Alain de Botton on the Four Criteria of Emotional Health

young alain de bottonWe as a society are deeply committed to education.  In the U.S. alone, students spend 1,000 hours in school every year.  There they are taught lessons in the laws of thermodynamics and Mendel’s Punnett squares.  From eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, they study the disciplines that form the foundation of human culture: history, literature, mathematics, the sciences, art.  Contrary to popular belief, we’re actually getting smarter.  Over the last century, in every nation in the developing world where intelligence test results are on record, IQ test scores have climbed upward.  As Malcolm Gladwell explained in a 2007 New Yorker article, “The typical teenager of today, with an IQ of 100, would have grandparents with average IQs of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school…if we go back even farther…the average IQs of the schoolchildren of 1900 was around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.”

Despite the enormous gains we’re made in terms of traditional intelligence, the kinds of linguistic and mathematical reasoning measured on IQ tests, we have failed to instruct our children in an even more important form of intelligence— emotional intelligence, or the ability to navigate the at times rocky terrain of our inner worlds and interpersonal relationships.  Common core standards revolve around discipline-specific skills and foundational knowledge: how to factor a quadratic, say, or how to determine the meaning of words based on context.  But little time is devoted to teaching our children how to set boundaries or how to treat ourselves or others with love and kindness.

Beloved British philosopher Alain de Botton founded the School of Life in hopes of instructing us in the too often neglected art of living itself.  His underlying philosophy?  Love and empathy, trust and vulnerability are skills just like anything else.  If we can teach a 5th grader how to perform long division, we can certainly teach ourselves how to communicate our needs openly and honestly and how to be gentle with ourselves.  In de Botton’s ideal world, education would mean exploring the uncharted territory of our own psyches— not dutifully absorbing useless facts from textbooks.

In his latest book The School of Life: An Emotional Education, de Botton aims to help the emotionally ill-equipped among us live more meaningful lives.  Written with at times breathtaking poetry and charming, if cynical, British wit, An Emotional Education maps the journey to emotional maturity, covering such vital skills as how to be kind, how to be polite, and how to gain self-knowledge.  Because of his classical education and profound insight into the human condition, de Botton is able to redeem the much disdained genre of self-help— a genre we’ve come to associate with shameless platitudes and blockbuster bestsellers.  But despite the modern distaste for the genre, de Botton wonders: what is the aim of all literature, of all philosophy, of all culture if not to teach us how to live and how to live well?  Why read novels or marvel at paintings if not to better ourselves?  Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  The works of Socrates and Aristotle.  For de Botton, the aim of the most monumental human achievements has been to help us improve ourselves.

How can we be happy and genuinely love who we are?  How can we find meaningful work?  the right partner?  How can we stop engaging in petty squabbles about dirty dishes and what we’re going to have for dinner?  If you’re on a never-ending quest to seek answers to such questions, if you want to be a happier, more fulfilled, more functional person, you absolutely must read An Emotional Education.

De Botton begins our emotional education by outlining what he considers to be the four markers of emotional health:

1. self-love 

self-love

Sadly, romanticism has perpetuated the myth that love has to come from outside ourselves.  In our era of gushy love songs and the prepackaged cliches of hackneyed Hallmark cards, we’re programmed to believe we need another person to complete our fragmentary selves.  Women are especially taught that we require romantic love to redeem our souls.  The result?  We seek love and adoration from men— selfish, self-absorbed, immature, emotionally incapable, occasionally abusive men— instead of validate ourselves.  As Rumi reminds us, “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, yet you go door to door asking for crusts.”

But de Botton believes there’s a better way.  Rather than equate our worth to our relationship status or allow our self-respect to be shattered when a boyfriend leaves us or a potential paramour doesn’t call, we can give ourselves the tender affection we so long for.

What, exactly, does it mean to love yourself?  De Botton defines self-love as the “quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves.”  Instead of treat ourselves with the stern severity of a school master, loving ourselves means forgiving our frailties and foibles.  If your friend’s long-term boyfriend suddenly left her, would you demand she stop crying and simply “suck it up”?  Of course not.  You’d hand her a box of tissues and be there for her.  Or what if her presentation at work didn’t go quite as smoothly as she had hoped?  Would you ruthlessly reprimand her because she didn’t make enough copies and her voice shook?  Or would you reassure her that she is in fact a capable, compelling speaker and she did the best she could?

The key to a contented life is treating ourselves like a friend: with thoughtfulness, generosity and warmth.  If we ever want to have success in the romantic arena, if we ever want to love someone else, we first have to love ourselves.  The truth of this observation is reflected in the sentence structure of the phrase “I love you” itself.  “I” must always precede “you”: you can’t truly extend compassion and understanding to another human being until you extend such kindheartedness to yourself.

2. candor

self-knowledge

The second hallmark of emotional health is candor.  Yet we often lie to ourselves.  Why?  Because if we were honest, truly honest, we’d have to change our lives— a task that is too daunting for the majority of us.  If we admitted we no longer loved our husbands, we’d have to leave and essentially start over.  If we admitted the man we were “madly” in love with was just a rebound, we’d have to come to face-to-face with a not-so-flattering fact about ourselves: we seek solace in the flesh instead of deal with the grief and sorrow of terrible break ups.

Man is a master of self-deception.  To maintain the illusion that we are, indeed, still satisfied with our loveless marriage or are deeply invested in our sexually explosive but ultimately dull rebound relationship, we devise all kinds of distractions: booze, cigarettes, obsessive news/social media checking, pornography, sex.  “But if we could stop, for a time, looking at naked people, or drinking or checking the news, and face up to what we need to do, we might– gradually– end up in so much better a place,” de Botton reassures us.

Lesson?  If you want to be happy, be forthright about who you are and what you want not only with friends and lovers but with yourself.

3. communication

communication

Communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship.  In the early stages of courtship, communication is absolutely essential: are we looking for something serious or more casual?  do we want marriage?  the idyllic white picket fence and 2.5 baths?  a gaggle of youngsters and a kitchen overrun by pacifiers and baby bottles?  

Once we agree on the terms of our union, we have to explicitly express ourselves if we want to sustain love over the long-haul.  Yet many of us have a deep aversion to translating our feelings into words.  Rather than tell our husband he hurt our feelings when he called our choice of presidential candidate “dumb” in front of our dinner party guests, we spend the rest of the evening angrily sipping champagne and exasperatingly rolling our eyes at everything he says.  Or what if the man we’re casually dating reaches out reliably everyday and suddenly– for three unbearable, excruciating days– doesn’t text or call?  Do we behave like rational, mature adults and ask for an explanation?  Do we confess that his mysterious silence– though insignificant– upset us?  No, most often we retreat into bitter silence and sulk: we only give curt one-word replies to his texts, we reject his attempts at affection, we look away when he tries to kiss us.

Why is it so hard to utter what is in our hearts?  Why do we refuse to just say what’s bothering us?  De Botton suggests we’re uncommunicative in love because we believe the prevailing Platonic myth that our lover is our “other half” and, therefore, should naturally understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers can see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, if two people are truly destined for each other, they shouldn’t have to say how they feel– their partner should just know.  Our husband should know such an off-hand remark about our political preferences would hurt our feelings; the man we’re dating should know we’d descend into a torture chamber of abandonment and insecurity if he didn’t call.  If we have to communicate directly, our relationship must be doomed.  After all, it’s tragically unromantic to have to spell things out.

But de Botton argues we’d be better off if we took a more realistic, perhaps even more cynical, view of love.  Rather than buy into the lovely but fanciful notion that our significant other should understand us without our saying a word, we should realize relationships require us to speak up.  Love isn’t beyond language: we need to state our needs if we want them met.  If we expect our partner to read our minds, our relationship will be defined by mutual incomprehension and disappointment.

The reality is sometimes our husbands won’t be able to decipher the strange hieroglyphics of our gestures and facial expressions: he’ll misread our yawn to mean we’re simply tired from a long day when we’re actually bored of his dull conversation; when he asks if we want Thai food for dinner, he’ll understand our reluctant “um hm” as tacit compliance.  And why wouldn’t he?  How is he supposed to know we were really hankering for Chinese?  The result?  a) We don’t get what we want (wor wanton and chicken chow mein) and b) we likely spoil our evening.

So how do we spare ourselves all this heartache and frustration?  Simple: have a conversation.

4. trust

after the storm

The final pillar of de Botton’s philosophy of emotional health is trust.  “How risky is the world?  How readily might we survive a challenge in the form of a speech we must give, a romantic rejection, a bout of financial trouble, a journey to another country or a common cold?” he asks us.  Those who are emotionally healthy have faith not only in life, but in themselves: they believe in their capacity to overcome any obstacle– no matter how seemingly insurmountable.  Lose your job?  The emotionally intelligent person will of course worry (“Will I find something as fulfilling?”  “How will I pay my bills?”) but unlike the emotionally-maladjusted person, they won’t indulge their anxiety.  Rather than buy into their fear-based stories that there “aren’t any [insert industry] jobs in this economy,” they’ll remind themselves a) they are captains of their fate and b) much of their life is within their own control.  While the melancholic will pity themselves and lament the cruelty and unfairness of the world, the emotionally mature person will be practical: this is the time– not to draw the blinds and retreat under the covers– but to diligently search job postings and polish cover letters.

Brenda Ueland on the Incubation of Ideas & the Importance of Idleness to Creativity

if you want to writeWe live in a productivity-obsessed age where we streamline our lives with the efficiency of assembly lines, devoting our every minute, every second to the capitalist task of “getting things done.”  Today some ten-year-olds have busier schedules than corporate CEOs.  Hour after hour is crammed with basketball games and ballet classes, playdates and piano.

The problem?  In our rabid race to achieve, we leave little time for idleness.  We all need “time freed from time”— respite from the relentless hamster wheel of duty and obligation.  Savoring a cup of chamomile tea, unwinding in a hot bath, lounging on a languid summer afternoon with nothing pressing to do and no set plans: such idle moments are restful commas in a hurried sentence.

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that we all require time for rest, renewal, and relaxation.  Yet in our “time is money” capitalist culture, we feel guilty if we don’t maximize every hour and do something “useful.”  If we fritter away a Saturday morning painting or writing sonnets or simply staring out the window, we’re slothful— or worse— sinful.  Idleness is an unforgivable violation of the capitalist credo.

In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, delightfully defiant Brenda Ueland suggests idleness is not a condemnable waste of time but a critical component of the creative life.  Much like Rebecca Solnit, who argued the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour, Ueland believes the imagination “works slowly and quietly.”  Indeed, throughout time, idleness has been behind all human progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  “What we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing,” wrote Leo Tolstoy.

Sadly, in our accomplishment-manic society, we find it hard to tolerate the idleness so crucial to creativity.  To write, to paint, you need long stretches of seeming un-productivity.  Or as poet Mary Oliver so elegantly phrased, “a place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”  To be an artist, we have to resign ourselves to the dispiriting fact that some days we’ll slave for hours and have almost nothing to show for it; some days “working” will consist of simply staring out the window and sitting at our desks.  But if we’re to remain artists, we can’t be discouraged by this apparent lack of progress.  As Ueland writes:

“When we hear the word ‘inspiration’ we imagine something that comes like a bolt of lightning, and at once with a rapt flashing of the eyes, tossed hair and feverish excitement, a poet or artist begins furiously to paint or write.  At least I used to think sadly that that was what inspiration must be, and never experienced a thing that was one bit like it.

But this isn’t so.  Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly.  Say that you want to write.  Well, not much will come to you the first day.  Perhaps nothing at all.  You will sit before your typewriter or paper and look out the window and begin to brush your hair absent-mindedly for an hour or two.  Never mind.  That is all right.  That is as it should be,— though you must sit before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper sooner or later.  And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day and so on, forever and ever.”

Though we tend to idolize what the ancients called the vita activa, or life of action, Ueland believes we should devote just as much time to quiet contemplation.  Our ideas are like seeds: we can’t plant them in the ground and expect them to immediately sprout— they need to sit in the fertile soil of silence and solitude before they can bloom into fully-formed flowers:

“Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong.  Bernard Shaw says that it is not true that Napoleon was always snapping out decisions to a dozen secretaries and aides-de-camp, as we are told, but that he moodled around for months.  Of course he did.  And that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people often say: ‘I am not creative.’  They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time.”

For Ueland, there is one crucial difference between the active, go-getting man and the idle man: while the go-getting man mindlessly follows other people’s maxims out of a stern sense of obligation, the idle man is a free thinker who has his own ideas and creates his own rules.  

“It is these fool, will-worshipping people who live by maxims and lists of chores and the Ten Commandments— not creatively as when a fine, great maxim occurs to you and bursts a little, silent bomb of revelation in you— but mechanically.

‘Honor thy father and thy mother’… the active, willing, do-it-now man thinks and makes note of this daily, sets his jaw, and thinks he does honor them, which he does not at all, and which of course his father and mother know and can feel, since nothing is hidden by outer behavior.

The idle man says:

‘Honor they father and mother.’…That is interesting…I don’t seem to honor them very much…I wonder why that is?  and his imagination creatively wanders on until perhaps it leads him to some truth such as the fact that his father is a peevish and limited man, his mother unfortunately rattle-brained.  This distresses him and he puzzles and thinks and hopes again and again for more light on the subject and tries everything his imagination shows to him, such as being kinder or controlling his temper; and perhaps he comes to think: ‘Is it they who are peevish and boring, or is it just that I, being a small man, think so?'”

When we get quiet, we can hear the hushed whisperings of our own heart.  As British philosopher Alain de Botton so eloquently put it, in idleness the “more tentative parts of ourselves have a chance to be heard, like the sound of church bells in the city once the traffic has died down at night.”  In what is perhaps my most beloved and oft-quoted line from If You Want to WriteUeland reassures us if we sit still and listen hard, the Muse will strike:

“So you see the imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.  These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: ‘I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.’  But they have no slow, big ideas.  And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from the office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.” 

For more of Brenda Ueland’s heart-sustaining meditations on art and creativity, revisit art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies.  Longing for more insight into writing and the writing life?  Read advice from our era’s leading literary lights including Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood, Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, and Maya Angelou on her writing routine and the exquisite torment of the creative life.

Brenda Ueland on the Imagination as the Glorious Gateway to the Divine

Poets and philosophers have been enraptured by the imagination since the beginning of time.  “I am if you want to writecertain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination,” romantic poet John Keats once wrote.  For playwright George Barnard Shaw, imagination was the beginning of creation, the first step to manifesting our deepest desires in the physical, material world: “You imagine what you desire.  You will what you imagine.  And at last, you create what you will.”  Founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, thought the imagination was a gift generously bestowed upon us by the gods.  “Imagination is the true fire stolen from heaven to animate this cold creature of clay,” she wrote in characteristically evocative prose.

But no words on the imagination startle with more truth than Einstein’s famous assertion that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  In our era of content-driven education with its mechanical memorization and high-stakes standardized tests, how can this be true?  The word “imagination” itself carries a magical— if childlike quality— as if it only belonged in rainbow-colored kindergarten classrooms and sandboxes.  No, forget inspiration and invention, ingenuity and curiosity.  Knowing the exact years of WWI and the number of elements on the periodic table—we’ve been told— is more important.  Rather than encourage students to imagine, we cram their brains with useless facts.  So obsessed are we with knowing that we devotedly read What Your Sixth Grader Should Know and reduce what could be a consciousness-raising curriculum to a list of spirit-squashing state standards.

Yet despite our education system’s emphasis on knowledge, there can be no innovation without imagination.  If knowledge is composed of the things we know for sure, imagination permits us to play with possibilities, to explore the untrodden terrain of new ideas.  Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Einstein’s theory of relativity.  No feat in the arts or sciences can be accomplished without the ability to see and believe in something that is not yet there.

In her timeless classic on art and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, the same trove that gave us art as infection and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, Brenda Ueland suggests the imagination is a glorious gateway to the divine.  If the atheist/agnostic among us shudder at her use of “God” and “Holy Ghost,” we can exchange her religious language for more secular terms.  God, Universe, Spirit, Fate.  Whatever we call it, the fact remains: when we create, we connect to something magnificently larger than ourselves.  In splendidly simple prose, Ueland argues— much like her idol Romantic poet and fellow champion of the creative spirit William Blake— that we should create for the whole of our limited time on Earth.  Why?  Because more than our capacity to reason, our imagination is what separates us from brutes:

“But the ardor for it [the imagination] is inhibited and dried up by many things; as I said, by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear which expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.

Now this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost.  My theology might not be very accurate but that is how I think of it.  I know that William Blake called this creative power the Imagination and he said it was God. 

[…]

Now Blake thought this creative power should be kept alive in all people for all their lives.  And so do I.  Why?  Because it is life itself.  It is the Spirit.  In fact it is the only important thing about us.  The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”

If creative expression is the portal to a more exalted life, one question remains: how do we keep the imaginative impulse alive?  Ueland offers a simple solution: use it.  Unfortunately in our efficiency-obsessed era, we find it hard to waste time on such “frivolous” pursuits.  After all, wouldn’t it be more productive to go grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner than compose a love song?  What’s the point of writing a 5-act play or perfecting a Beethoven concerto?  Why bother painting a vase of sunflowers or a wheat field at dawn?  Why devote time to our art when there are more serious things to be done?

Though there are always to-do lists and time sheets, we must create— it’s what we’re here to do.  To disregard the muse and refuse ourselves the God-given gift of creation, to deny ourselves what we most want is an unforgivable betrayal of the self.  Sadly, in our sensible world of should’s and have to’s, it’s common to sacrifice our wants:

“But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or play the piano.  And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.

They do not know, as Blake did, that this is a fearful sin against themselves.  They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over the sunsets, as they wanted to.”

If You Want to Write is a rousing reminder to forget duty and obligation and honor our wants, whether we want to write a novel or learn to cook Szechuan.  For more invaluable wisdom on creativity and art, read The Artist’s WayBird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer.