Alain de Botton on Permission

In childhood, we have no concept of permission.  If a tube of Elmer’s Glue looks interesting, we squeeze it on the floor and put it in our mouths.  If we want to be a princess, we put on our frilliest dress and steal our mother’s pearls.  If we want to build a blanket fort, we grab sheets from the linen closet and pillows from the couch.

However, as we get older, we learn the proper conduct of the adult world.  We can’t simply get up in the middle of class to go to the bathroom; we must ask first.  Similarly, we can’t speak whenever we feel the urge; we have to raise our hand.  If we disobey these rules, we get an “oops” slips and detention.

Much like school, home is governed by rules.  We must call our parents and ask permission before we can go to our best friend’s house after school.  We must get their signature before we can attend a field trip.  We must ask before opening our dad’s tools.

Growing up means becoming intimately acquainted with the most demoralizing word in the English language: “no.”  

“No, you can’t eat ice cream before lunch.”  

“No, you can’t go to your friend’s house.”  

“No, you can’t put aside studying for your geometry test because you’d rather scroll through Facebook.”

We learn that the things we desire are wrong, inappropriate, inexcusable.  It’s wrong, for example, to indulge in ice cream before a meal.  It’s wrong to scroll through social media when we have homework.  Our parents, our society, and our school teach us that our dreams and desires are meant to be delayed, if not indefinitely postponed.  We can only have the decadent hot fudge sundae after we eat our chicken and kale.  We can only update our status after we find the missing angle of a triangle.

In many ways, delaying the gratification of a desire is an important life skill.  If we want to achieve any worthwhile goal, there will be times when we have to be patient and exercise self-control.  We could never lose weight, for example, if we succumbed to every urge to eat chocolate cake instead of stick to our meal plan of lean proteins and vegetables.

However, as we get older, we become too skilled in the art of self-denial.  Rarely— if ever— do we indulge in our wants.  We become too strict, too stern, too punitive with ourselves.  Obsessed with a lovely winter coat we always see in the department store window?  Oh no, we could never treat ourselves to something so unnecessary and expensive.  Daydream about strolling through Provence’s rolling lavender hills?  No, we could never spend thousands of dollars on something so frivolous as a single vacation.

Over the years, we come to believe that what we want is fundamentally wrong:

It would be “wrong” to leave a marriage of twenty years, even though most nights our “marriage” consists of two sorrowful strangers sitting in silence at the dinner table.

It would be “wrong” to date the out-of-work actor with nothing financial to offer when we could date a man with an impressive job and six-figure income.

It would be “wrong” to leave our stable job to join the PeaceCorps.

It would be “wrong” to abandon our family and friends to become a Buddhist monk.

It would be “wrong” to take a watercolor class just for fun.

Though we look like adults, in many ways, we’re still scared little children.  Despite our suits and brief cases, home mortgages and our 401k’s, we long for someone wiser to give us permission, to tell us what we want is “ok.”

It’s ok to leave the job, the city, the relationship.

It’s ok to pursue an unconventional career as a sculptor or photographer or filmmaker or freelance writer or multimedia artist.

It’s ok to risk everything and start your own business.

It’s ok to change careers at 35 and fall in love again at 57.

But as Alain de Botton writes in What They Forgot to Teach Us in School, his delightful new addition to his part-practical, part-philosophical series the School of Life, “There won’t ever be signs that completely reassure or permit us around a majority of courses of action in adult life.  There is no cosmic authority to allow or frown, to get angry or to punish us.  We are on our own.”  There’s no one who can give us definitive answers to life’s mysterious questions: “Yes, you should leave your girlfriend.”/ “No, you should not enroll in medical school.”  We’re no longer in school: there’s no ringing bells to tell us when to head to class, no teachers to give us lessons, no advisors to inform us what classes we need to fulfill graduation requirements, no lectures and assignments to give meaning to our ultimately meaningless existence.  Though this is terrifying on the one hand, it’s also liberating.  As Botton writes, “We’re answerable only to our best understanding of ourselves, to our self-knowledge and to our noblest intentions.”

Alain de Botton on Why We Should Set Boundaries

What is a boundary?  We hear the word all the time in psychology but few of us truly understand its meaning.  Boundaries are standards for how we expect to be treated.  Setting a boundary means clearly and confidently communicating what we need to feel happy and respected.  At home, setting a boundary might look like a parent telling their child that— after a quick snack of apple slices and peanut butter— it’s time to do their homework.  At work, setting a boundary might mean saying a strong, definitive “no” to our boundary-less boss.  In love, it might mean telling our significant other that— though we appreciate how close they are with our sister— we felt it was inappropriate to reveal so much intimate information about our latest fight with her.

If someone crosses our boundaries, there are consequences for their behavior.  Say, for example, we catch our child playing Fortnite instead of doing their homework.  “I don’t want to do long division!” they might whine as we take out their textbooks and turn off their computers.  A consequence might be banning them from video games for the rest of the week or limiting their screen time for the year.  Enforcing a consequence isn’t about retribution or punishment— it’s about teaching people how we want to be treated.  By disciplining our child in this instance, we’re sending a message: we will not tolerate tantrums or misbehavior and expect to be respected.

Though boundaries are essential to our happiness, most of us haven’t been taught how to set limits.  In the modern era, we’re more educated than almost any other generation: we can use the Pythagorean theorem to identify the length of a triangle’s sides, we can examine the themes of Anna Karenina, we can recite the fourteen points of the Treaty of Versailles.  Yet we remain woefully ignorant of crucial life skills such as how to understand ourselves, how to deal with depression, and how to express our true feelings and remain loving and respectful during a fight.

To remedy this serious shortcoming of our education, Alain de Botton, whose books I write of often, founded the School of Life, a global organization dedicated to developing emotional intelligence.  In the latest addition to the series, A More Exciting Life, Botton explores why we don’t set boundaries— and why we absolutely have to.

So why are so many of us hesitant to utter a firm and forceful “no”?

As with most psychological topics, the answer lies in our childhood.  According to Botton, those who have trouble setting boundaries in adulthood were not allowed to assert themselves as children.  Perhaps an alcoholic father didn’t much care if he had to pick us up from school or a mother with a violent streak and explosive temper didn’t allow us to oppose her.  Maybe our dad hit us when we refused to get him another beer.  Maybe when we asked our mother why she didn’t help us with our homework after school like Susie’s mom, she got mad, called us an ungrateful brat and sent us to our room.  Maybe when we asked our sisters to stop calling us names, they refused.  “You’re too sensitive,” they’d say, “It’s just a joke.”  Saying “no” to an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family member meant being physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused.

Our formative years are the blueprint for adulthood.  Because setting boundaries in our past often led to conflict, we avoid expressing our needs as adults.  We’re scared that if we set a limit with someone, they’ll be angry, maybe even hate us.  Say, for instance, our partner invites us to a movie after work.  Though we want to decline his invitation because we’re exhausted, we go because we’re afraid a gentle, politely-phrased, perfectly-poised “no” will cause friction in the relationship.  “What if,” we worry, “he gets mad at us?”  “What if he wants to break up?”  

Though it seems ridiculous to think someone would break up over something so stupid, the boundary-less person is this irrationally afraid of confrontation.  Because of their upbringing, they fear that setting a boundary will lead to dismissal, rejection, or abandonment.  They were taught that being a good girl or boy meant obeying Mom and Dad and putting other people before themselves.  If they do find the courage to deliver a diplomatic but decisive “no,” they feel a terrible sense of guilt.  After all, who are they to assert themselves?  

Despite these qualms, we can set a boundary and still be kind, selfless, and good.  A boundary isn’t a cruel, heartless “no” to someone else— it’s an affirmative “yes” to ourselves.  We decline our partner’s movie invitation, not because we want to hurt his feelings or because we don’t love or value him, but because we’re tired from a long week of work and would much rather be luxuriating with a good book in bed.  We say no to our boss’s request to come in on a Saturday, not because we’re lazy and don’t take our career seriously, but because we deserve rest and value our time with friends and family.

Regardless of what we’ve been taught, we have a right to have our own needs and wants.  As Botton would say, “we are not a piece of helpless flotsam on the river of others’ wishes.”  Rather than ride the currents of other people’s preferences and opinions, we must remember we are our own ships: we can use our rudders to change course and steer us in our desired direction.  Drifting aimlessly and following any wind doesn’t make us happier or promise conflict-free relationships— it only leads to exasperation and bitterness.  Imagine you say “yes” when your friend invites you to a rowdy New Year’s Eve party though you’ve been dreaming of having a quiet evening in.  Do you take pleasure in the rollicking revelry of the blaring party horns and confetti?  No, you spend the seemingly endless evening simmering with resentment and secretly hating your friend.  And therein lies the irony: by making other people happy, we often make ourselves miserable.

Alain de Botton on How to Argue More Honestly

There are several stages of a fight.  In the first stage, we present our perspective with logic and rationality.  Much like a lawyer, we marshal evidence to support our case.  For example, if we find our husband guilty because he forgot to pick up our son from soccer practice, we’ll call witnesses to the stand, present proof of our claims.  Exhibit A: we left a note in bright bold letters on the family calendar which clearly said “Dad picks up James from practice @ 4:30.”  Exhibit B: we even texted to remind him 2 hours before.

At this point, our husband will respond with a rebuttal.  “But you usually pick him on Thursdays,” he might mutter in an attempt to defend himself.  Or he might deflect and simply say, “He just had to walk home.  What’s the big deal?”

Now we arrive at the fight’s more explosive second stage: confrontation.  When our partner refuses to acknowledge the indisputable logic of our case, things usually devolve into an argument.  The more our husband refuses to see our perspective, the more we get angry and vindictive.  We might exploit each other’s insecurities, use our partner’s self-doubts as ammunition.  Soon the civility of the courtroom gives way to a brutal kind of warfare.  We scream, we shout, we slam doors.  We call each other horrible, unforgivable names like “asshole” and “bitch” and “cunt” and “whore.”  We regard our significant other— not as someone we’ve devoted our life to— but as a hostile enemy to be overpowered.  At times like these, it can feel impossible to leave the battleground and actually talk like two people who love each other.

In his endlessly enlightening A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton suggests if we ever want to reconcile and reach an understanding, we have to be courageous enough to say what we truly mean.  Ultimately, every argument has two layers: the surface and the substratum beneath.  At the surface, a quarrel is usually about petty things: we might battle about age-old resentments (the fact that we stayed in our home town for our husbands though we’ve always yearned to move to a new city) or squabble about sex (why we’re not having any).  We might bicker about how our wife never hangs her coat in the closet or how our husband is always 20 minutes late.  We might squander our Saturdays quarreling about dirty laundry and PG&E.

However, these things only symbolize the more serious issues lurking beneath.  We’re bickering so bitterly about the coat our wife leaves out— not because we actually think she’s an inconsiderate slob or because we’re such neat freaks that we can’t stand the sight of a single coat strewn across the sofa— but because her refusal sends us one heartbreaking message: you don’t value me.

In an argument, we only want one thing from our partner: reassurance.  Though we hurl grenades of bitter accusations and hurtful names, we don’t hate our partner or want to “win” exactly— we want them to remind us that we do matter, that we are important to them.  We want to be acknowledged, heard, seen.  We bring up the fact that we remained in our hometown and sacrificed our dream of living in the city because we worry our relationship lacks reciprocity: that our partner loves us less than we love them.  Will our partner ever make such a sacrifice for us?  Or will the reminder of our relationship require us to compromise who we are and what we truly want?  Behind our indignation lies insecurity.  

We lash out angrily at our partners when they don’t want to have sex— not because we’re selfish, sex-obsessed nymphomaniacs— but because we feel hurt and rejected.  Do our partners no longer find us attractive?  Though we never admit it, their lack of interest in sex makes us worry that we’re unlovable and repulsive.

We get irrepressibly irritated when our husband is (yet again) late for an event— not because being 20 minutes late to our daughter’s choir performance makes much difference— but because his perpetual lack of punctuality communicates a lack of respect.  If our husband loved us, we think, he’d value our time.  He knows how much we despise tardiness.  Why can’t he just make an effort to leave a few minutes early?  Is it really that hard to get dressed and out the door?  to account for traffic and parking?  The fact that he continues to do something that upsets us just shows how little he cares for our feelings.

If we are to become better at fighting, we have to fight more honestly.  Rather than remain at the surface and squabble about dirty laundry and PG&E, we should communicate what is genuinely bothering us.  Instead of make a bitchy comment when our husband leaves his dirty boxers on the bathroom floor, we can say what really ails us: “When you leave your boxers on the floor after I’ve asked you to put them away, I feel unheard and unseen.”  

Why is it so hard to communicate in this way?  Why— rather than simply demonstrate emotional maturity and express how we feel— do we resort to schoolyard antics like tantrums and name-calling?  Botton argues that many of us avoid expressing our feelings because doing so requires a vulnerability we find terrifying.  To say “I miss you”/”You hurt me” is to essentially admit that our partner has the power to hurt us profoundly.  The idea that we so completely depend on another human being, that— with a few cruel words— our lovers can shatter our hearts and irreparably damage our dignity— is petrifying.  Therefore, when our partner hurts us in some way, our first impulse is to go on the defensive.  The moment we feel attacked, we counterattack; we fortify our walls and strengthen our fortresses.  But as Botton so eloquently expresses, “in love we will be much safer (that is, much more likely to be a recipient of affection and atonement) if we manage calmly to reveal our wound to its (usually unwitting) perpetrator.  The best response is not to make ourselves more impregnable, but to dare to be a little less defended.”

Alain de Botton on How to Deal With Depression

What is depression?  In her exquisite memoir, Wintering, Katherine May defined depression as “a season in the cold.”  In a harrowing image, Sylvia Plath compared her depressive episodes to suffocating in “a dark, airless sack.”  Van Gogh, yet another genius who didn’t survive his dark season of the soul, told his brother his depression was like “lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well.”

In his latest edition to the School of Life library, A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton attempts to better understand this malaise of the soul.  Though depression is widespread (it’s estimated that over 16 million people suffer from depression in America alone), the condition remains deeply misunderstood.  In many ways, depression resembles sadness: much like the sad, the depressed cry easily, isolate themselves, struggle to sleep, and generally feel hopeless.

However, according to Botton, there is one major difference between depression and sadness: the sad person knows why they’re sad, the depressed person doesn’t.  Sadness is usually associated with an external event: a job loss, a break up, a bereavement.  Depression, on the other hand, has no clear causes.  While a sad person can easily explain why they haven’t been able to get out of bed— their boss berated them in front of the whole team, their wife recently left them— a depressed person doesn’t possess the same self-awareness.  There’s no reason why life feels empty and pointless.  The despair of the depressed person is made all the more devastating because it can’t be explained with logic.

Though the melancholy can’t explain their low spirits, there is a reason for their depression— it’s simply been forgotten.  Something in their past was too tragic and traumatic for them to process, so their minds pushed the event beyond the outer regions of consciousness.  As Botton writes, “Depression is sadness that has forgotten its true causes.”

Perhaps as children the depressed were abused or neglected or perhaps their parents just didn’t pay much attention.  While their friends came home to chocolate chip cookies and a series of curious questions, their parents rarely asked them how their day went.  No one checked to see if they’d done their homework.  No one took them to soccer games and ballet classes.  Rather than confront a devastating truth (that their parents were selfish in many ways and weren’t always there for them) and all its attendant implications (their parents didn’t love them; therefore, something is fundamentally wrong with them), they feel depressed.

So how can we dissipate the dark black cloud of depression?  Botton argues what the depressed person needs more than anything is the chance to process past traumas and grieve their unmourn losses.  Ideally, this can be done with the support of a trusted, trained psychologist.  In some cases, medication can momentarily lift the fog of despondency so the sufferer can find some relief from their condition.

However, Botton warns that brain chemistry is not where the problem either “begins or ends.”  In our instant gratification culture, we want fast and easy solutions.  Depressed?  Take some Prozac and be back to your old self again!  We like to imagine depression is a common cold: it can be cured with a pill and a few days in bed.  But depression is far more complicated than that.  If anything, medicine is a band-aid solution: it doesn’t get to depression’s root causes.  The depressed person doesn’t need the medical miracles of Big Pharma— they need to be allowed “to feel and to remember specific damage, and to be granted a fundamental sense of the legitimacy of their emotions.  They need to be allowed to be angry and for the anger to settle on the right, awkward targets.”

The goal of treatment, then, should be to help the sufferer gain some sort of self-awareness.  Why were they depressed?  What distressing thing had happened to them in the past?  What misfortune have they failed to mourn?  What decades-old tragedy have they repressed?  

An impossible-to-please father.

A narcissistic mother.

A shattering divorce.

A miscarriage.

Is it painful to revisit these disappointing childhood figures and traumatic events?  Of course, but if the depressed person resurrects the ghosts of their past, they can finally put them to rest.  

Alain de Botton on How to Listen to Your Boredom

Insatiably curious, children have a hard time concentrating on any one thing for too long; if you sit with a child and try to teach them long division, for example, you’ll most likely be met with the disgruntled complaint “I’m bored!!!”  After a single problem, your restless pupil will want to play his saxophone, pretend to be an astronaut, or draw stick figures on the board.

In many ways, the goal of education is to teach children to withstand such boredom.  From 8:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon for twelve years of their lives, children have to resist the urge to write stories and build blanket forts so they can learn how to add two digit numbers, compose neat, orderly paragraphs, and locate the atomic mass of elements on the periodic table.  To excel academically, they must endure long periods of boredom.

On one hand, there is obviously value in this educational model.  School teaches the discipline and steadfastness to stick with a subject even when it doesn’t immediately interest us.  If we couldn’t occasionally tolerate doing things we disliked, we’d never be prepared to enter the adult world.  After all, much of adulthood is doing things we don’t want to: going to long meetings, listening to maddening elevator music while waiting on the phone with Comcast, having dinner with our in-laws to name a few.

The problem is as we grow up, we become too good at ignoring our boredom.  Because school requires us to suppress our natural curiosity and essentially disregard our interests and enthusiasms, we stopped listening to our boredom.  But boredom— like all emotions— has something valuable to teach us.  Boredom is a sign that something is amiss.  If we feel wearisome, whatever we’re doing is lacking interest and engagement.  

Rather than be a strict school master to ourselves and demand we do things we find dreadfully dull, we should find what truly exhilarates us.  In his edifying A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton makes the compelling claim that the average human life is only 26,000 days, far too short to squander on occupations we find boring.  Ultimately, Botton gives us permission to stop being such dutiful “good” students.  Instead of obey our inner school teacher and do things out of a dreary sense of duty and obligation, we should be like children and value our own penchants and predilections. 

Pick up the latest bestseller only to find it so yawns-worthy you couldn’t get past the first five pages?  Don’t demand that “you finish what you started.”  Find a book that absorbs your attention and keeps you turning pages.

Go to an art museum only to struggle to stay awake?  Ditch the MOMA and go see a movie.  There’s no reason to make yourself appreciate Van Gogh if you find reading placards and staring at paintings all day woefully uninteresting.

Force yourself to read the morning paper every day even though you dread the exercise?  Stop trying to “be informed” and read something you find fascinating, whether that’s children’s literature or 19th century poetry.  

When we listen to our boredom, we learn what we like and dislike, what we love and what we loathe; we discover what sort of books we prefer, what kind of music stirs our souls; we define our aesthetic, our sense of humor, our taste in clothes.  In other words, we become like all great artists and develop a “late style.”

What, exactly, is a late style?  According to Botton, as artists get older, they tend to create far better works.  Take Picasso.  A child prodigy, Picasso exhibited extraordinary artistic talent from a young age.  In the masterful “Study of a Torso” (depicted below), he had already grasped the fundamental principles of painting.  Remarkably, he made this work when he was only 14.

Though Picasso’s early work demonstrated considerable technical skill, his later work was far more original.  Take the below oil painting “The Dream” as an example.  Painted in a single afternoon in 1932 when Picasso was 50, “The Dream” is a revolution of color and form.  No longer bound to traditional ideas of how to depict reality, Picasso experimented with distorted shapes and bold, contrasting colors. 

The titan of 20th century art once said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.  What he meant was that it took him decades to unlearn all his instruction and instead paint like himself.  In school, he learned to paint “properly”: how to proportion a face, how to depict a beautiful woman sitting on a sofa.  He mastered the principles of line and shape, unity and harmony, color and form.  The result?  He produced many expertly-crafted paintings, but they were paintings we’d seen countless times before.

However, as he got older, Picasso became less afraid of breaking from convention and more devoted to pursuing his own pleasure.  Rather than “ignore [his] inborn ideas and impulses,” he listened to his boredom.  He didn’t want to paint faithful-to-life representations— he wanted to paint in a way that reflected his own perspective.  So he abandoned the traditional rules of composition and started painting like he wanted: with expressive brushstrokes, with strong, striking colors, with a playful disregard of reality, with a passion for the phantasmagorical.

Like Picasso, we should develop a “late style” and pay attention to what truly excites us.  What kind of work do we find most fulfilling?  What qualities do we most desire in a romantic partner?  How do we want to spend our time?  Where would we travel if we could go anywhere?  Botton reminds us we don’t all have to paint classical Greek torsos— we can paint surreal women on bright red sofas.

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.

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 caviar, champagne and chandeliers.  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.