Alain de Botton on Why We Should Be More Pessimistic

Is there anything we worship as much as optimism?  In America, the land of the perennially positive, we tend to be hopeful: we believe— sometimes beyond reason— that anything is possible.  Unhappy in love?  We can find our soul mate.  Despise our jobs?  We can quit and start our own business.  Too poor?  We can work hard and be as rich as the wealthiest man on Wall Street.

But the problem with being too optimistic is it inevitably leads to high expectations and, thus, disappointment.  Take the romantic arena for example.  Most of us have ridiculously high expectations of our partners: we expect them to understand us in every way, to make us laugh, to share our passion for The Great Gatsby and French new wave.  When our otherwise loving, supportive partner says just the wrong thing or does something thoughtless or inconsiderate (which he invariably will….after all, he’s a human being), we become bitter and despondent.  This isn’t how love is supposed to be.  Our lover is supposed to decipher the secret language of our souls and always know the exact right thing to say— he’s not supposed to eat our last chocolate chip cookie or note that the waitress’s breasts are quite big.  Our lover is supposed to share our every intellectual interest— he’s not supposed to like football and video games.

And therein lies the problem: because we have an impossible, idealistic vision of how love is “supposed” to be, we remain perpetually dissatisfied with reality.  In his indispensable volume A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptionalprioritize small pleasures, gain self-knowledge, lengthen our lives, and listen to our boredom, charmingly cynical British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests we’d be happier if we regarded life with more pessimism.  The reality is no matter how sweet our partner, he will occasionally say something insensitive or downright stupid.  In the same way, no matter how compatible we are as a couple, commonality will not extend indefinitely: though we might share a fondness for Freddie Mercury, we might passionately disagree about which is better, heavy death metal or indie.  As Sylvia Plath once said, two partners are more of a Venn diagram: two circles that have overlapping but ultimately independent identities.

In one of the book’s most consoling chapters “Getting Expectations Right,” Botton introduces us to Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto’s 80/20 rule.  In 1905, Pareto made a startling discovery: 20% of the pea pods in his garden were responsible for yielding 80% of the peas.  Interestingly, this principle was also true in economic productivity: in Italy, 20% of citizens generated 80% of the wealth.  Pareto later found this was also true of other country’s economies.  The Pareto distribution, or 80/20 rule, states that “80% of effects will come from 20% of the causes.”  For example, 80% of a business’s revenue will come from 20% of its clients; 80% of a record company’s profits will come from 20% of its artists, etc.

Though we usually see the 80/20 rule in economics, Botton argues it’s equally applicable to our day-to-day lives.  “80% of positive elements can be traced back to 20% of causes,” he writes, “or to put it more negatively, 80% of all inputs are likely to be partly or substantially suboptimal.”  In other words, most of the time— indeed, more than half of the time— our lives will be less than ideal.

Rather than imagine we’ll always be cheerful and content, we should expect to endure dark seasons of depression, go through difficult periods where we seriously question all our life choices, feel hopelessly behind our more accomplished college friends, get in petty squabbles with our husbands, lose our car keys, and get lost on the way to our destination.  It might seem bleak to anticipate that the worst will happen; however, if we adopt some of the gloominess of the pessimist, when life doesn’t go as planned— we lose all our life savings in the stock market, we get divorced, we get our dream job only to realize we hate it— we won’t become so bitter with disappointment.

Father of psychology Willam James had a simple formula for happiness: happiness = reality meeting our expectations.  If we want to be content, Botton suggests, we only have two options: change reality or change expectations.  Because it’s futile to change the facts of our existence, we have no choice but to lower our expectations.  

Instead of hold an idealistic view of life, we should remember the pillars of the pessimist’s philosophy:

          1. life generally goes wrong

          2. most sex will not be the stuff of our filthy, pornographic fantasies— it will be unimaginative, awkward, and boring

          3. despite our desperate desire for connection, most social interaction will leave us feeling misunderstood and even more lonely

          4. the people we love most will often be the most maddening

          5. the holidays are never Hallmark cards of poinsettias and sugar cookies— most often, they’re hellish affairs of stress and screaming

          6. New Year’s Eve can only ever be one thing: disenchanting

          7. most of our work will involve meaningless tasks and pointless meetings

          8. most days will be uneventful and uninteresting 

          9. it’s normal for life to be defined by anguish and anxiety 

When we accept that 80% of life doesn’t go as planned, we can more deeply appreciate the other 20%.  The days when are husbands notice our new haircut, when our children make it through an afternoon without shoving and screaming, when we discuss a normally contentious topic calmly and rationally without resorting to our normal unhealthy patterns of blaming and stonewalling, when a family dinner doesn’t devolve into passive-aggressive poking and name-calling, when we make it to work on time, when we feel our work has purpose and meaning: these are the exception— not the rule of living.  Because so much of life is exasperation and misery, we should cherish those uncommon moments when things run smoothly.  A More Exciting Life reminds us there is great wisdom in seeing the glass half empty.

Wintering: Katherine May’s Gorgeous Meditation on Dark Seasons of the Soul

Summer: sun tan lotion, sunshine, sultry weather.  The season calls to mind carefree days lounging by the pool and three glorious months of freedom. “What would it be like to live in a world where it was always June?” L.M. Montgomery once wondered.  I’d imagine most of us wouldn’t mind if June was the only month on the calendar.  

Yet most of us have a deep dislike for winter, especially winters of the soul.  We shudder at the thought of finding ourselves in a snow storm of sadness and sorrow.

Though most of us would rather not experience disappointment or depression, British writer Katherine May suggests we embrace dark seasons of the soul.  In her gorgeous memoir, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesMay beautifully recounts her own distressing experiences with winter.  After her fortieth birthday, the darkness of winter descends and suddenly ends her summer: her husband’s appendix bursts and she is diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a painful inflammatory bowel disorder.  Not only that but she undergoes two major transitions: she begins homeschooling her son and chooses to leave her stable university job to focus on being a writer.

In a passage of uncommon beauty, May defines “wintering,” explores its causes and explains its inevitability: 

“Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again.

Wintering is a season in the cold.  It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.  Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure.  Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds.  Some winterings creep on us slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual retching up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence.  Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new.  However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.

Yet it’s also inevitable.  We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves.  We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season.  But life’s not like that.  Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade.  Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter.  Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us.  Somewhere along the line, we would screw up.  Winter would quietly roll in.”

May believes we can learn to endure our winters by studying the natural world.  After all, what do animals do when the landscape becomes more and more inhospitable?  They recognize the difficulties of the coming months and prepare: bears, for instance, eat nuts, berries, fish and small animals (sometimes up to 90 pounds a day) so they can retreat to their dens and hibernate for the winter months when food is scarce. “Plants and animals don’t fight the winter,” May observes, “they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer.  They adapt. They prepare.”

Wintering features enchanting snowy landscapes ranging from the restorative geothermal waters of Iceland to the magical Northern Light skies of Norway to May’s charming British seaside town of Whitstable.  Though we romanticize the aliveness of summer, May demonstrates winter possesses a peaceful beauty of its own.  Biting winds.  Bare branches against a snow white sky.  Brutal temperatures below zero.  Winter may be a quiet time when cold weather confines us indoors but— as May so insightfully writes— it’s also a “time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting [our] house in order.”

At the foundation of May’s memoir is the idea that “wintering” is a skill: we can all learn how to cope during dark December days of the soul.  Ironically, we devote years of education to subjects that have no relevance and almost no time to real-world skills: our brains are crammed with useless trivia during our twelve years of grade school— the dates of the American Revolution, Newton’s laws of motion, obscure geometry theorems— but we are rarely taught how to have a difficult conversation, how to set a boundary, how to choose the right person to marry, or how to choose a fulfilling career.  We’re certainly never taught how to winter.  Sadness is a dark, impenetrable cloud, a season we never want to enter.  “Don’t cry!” our parents scolded when we openly shed a tear.  Sadness was something we were taught to ignore and repress, to feel ashamed of and to fear.

Rather than teach her son to retreat from his sadness, May encourages him to embrace winter.  During snowy seasons of the soul, she suggests, we should cry and grieve what we’ve lost and seek warmth and shelter.  As May and her son weather winter together, they find small, simple things that offer comfort:

“We took our time and sank into the things we love: we played on the beach and burrowed through the library.  We made pirates out of air-drying clay, and walked in the woods to bring home pine cones and berries.  We took the train up to London and visited the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs in relative solitude.  One particularly cold morning we took advantage of a hoarfrost to make strangely indestructible snowballs.  We baked cookies and kneaded pizza dough, and played more Minecraft than I would have preferred.

We travelled through the dark moments together.  I won’t pretend it was fun.  But it was necessary all the same.  We raged and grieved together.  We were overcome with fear.  We worried and slept it off, and didn’t sleep, and let our timetables turn upside down.  We didn’t so much retreat from the world as let it recede from us.”

Though we associate winter with deterioration and death, it’s the hibernation of winter that makes regeneration in spring possible.  Winter is a space of possibility: when the foundations of our lives crumble beneath our feet, we can build something better from the rubble.  As May notes, That’s the gift of winter: it’s irresistible.  Change will happen in its wake, whether we like it or not.  We can come out of it wearing a different coat.”

Not only does winter give us the opportunity to transform ourselves, it teaches us compassion for other people.  In Buddhist tradition, the miracle of pain is that it opens our hearts.  When our lover deserts us, for example, we might be so devastated we can barely leave our house.  But it’s because we know the agony of a break up that we can sympathize with anyone who has suffered a broken heart.

When someone else is shivering in a snowstorm, it’s easy to think they brought it upon themselves.  “Of course his wife left him…he stopped making any effort!”  “Of course she lost her job…she never turned in her reports!”  But winter reminds us that “effect is often disproportionate to cause” and “tiny mistakes can lead to huge disasters.”  We should therefore look more kindly on others.

More than anything, winter gives us wisdom.  When we’re in the midst of a somber winter— a tragic death, heart-wrenching divorce, sudden job loss, or torturous season of insomnia— we dream of one thing: the sunny skies of summer.  But navigating the hopelessness of a long winter night can help us light the way for others.  In May’s lovely words: “You’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.  And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us.  It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.”

So how do you survive winter?  In the same gentle voice as Anne Lamott, May suggests the answer is simple: treat yourself with affection and kindness, listen to your needs, and prioritize the fundamentals of self-care.  Reflecting on her methods for coping with winter, she writes:

“When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child: with kindness and love.  I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important.  I kept myself well fed and made sure I was getting enough sleep.  I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me.  I asked myself: what is this winter all about?  I asked myself: What change is coming?”

Life, despite what we are told, is cyclical— not linear.  We don’t steadily move on an upward trajectory from birth until death, always getting better: we take one step forward and two steps back, we lose our way, we meander.  Progress is not a line, but a spiral.  We pass through periods of hope and hopelessness, merriness and melancholy, laughter and tears just as the natural world passes through spring and winter.  Near the end of the book, May reminds us that no matter how seemingly endless the winter, the frost eventually thaws and reveals spring flowers:

“To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time.  We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. I would not, of course, seek to deny that we gradually grow older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint.  There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard.  To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present.  We know that because it’s happened before.  The things we put behind us will often come around again.  The things that trouble us now will often come around again.  Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch.  We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through.  This is how progress is made.  In the meantime, we can deal only with what’s in front of us at this moment in time.  We take the next necessary action, and the next.  At some point along the line, that next action will feel joyful again.”

A salve for the winter-whipped soul, Wintering is a field guide for surviving what seems unsurvivable.  For more poetic meditations on the seasons of life, rejoice in Rilke on possessing the persistence to wait and the only courage required of us.  Still struggling to persist when life feels unbearable?  Read Gibran on pain as our greatest gift and joy and sorrow.