We 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 use art and books as a balm for loneliness. 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.