Alain de Botton on How to Lengthen Your Life

apples & orangesIs there anything that fills us with more terror than death?  We do everything in our power to postpone it: we eat kale, run marathons, join Soul Cycle, do juice cleanses.  But no matter how healthily we eat or rigorously we bicycle, we can’t escape the inescapable.  Even if quitting our nasty habit of smoking does add 5 years to our lives, there’s no guarantee that those extra 5 years will make our lives more meaningful.

In his latest book A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, gain self-knowledge, and listen to our boredom, incredible intellect Alain de Botton argues that “if the goal is to have a longer life…the priority should not be to add raw increments of time, but to ensure whatever years remain feel appropriately substantial.” 

As Einstein discovered over one hundred years ago, time is relative— not absolute.  Unlike other units of measurement like feet or inches, how we experience hours and minutes changes: the five minutes before summer vacation can feel like five hours, the lovely afternoon we spend with our crush can pass in what seems like seconds.  Time can drag ploddingly or race mind-blowingly fast.  As Einstein once said, “When you sit with a pretty girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours.  That’s relativity.”

But why is it, exactly, that time accelerates when we get older?  When we’re children, life feels like it will go on forever.  But as we age, time speeds up: in our twenties, it jogs; in our thirties, it sprints; in our forties and beyond, the hands of the clock seem to move at a million miles an hour.

For Botton, “the difference in pace is not mysterious; it has to do with novelty.  The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel.  Conversely, the more one day is exactly like another, the faster it will pass by in a blur.”  In childhood, each day contains novel encounters and never-before-seen characters.  Our early life is essentially defined by “firsts”: our first time standing on our own two feet, our first time going to grade school, our first time bringing our beloved Curious George doll to show-and-tell, our first time losing a tooth.  Not yet made weary by experience, we are astonished by the most ordinary things: the cycles of day and night, the miracle of rain, the basic arithmetic of 2 + 2.  Our curiosity is insatiable.  We want to know why we exist, why human civilizations rise and fall, why the octopus has eight legs and why clouds form.

But by middle age, life loses some of its novelty.  We may have important jobs and traveled thousands of miles.  Everyday things no longer spark a feeling of wonderment.  We’re no longer interested in the stars in the sky or the depths of Earth’s oceans.  We find most things tedious.  We have mastered the major disciplines: English, history, calculus, physics.  We know “adult” things like how to open a bank account and make a dinner reservation.  Because we believe we’ve seen it all, there are very few things that absorb our attention.

In adulthood, most of our days unfold in the exact same way: we rise at 6:30, make our morning coffee, shower, scramble to make orange juice and waffles for our children and get ourselves ready.  We follow the exact same route— left on Meredith, right on Channing— to the subway station and take the red line downtown just as we do every morning.  We make small talk with the same people, write the same emails, go to the same meetings only to wake up the next day and do the exact same thing.  “As a result,” Botton writes, “time runs away from us without mercy.”

So how do we lengthen our lives?  The most obvious answer is to find more exhilarating sources of novelty.  We need to visit the pyramids of Giza and the wondrous rainforests of the Amazon.  We need the adrenaline rush of jumping off of planes and swimming with Galapagos sharks.  If we want fresh experiences, we believe, we have to travel to faraway places where people practice strange customs and speak foreign languages— we can’t remain confined to the dull familiarity of our own backyards. 

“However,” Botton objects, “this is to labour under an unfair, expensive and ultimately impractical notion of novelty: that it must involve seeing new things when it should really involve seeing familiar things with new eyes.”  In reality, we don’t have to parachute out of planes or fly to Tahiti to find something beautiful or interesting.  We just have to be willing to look at things differently.  Like an explorer from a distant land or an alien who lands in a cornfield from Kepler 16b, we can bring attentive eyes to the things we normally neglect.  Rather than regard the ordinary and commonplace with world-weariness, we can recapture the child’s ability to be astonished.

In this new state of mind, simple things like a red carnation or the intoxicating scent of perfume on a summer wind reveal themselves remarkable things worthy of appreciation.  No longer do we regard our loved ones as predictable characters from a novel we’ve already read— we realize they’re just as mysterious as strangers in a subway station.  The city we’ve lived our entire lives becomes as awe-inspiring as the canals of Venice.  

If we want to live longer lives, we can learn something from artists.  As Botton so eloquently writes in his other masterpiece of philosophy, The Art of Travel, the central task of the artist is to open our eyes to what regularly escapes our notice: Chardin, for example, opens our eyes to the understated elegance of a glass of wine and loaf of bread; Cezanne to the neglected beauty of apples and oranges; Van Gogh to the glorious primary colors of Provence.  Unlike us, the artist doesn’t let habit get in the way of wonderment.  Rather than let life slip away, he remains awake to the dignity of the old peasant, the drama of a group of men playing cards, the aesthetically-pleasing proportions of a jug of milk and wedge of cheese.  Because the artist is curious and conscious, a single second can feel like an eternity.  He might not live longer than the average person, but his life feels longer because he lives more deeply.

In the end, we can never defeat mortality.  But we can make the most of the short lives we have by savoring the small moments of our day.  Even if we never compose a poem or paint a still life, we can adopt the artist’s orientation to the world and, as Botton concludes, “aim to live more deliberately.”

Alain de Botton on How to Overcome the Pressure to Be Exceptional

In our accomplishment-obsessed culture, the best thing you can be is exceptional.  To be ordinary is to be a loser.  Think about it.  Who do we most revere: the everyday average Joe or glittery movie stars and billionaire CEOs?  The fact is we worship “great” men and only study the monumental moments of mankind in our history books.

Like the tragic casualty of the American Dream, Jay Gatsby, we have grand visions for our futures: to write the next Great American Novel, to lead nations, to found multi-million dollar companies, to make revolutionary medical breakthroughs.  When we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we gave only the most ambitious answers: to be the first woman president of the United States, to be cowboys, to be astronauts, to be world-famous ballerinas.  We never aspired to ordinary jobs.  After all, who would want to be a store clerk or mail man when you could be a rock star or a chef at a five star restaurant?

In his illuminating A More Exciting Life, the most recent edition to the School of Life series, Alain de Botton explains that though our culture thinks success consists of “sports cars, tropical islands, fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air travel and being very busy,” true success is often far less exciting.  To illustrate his notion of authentic success, he uses the example of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.  Much like 18th century French painter Jean Baptiste Chardin, who preferred bowls of fruit to grand palaces and English statesmen, Vermeer found beauty in the simplest of scenes and most ordinary places: a quiet street, a girl reading at the window, a maid pouring milk. 

By conferring dignity on the commonplace, Vermeer reminds us that even the most “unremarkable” lives are worthwhile.  It might, he seems to suggests, be just as noble to make dinner for our lover as it is to sail the seven seas or rule over a kingdom.  We don’t have to achieve great things to be lovable.  It is enough to merely maintain a loving marriage over many decades; to tenderly play with our children; to keep an orderly home; to laugh often; to savor good wine; to create for its own sake; to connect with other beautiful souls; to generally be good and gracious; to listen sympathetically to a struggling friend; and to give our every task our heartfelt attention.

As de Botton charmingly concludes, once we overcome the pressure to be somebody, we realize “life’s true luxuries might comprise nothing more or less than simplicity, quiet friendship based on vulnerability, creativity without an audience, love without too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried fruits and the odd sliver of very dark chocolate.”

Alain de Botton on Self-Knowledge as the Key to Contentment

In our hurried lives, we rarely have time for reflection.  From the moment we rise from our beds, we’re rushing to the next thing: the next email, the next phone call, the next board meeting, the next subway station.  Our lives embody what the ancients called the vita activa, the path of action, rather than the vita contemplativa, the path of reflection.  When we do carve out time for contemplation, it’s usually to weigh the pros and cons of practical decisions: we might spend several weeks researching the purchase of a new car, many years deciding upon the right career.  Yet we devote almost no time to what ancient philosophers believed was the most important goal of all: understanding ourselves.

cezanne fruit

In his insightful field guide, A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, lengthen our life, and listen to our boredom, beloved philosopher behind the School of Life, Alain de Botton, suggests we can only find contentment if we truly know ourselves.  Rather than take the time to define our own tastes, he argues most of us “assume that what will work for others will work for us too.”

The problem?

We most certainly are not other people.

While many might enjoy the bright lights and blaring electronic music of a dance club, we’d much rather spend our Saturday night cozying up in bed with a cup of chamomile tea and a good book. 

While some might rejoice in the excitement of an evening with strangers, we despise dinner parties and would rather get a root canal than have to ask, yet again, “so what do you do?”.

And while some might love the effortless model-off-duty look of athleisure, we prefer heels and dresses to sneakers and sweatshirts.

Artistsmore than anyonecan teach us how to know and be who we are.  According to de Botton, what we call a great artist is someone who has the strength to “discover and then stay faithful” to themselves.  Van Gogh, Andy Warhol: each was committed to their own aesthetic, their own vision— regardless of anyone else.  Did Picasso sanitize the strange shapes and brutal anti-war imagery of “Guernica” to have more commercial appeal?  Did he abandon his monstrous bull and dying soldiers for a classic bowl of fruit and pretty daffodils?  No, he refused to paint in a way that was more traditional.  Picassolike all artistsuncompromisingly defended his own point-of-view.

All of us are artists of the everyday: we get to make our lives as beautiful as we want.  Instead of mindlessly follow the masses (go to sweaty dance clubs, engage in empty-headed chatter between bites of spinach quiche, spend hundreds of dollars on trendy Lululemon pants and sneakers), we— like Picasso— can refuse to conform to convention and discover what genuinely gives us pleasure.

Imagine a first date.  We look lovingly across a candlelit dinner as a sharply-dressed man in a pinstriped suit plays the piano.  What makes the evening so charming is not the romance of the music or our glass of Merlot but the fact that our potential paramour is endlessly curious about us.  Where did we grow up?  What’s our favorite book?  our favorite film?  Where would we live if we could live anywhere in the world?

We should adopt a similarly inquisitive attitude toward ourselves.

What kind of work do we enjoy?  Do we feel happiest when we’re collaborating with people or working alone?  Do we like using our hands or find gratification in the intellectual challenge of solving complex problems?

What are the most important qualities of a romantic partner?  charm?  intelligence?  ambition?  a good sense of humor?  emotional intelligence?  empathy and understanding?  a willingness to examine their own issues?  Is it important that our partner can provide financial security?  that he/she has a 401k and a stable job?  

How do we most want to spend our weekends?  Browsing a book store?  Going hiking?  Having a midday picnic?  Would we rather spend our Friday night baking a cranberry apple pie or hitting the hottest club?  Is our ideal Saturday morning an early yoga class or a ritzy mimosa brunch?

What sort of books do we pull off the shelves?  Fiction or non-fiction?  Bloody true crime or heart-racing thrillers?  Are we obsessed with trashy paperback novels or do we exclusively read New York Times bestsellers?

What is our dream destination: meditating on a hilltop in Thailand or leading the dolce vita in Rome?  How would we like to spend our getaway: doing daring deeds like climbing mountains and swimming with sharks or lounging on a beach in a tropical paradise?  Do we prefer every hour of our itinerary to be jam packed with action and activity or do we like to have a few aimless hours to sunbathe in our swimsuits?  Would we rather explore magical cenotes in Cancun or appreciate Italian renaissance art in the Louvre?

As de Botton so succinctly sums up, “which of our hitherto stray or guilty pleasures might we dare begin to focus and anchor our days around?  What might we learn to say no to and, in contrast, to emphasize going forward?”

It is only when we ask ourselves such probing questions that we can unearth our authentic selves.  “I was drifting without rudder or compass swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen,” Marion Milner once wrote in her aptly titled memoir A Life of One’s Own.  Like Ms. Marion, if we want to be happy, we must find our own compass instead of rely on the winds of convention to determine our direction and propel our sails.

Alain De Botton on Luxury as a Restorative Form of Self-Love

What is luxury?  To some, luxury is synonymous with chandeliers, caviar and champagne.  To others, luxury calls to mind diamonds and pearls.  To still others, it’s wrapped in fancy cars and fur stoles.

Regardless of how we conceive of luxury, most of us believe the “good life” is something reserved for other people.  Only the wealthy can bear the expense of a $10,000 a night villa and afford Christian Louboutin shoes and Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label.  How could we, ordinary common people with five figure salaries and overdue credit card bills, ever taste luxury’s celebratory bubbles?

luxury final #2

In his eye-opening A More Exciting Life, paradigm-shifting British philosopher Alain de Botton argues we don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to pamper ourselves.  Anyone can elevate the everyday regardless of the status of their bank account.  “We too often forget,” de Botton writes, “especially on our sadder and more restricted days…that the core pleasures of luxury also exist in small forms that can be accessed at a far more manageable cost.”

Luxury doesn’t have to be a first-class plane ticket or a taffeta bungalow— it can be a bottle of perfume, a sleek black and white candle, an impossibly soft pair of cashmere socks, a silk robe.  Luxury can be as affordable as an ivy plant for the windowsill, as simple as adding freshly shaved chocolate to our hot cocoa.

Are many luxurious things beyond our bank account?

Of course, obviously most of us can’t justify daily massages and summers along the Amalfi coast but that doesn’t mean we can’t find similar qualities of pleasure and beauty in our lives as they’re constituted now.

Say we want Yves Saint Laurent’s latest shoulder bag because it captivates us with its smooth black calfskin and streamlined design.  We might not be able to afford its hefty $2,000 price tag, but we can find just as much elegance and sophistication in the brand’s lipstick for $38.99.  

Or maybe we long for the immaculately designed multi-million dollar homes in Vogue and Elle.  Rather than max out our credit cards, we can find small ways to elevate our home.  Love the clean, simple lines of mid-century modern design?  We might not be able to afford a vintage velvet coach or an entirely new dining table but we can certainly treat ourselves to a Picasso print or a chic 1960s vase from our local thrift store.

After an exhausting few months of work, we might dream of getting away for awhile— to a remote cabin in the woods, perhaps, or a serene Greek spa.  We might not be able to bake in a sauna in Santorini but we can recreate some semblance of a spa in our own homes: we can light candles, pour ourselves our finest glass of wine, play a soothing Beethoven sonata and submerge ourselves in a blissful bath of sweet-scented bubbles.  If we want to restore our bodies and replenish our souls— de Botton suggests— we don’t have to flock to a Greek spa halfway across the world; we can transform our bathroom into an oasis of calm as long as we pay attention to detail.

chanel shopping bags

But all this begs the question: isn’t a love of luxury materialistic?  showy and superficial?  Aren’t there more important things we should concern ourselves with, the declining middle class, for example, or the impending threat of global warming or the millions of starving children across the world?

Though our culture condemns the pursuit of pleasure as hopelessly shallow (if not downright immoral), we should prioritize luxury for the sole reason that it can comfort and console.  Life rarely goes as it’s supposed to: our marriage ends, we never achieve our dream of becoming a Broadway star.  Our day-to-day is defined by great catastrophes— death, divorce— and seemingly small but equally dispiriting difficulties— a self-centered mother, a moody sister, a demanding boss.  During the span of a single day, we have to endure countless disappointments and humiliations: we might get beat out for a promotion, leave the office and find we got a $200 parking ticket, lose our favorite coat, and return home only to be the object of our husband’s derision and ridicule.

Because the world cares nothing for us, we must be kind and care for ourselves.  A glass of champagne or Gucci loafers won’t completely cure our ills but they can certainly cheer us when life is cruel.