer countries, some people still have quite high levels of positive feelings, and one key explanation is that they might have good close relationships. 

 

A decade ago, Bhutan was the first country to introduce the Gross National Happiness – GNH – index as an alternative to gross domestic product (GDP). Since then, several countries have also included happiness and wellbeing in their overall country development agenda. In your opinion, is GNH a better development indicator than GDP?

I believe that both are needed for a more comprehensive evaluation of the development of a nation. We need to know something about the economics of the nation, and GDP works well in measuring what it is supposed to be measuring – things like trade and how much money is moving in the country. But at the same time, if we wanted to use GDP as a measure of people's wellbeing, then it has shortcomings. GDP does not measure many of the factors that make us happy, for example the close relationships that I already mentioned, as well as things like a basic sense of security. GDP is also not good at accounting for environmental issues. We need a set of indicators, of which GDP is one, along with some way to measure the environmental impact and some more direct measures of people's wellbeing.

How can having national happiness as a target impact political change? 

There's more and more effort to include this into political processes, and through that, when making political changes, to think about the impact they have on happiness and on people's wellbeing. It’s probably going to have a much bigger role than it has had before. because we haven't been measuring it in a high-quality way for too many years. Ten years ago, there wasn’t too much movement around the topic, but since then, many countries have implemented these annual wellbeing surveys, and because of that, we are getting more and more data about the factors that are contributing to people's happiness on a national level. So, now we can start to implement policies based on their probable influence on people's happiness. Right now, for example, New Zealand has this wellbeing budgeting project so that when they are making the budget, they are not only measuring the probable impacts on the economy, but they also want to evaluate the impact on people's wellbeing. I think that it's going to have a much bigger role in the future in national politics.

The Nordics are often dubbed the happiest countries in the world, and people are often told to learn from them, but how can a group of nations that spend months in almost perpetual darkness be the happiest on earth? 

My colleagues and I dug into this topic last year, and we were able to identify four factors that seem to explain why the Nordic countries are doing so well in these surveys. One is that the institutions are functioning well in the Nordic countries. We have high-quality democratic institutions, so people trust that elections are free, the press is free, the institutions are able to deliver whatever they're trying to deliver, and there's not much corruption. Another factor is that the Nordic countries have quite extensive benefits for people, like pensions and unemployment benefits and so forth and protect people against various difficulties in their lives. People feel that they don't have to be so afraid of various downturns in life. Then the fourth factor is about the sense of freedom. They have economic freedom, they have political freedom, and they have cultural freedom, so people can dress however they like, people can express different sexual identities and other things more freely than in most other countries. Of course, there are problems also in the Nordic countries with regard to these things, but on average, there are less problems than in many other countries. 

These rankings have also produced a lot of political debate because there are issues with loneliness and the high suicide rate, for example. How can you these balance these issues? 

Well, this really doesn’t apply to Finland anymore. We used to have quite high suicide rates in the ‘70s, and ‘80s, but these have been going down, and now Finland is quite average in terms of suicide and depression. I think all countries are dealing with these problems. Mental health issues seem to be a crisis across the whole world. It’s not a uniquely Finnish issue. I also feel that the Finnish willingness not to be very expressive about our happiness might actually protect us. One thing that affects happiness is the comparison with other people. There’s actually some research showing that people in the Nordic countries are less affected by these comparisons; we seem to not care so much if our neighbour is doing better than ourselves. 

What kind of role do you see for companies in developing a happy society?

One responsibility of companies is to first make sure that their own employees are doing well, especially in the modern work life, where it's more about the quality of your output than the quantity. Most of the work that we do nowadays is not about moving things from place A to place B. It's more about creating some solutions to some problems. In this kind of work, we know that intrinsic motivation matters. In order to foster this intrinsic motivation, the workplace has to ensure that people are actually having high levels of engagement, high levels of commitment, and through that, not only having higher levels of wellbeing, but also performing better.

If you want to get the best people to your company, you can offer high salaries, but you can also promise that here, you're going to be able to use your capabilities to the max and feel that you're able to contribute. Having the reputation of being a company where people have high levels of engagement can be quite important when the competition for the best talent is getting fiercer in many fields. 

Recently, quite a few companies have adopted a clear corporate purpose, something which embodies what they provide to the society at large. In the long run, do you think that this purpose-driven business idea can also perhaps contribute to the happiness levels in society?

Again, there's several levels on which a company can contribute. One thing is, of course, that the employees themselves are more motivated when they feel that they are part of this higher purpose. If an organisation has a clear sense of purpose, then the employees within that company are going to be more engaged and more committed to the mission, and through that, they're going to experience higher levels of wellbeing. I think there's a lot of potential for companies having purposes where they ensure that the impact is positive on society, and through that, they're also contributing to the happiness of people. 

What is it that makes you happy?

On a general level, I was saying earlier that people's happiness is quite dependent on things like having a sense of autonomy, having strong relationships, and I think that applies to me as well. I have three small kids and my family is one key source of happiness for me at this moment.  Another factor is that I am doing the kind of work that I really love and want to do. I feel like my sense of autonomy at work is very high as is my sense of engagement. My answer is quite boring, it's probably the most typical answer we can have for the question of happiness, but that just happens to be the case in my life at the moment.