Schopenhauer on Art as an Antidote to our Greatest Affliction

What is philosophy for?  For many, philosophy is a lofty subject only meant to be studied by tweed-jacketed professors in the university hall.  The word “philosopher” conjures images of men in ancient Greece or Rome who have white beards and wear long, flowy robes.  Philosophy isn’t for ordinary people like mailmen and school teachers— it’s reserved for great intellects like Nietzsche and Socrates and Plato.  Philosophers are a privileged class who have the time to ponder life’s big questions (who am I?/what am I meant to do?).

However, in his charming The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton argues just the opposite: philosophy is simply the study of how to live well.  A delightful little volume organized by afflictions such as “heartbreak,” “unpopularity,” and “not having enough money,” The Consolations of Philosophy rests on the premise that philosophy is a form of medicine.  The words of a great thinker can have restorative properties.  In this 2000 classic, the irresistibly intelligent Botton sifts through thousands of years of collective wisdom to find the wisest minds’ remedies for our most common problems.  

Do you only have $5 in your bank account, but long for luxurious pleasures such as Birkin bags and champagne-soaked meals at Michelin star restaurants?  A dose of Epicurus will remind you that happiness isn’t always found in the extravagant excesses of materialism.  Have you been driven to the brink of insanity by such tragic events as losing a loved one or such petty frustrations as losing your car keys?  Dr. Botton would write you a prescription for the Stoic philosopher Seneca.

Of all the difficulties in the modern world, loneliness is probably our most widespread problem.  In a recent national survey of American adults, 36% of respondents reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time.”  More Americans are spending time alone than ever before.

Why do rates of loneliness run rampant?  Some blame our modern alienation on the advent of social media (after all, why bother with complicated, occasionally dull human interaction when TikTok provides dizzying dopamine-fueled hits of cheap entertainment?); others blame the capitalist rat race for money and status.  Certainly, our sense of isolation only worsened during the pandemic.

Luckily, there is a cure for our loneliness.  If we’re lacking connection in real life, we can find companionship in the fictional worlds of art and books.  Books are medicines for our maladies, slings for our spirits, salves for our wounds.  To read a book— or observe a painting or contemplate a poem— is to see our own lives reflected back to us.  By expressing their particular experience, the artist illuminates an aspect of the greater human experience.  Though Tolstoy wrote Family Happiness using his own experience of marriage, the modern woman who finds herself disenchanted with domesticity can still see herself in Masha’s tale.  Books remind us other people have felt our feelings and thought our thoughts, even if it was many centuries ago.  Referencing the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Botton notes:

“We do have one advantage over moles.  We may have to fight for survival and hunt for partners and have children as they do, but we can in addition go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and in bed in the evenings, we can read novels, philosophy and epic poems— and it is in these activities that Schopenhauer located a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life.  What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language, or image.  Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognize as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own.  They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it.  We may be obliged to continue burrowing underground, but through creative works, we can at least acquire moments of insights into our woes, which spare us feelings of alarm and isolation (even persecution) at being afflicted by them.  In their different ways, art and philosophy help us, in Schopenhauer’s words, to turn pain into knowledge.”  

Ultimately, art dispels the illusion that we are alone in our struggles.  The dispirited can discover hope in the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; the love sick can find solace in sonnets written by a Renaissance man nearly a half millennia ago.  Or as Botton writes, a snubbed suitor can find consolation in Goethe:

“By reading a tragic tale of love, a rejected suitor raises himself above his own situation; he is no longer one man suffering alone, singly and confusedly, he is part of a vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love with other humans in the agonizing drive to propagate the species.  [By reading], his suffering loses a little of its sting.” 

Epicurus on Consumption, Consumerism & What Is (and Isn’t) Required for Happiness

Black Friday.  Mall madness.  Deadly stampedes of Walmart shoppers determined to get half off a Samsung television set.  Black Friday is a carousal of consumption.  Companies flood our inboxes with sales (20% off!  30% off!  50% off!), encouraging us to splurge in the name of “saving” money.  Afraid of missing out on a “once-in-a-lifetime” deal, we buy far more than we actually need.

Why are we so consumed with consumption?

Because we think things will bring us happiness.

In his clever The Consolations of Philosophy, continually charming Alain de Botton uses the wisdom of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus to refute this deluded, distinctly American notion.  According to Epicurus, only three things are absolutely essential to happiness: thought, freedom and friendship.

Despite the hedonistic associations of his name, Epicurus didn’t support the reckless pursuit of pleasure.  Though he appreciated the finer things in life, he also understood material wealth wasn’t necessary.  To be satisfied, one only needed enough money to provide for the basic requirements of living.

Before you excessively spend this Black Friday, Botton suggests you seriously consider a few questions: could you buy a Chanel bag or an expensive cashmere sweater and still not be happy?  Conversely, could you still experience some measure of satisfaction if you never procured the much-lusted after object?

When you ask yourself these questions, Botton contends, you’ll usually find the worldly objects you crave are not prerequisites for happiness.  If— after years of yearning— you finally acquire a Gucci 1961 Jackie bag, you will still be miserable if you and your husband are constantly fighting.  Similarly, a supremely soft cashmere sweater will offer little consolation if your father just had a heart attack.  You can be just as melancholic on a sun-soaked beach in the Caribbean as you are on a gloomy day in your cramped London apartment.  Lavish things and splendid surroundings do not guarantee contentment.

But why, if material objects cannot promise happiness, do we obsess about their attainment?  Why do we make making money the aim of our existence?

According to Botton, we seek solutions for spiritual problems in material objects.  Rather than organize our heads, we buy Tupperware to organize our cabinets.  Rather than pick up the phone and have a vulnerable conversation with a friend, we treat ourselves to a pair of cat eye sunglasses from Yves Saint Laurent.  Rather than dedicate the time to reflect and identify our life’s purpose, we trade genuine fulfillment for fleeting gratification.  We mindlessly swipe our credit cards for useless junk just to feel the buzz of a dopamine hit and momentarily escape the utter meaninglessness of our existence.  It’s no coincidence that the phrase “retail therapy” has entered our language: in the 21st century, we believe the cure to our psychological ills can be bought on the free market.

In many ways, capitalism depends on us misunderstanding our own needs.  Our most fundamental needs are for love, for friendship, for freedom, for purpose, for meaning.  However, priceless concepts like connection and camaraderie can’t be purchased at Bloomingdales for 20% off on Black Friday.

And therein lies the problem: we cannot buy what we want.

Therefore, companies must trick us into buying their products.  By subliminally appealing to our unconscious needs, they convince us to shop.

When we buy a tube of glamorous red rouge, for instance, we’re buying a promise: to be beautiful and, therefore, loved/admired/heard/seen.

Or say we come across an advertisement that depicts a celebratory scene of attractive 20-somethings clinking champagne glasses in the city.  We subconsciously hear one message: if we drink this particular brand of bubbly, we’ll finally find the companionship we crave.

But we must not believe the lies of advertising.  Love cannot be located in lipstick and friendship cannot be found in a bottle of champagne.  To live well, we must differentiate our real from our invented needs.  We don’t need a Birkin or elegant, extravagant home furnishings.  But we do require a good book and a confidant who listens to us, makes us laugh and helps us not take life too seriously.

In Defense of Fashion: Alain de Botton on Clothes as a Powerful Means of Self-Expression

I have a secret: I’m obsessed with fashion.  During my lunch break, I salivate over my favorite store’s “just in” section.  I spend hours upon hours finding inspiration on Pinterest and scrolling through fashion influencer’s TikTok pages.  I approach clothes with a collector’s passion.  My closet is a carefully-curated museum, each piece is a work of art in my exhibit.

As a self-professed bookworm, I constantly chastise myself for caring so much about clothes.  Surely, it must be better to spend one’s time reading serious philosophy than skimming through Vogue!  Day after day, week after week, month after month, I scold myself for collecting fashion inspo on my Pinterest board instead of reading Proust.  In our culture, an interest in fashion has always been dismissed as empty-headed and shallow.  After all, who would care so deeply about a Chanel bag but a braindead bimbo?

Think of the 90s MTV show Daria.  Daria is a misanthropic outcast but portrayed as one of the only morally righteous and intellectually sound characters while her pretty, peppy younger sister Quinn is the embodiment of the dumb popular girl.  As the vice president of the fashion club, Quinn is only interested in two things: boys and the season’s latest “it” color.  Rather than discuss the day’s pressing political matters, Quinn and her midriff-exposing friends spend their meetings discussing such seemingly frivolous topics as whether acid-wash jeans are “in” and what belly chain to pair with what crop top.

But is fashion always silly and superficial?  Can you delight in a fine luxury handbag without being a materialistic, status-obsessed capitalist?  Can you appreciate the architectural perfection of the iconic Burberry trench coat and still be a serious-minded intellectual?

For British philosopher Alain de Botton, the answer is yes.  In his wise, witty, The Meaning of Life, Botton suggests clothes are a powerful means of self-expression.  “Despite the potential silliness and exaggeration of sections of the fashion industry,” he writes, “assembling a wardrobe is a serious and meaningful exercise.”

When we get dressed in the morning, we’re not just clothing ourselves for the practical purpose of covering our bodies— we’re communicating who we are.  Like a painter, we’re crafting an image, an identity.  Our materials are no longer a canvas and oil paints— they’re trousers and skirts, coats and collars, shoes and handbags.

Studies show that we form a first impression in as little as a tenth of a second.  In a brief moment, people come to lasting conclusions.  By carefully choosing what we wear, we can influence how others perceive us.  As Botton writes, “We act like artists painting a self-portrait: deliberately guiding the viewer’s perception of who we might be.”

Do we want to appear chic and classy?  We’ll wear timeless pieces like trench coats and ballet flats.  Do we want to be taken seriously?  We’ll clothe ourselves in a perfectly-pressed button up, bookish blazer and prep school plaid.  If, on the other hand, we want to appear edgy and non-conformist, we’ll ditch the conservative pant suit for denim jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket.

Garments are words in an unspoken language.  Different clothes transmit different messages: a pair of breezy linen trousers might capture the easygoing summer spirit; a milkmaid midi dress might suggest a delicate femininity and charming innocence.  The woman who wears jeans and a t-shirt is fundamentally different from the woman who wears espadrilles and a slip dress.

Ultimately, adornment isn’t just vain and empty-headed.  How we dress is a way of telling a story: about where we’re from, about who we are, about who we might be.  When we get dressed, to quote Botton, “we are communicating to others who we are while strategically reminding ourselves.  Our wardrobes contain some of our most carefully written lines of autobiography.”

Alain de Botton on How Work Can Transform the Wilderness of the World into an Orderly Garden

Dictators rise to power.  Countries wage war.  Economies crash.  Streets erupt in civil unrest.  Much of the world is mayhem and madness.

In his infinitely illuminating guide to finding value and purpose, The Meaning of Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that— though life is often an unmanageable mess— work can give us a consoling sense of tidiness.  At home, many of our problems are complicated: we might find it impossible to summon the stamina and enthusiasm to sleep with our partner after a long day at work and two decades of marriage; we might harbor homicidal fantasies of killing our teenage son for— yet again— not washing his dirty dishes; we might struggle to find time for ourselves amidst the endless demands of raising children.

But at work, we can “get on top of a problem and finally resolve it.”  The doctor can diagnose an illness and prescribe medicine.  The entrepreneur can pitch an idea to investors, design innovative new products and fill holes in the market.  The plumber can fix leaky pipes and broken toilets.

Most of life is dictated by things beyond our command: natural disasters, politics, stock markets.  But at work, we’re no longer powerless.  We might not be able to control whether a deadly hurricane devastates the Gulf Coast or who wins the next presidential election, but we can teach our students how to solve a system of equations using the substitution method and lead a meeting of directors with poise and self-assurance.  

In this life, there’s many things we cannot know: why we were born, when we’ll die, the purpose of it all.  We can’t know why humans have 23 chromosomes or why— of Earth’s 8.7 million species— the ability to formulate thoughts into words belongs to us alone.  We can never fully understand ourselves or unravel the mysteries of other people.

But through our work, we can know at least one subject in great detail.  A biochemist can understand how CRISPR can genetically engineer cells.  An art professor can give riveting lectures on the bold, expressive colors of Van Gogh and explain the cultural significance of Picasso.  A sommelier can decipher the exact year the grapes of a vintage Merlot were harvested and detect that they originated in Bordeaux.  By becoming an expert in a particular field, we can— to paraphrase Susan Orlean — whittle the world down to a more manageable scope.

Though many of us resent having to go to an office, work is crucial to our contentment.  Without work, we’d be lost in the wilderness with no sense of direction, no meaning, no purpose.  Weeds would overgrow; bushy brambles would choke our path; there would be no water or food for nourishment.  But in the lovely words of Botton, work can help us create a harmonious, comprehensible garden from a tiny portion of the wild surrounding forest.  When we devote ourselves to something larger, we bring a pleasing order and symmetry to our existence.  Work transforms weed-engulfed fields into beautiful botanical arrangements.

Want more advice on how to make meaning in a meaningless world?  Read Botton on how to be a better storyteller, how to define meaningful work, how to find authentic work, and how work is an expression of our better selves.  Want to learn more about work?  Revisit groundbreaking psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on why work is essential to happiness and poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran on labor as a form of love.

 

Alain de Botton on Idealization as the Opposite of Love & the Manifold Miraculous Ways to Live this Life

What is love?  Though we often imagine love is restricted to the romantic arena, there are many kinds of love: there’s the helpless obsession a young girl has for her first crush; the tender, unconditional love a parent has for their child; the deep intimacy shared between a brother and sister; the miraculous mutual understanding of friends who’ve known each other since they were 12.

Love can be romantic, platonic, erotic, familial.  It can last a single night or persist over a lifetime.  It can be as red-hot as an affair in Paris or as routine as folding laundry, as fun and frivolous as flirting or as serious as cosigning a mortgage, as giddy as a middle school crush or as steady as a 25 year marriage.  As Cheryl Strayed so beautifully said, love “can be light as the hug we give a friend or as heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children.”

Love is easy and effortless and hard and steep; love is rapture and torment; love is ecstasy and agony.  Love is everything and nothing.  Love is both in the small moments and grand gestures, the open doors and “good morning” text messages, the string quartets and bouquets of flowers.  Love touches our tenderest branches and shakes us to our very core.  

In her lovely, large-hearted book Conversations on Love, Natasha Lunn explores this mysterious element of the human experience.  Determined to shed light on this oft-uttered, but often misunderstood concept, Lunn asks artists and writers, philosophers and psychologists, sex experts and advice columnists to share their experiences.  Her conversations focus on 3 central questions: how do we find love?  how do we sustain love?  how do we recover when we lose it?  Part personal memoir, part reportage, Conversations on Love features interviews with wise, wonderful minds along with Lunn’s own musings and meditations.

One of my favorite chapters comes from Britain’s beloved philosopher of love Alain de Botton, whose work I cherish and write of often.  Botton, who himself has written extensively on the subject, argues the trouble with love is we romanticize it: we think our significant other should be our soul mate, a divine, consummate creature— not an ordinary mortal with difficult flaws and displeasing habits.  

With the cynicism that is characteristic of his British heritage, Botton suggests we’d be better off if we adopted a more realistic attitude and patterned our romantic relationships after the less rose-tinted love between children and parents: 

“One of the best models of love is how parents love their children.  At the same time, sometimes they don’t like them— they get bored of them, they think they’re awful, they want a break from them.  And all those things go on in the love that an adult might have for another, too; sometimes we’re fed up and aware of someone’s glaring faults, but still very much on their side.  They annoy us and we still love them.”

Botton defines love not in terms of what it is but in terms of what it is not.  Despite the romanticized portrayals of love in cheesy rom-coms and sappy Hallmark cards, love is not idealization— it’s seeing (and accepting) someone for who they truly are.  As Botton observes, 

“No one really wants to be idealized— we want to be seen and accepted and forgiven, and to know that we can be ourselves in our less edifying moments.  So to be on the receiving end of somebody’s idealizing feelings can be alienating.  It looks like we’re being seen and admired like never before, but actually, many important parts of us are being forgotten.”

For those of us who have yet to find a life partner, how do we hold on to hope, especially when our society expects us to “date in our twenties, find the ideal partner by twenty-eight, and have children by thirty one”?  Botton maintains we must let go of timelines and relinquish control.

Sometimes we’ll love someone and they won’t love us back.

Sometimes we’ll endure countless dull conversations in dimly-lit bars and go home alone to an empty bed.

Sometimes we’ll sign up for every dating app and go on date after date after date and still not find someone.

Our fates are a convergence of choice and chance.  The idea that we’re masters of our fates is a reassuring but ultimately untrue myth.  We can’t control if we’ll meet someone— or when.  We can only create a Tinder profile and put ourselves out there again and again.

No matter what our society says, there are no “right” partners, no “right” choices, no “right” ways to live.  We can follow the well-trodden road— get married, have children, buy a house with a white picket fence— or forge our own path.  We can find the love of our lives in college or when we’re 77.  We can choose to commit to one person or stay single.  We can get married in a poofy princess dress in a formal ceremony or barefoot on a Brazilian beach in front of only a few people.  Our dream life can contain toothaches and play dates and Play-Doh or world travel and boundless freedom.  When asked what he’d wished he’d known about finding love, Botton says:

“To be calmer about the whole process.  And that things would work out or they wouldn’t, and even then, that would be fine too.  This black and white model of ‘it’s got to be like this and then it will be perfect’ just doesn’t work.  It doesn’t matter who you meet or when you meet them; there’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger.  So don’t stick rigidly to one story about what your life means, because it’s likely to be wrong.  In fact, there are many ways of living this life.”

When a relationship ends, we often find it difficult to move on because we imagine the life we could’ve had is infinitely better than our life as it actually is.  We’re haunted by the phantom of our other possible existence.  What if we could have actually worked things out?  What if I/they finally changed?  What if we suddenly reconciled all our issues and fundamental incompatibilities: our dissimilar taste in movies, our contrasting views on marriage, our completely opposite political beliefs?  What if we finally moved to our dream city and built our own life in our own house?

In a poetic, profound passage, Lunn suggests it’s unproductive to romanticize what could have been.  Would we be happy if we didn’t end our relationship?  Perhaps, but that doesn’t negate the possibility for happiness in our lives as they’re currently constituted.  Every choice involves gain and loss.  If we chose the other path, our lives wouldn’t necessarily be better— just different.  As Lunn writes, 

“Alain made me see the situation of being alone not as an unflattering reflection of my ‘less impressive sides,’ but as an unimaginative story I was telling about connection.

All the times I had been casually rejected, I realize now were either future blessings or facts to be accepted, rather than resisted.  I had wasted energy trying to keep these relationships afloat; there was no need to waste more asking why someone didn’t love me, what I could have done differently to change the outcome.  The only outcome was the one that happened.  And as Alain pointed out, ‘There’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger.’  If I’d stayed with someone I’d met in my early twenties, moved to the seaside, got a dog and had a baby at thirty, there would have been wonderful and mundane chapters to that story, just as there were wonderful and mundane chapters to the life I lived in those years instead.  For every depressing date, there was a precious friendship formed.  For every lonely Sunday, a new ambition discovered.”

Alain de Botton on How to be a Better Storyteller

We usually think of storytellers as novelists, playwrights, screenwriters.  However, we’re all writers of the story of our lives.  As British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his wise, wonderful addition to the School of Life library, The Meaning of Life,  “we may not be publishing our stories, but we are writing them nevertheless.  Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going, and why events happened as they did.”

Sadly, most of us are merciless narrators: we downplay our accomplishments, we foreground our flaws, we cast ourselves as detestable villains rather than lovable, if charmingly imperfect, main characters.

The stories we tell ourselves might seem like cold, hard, objective facts, but they’re merely stories, which by definition are interpretations of facts.  A break up, for example, is just a break up.  How we interpret that breakup will determine its significance.  If we tell ourselves a melodramatic, tragic story (“He was the one; I’ll never find a good man again!”/”Now that he’s left me, I’ll die alone and be devoured in my kitchen by dozens of cats.”), we’ll a) find it impossible to move on and b) feel no motivation to leave our coach and potentially find someone else.  After all, why go out and date if our ex is the “one” and “only one” for us?  

In the end, the stories we tell determine the quality of our lives.  Below are 3 ways Botton suggests we can be better storytellers:

1. find meaning & make things cohere

In many ways, life is like a novel: there are conflicts, there are characters.  But unlike a novel, life doesn’t usually follow a neat, orderly logic.  Rarely do our conflicts build to a dramatic climax or satisfying resolution.  Events will be random and unsystematic, side characters will appear and reappear though they serve no real purpose.   A conversation with the grocery store clerk will do nothing to advance the plot of our lives or teach us some grand universal lesson.  A crow will caw without being in anyway symbolic.  Despite what we read in books and see on television, we have never met the love of our lives while shopping for gloves in a crowded New York department store on Christmas.  Compared to a novel, our stories seem hopelessly uninteresting and pointless.  Indeed, entire chapters might— at first glance— seem irrelevant:

We might spend our twenties waiting tables so we can focus on our writing only to pop champagne on our thirtieth birthday without a published novel or real “career.”

We might devote untold time, money and energy to studying law only to realize the actual practice of law is not nearly as exciting as Law & Order

We might invest ten years in a relationship that doesn’t work out.

We might go on date after date after date without any of our flings ever going anywhere.

Though these segments of our sagas might seem meaningless, the good storyteller weaves them into a storyline that coheres.  Rather than tell themselves a self-condemning story (“You’re an idiot for devoting a decade of your life to writing!  Now you’re thirty with no ‘career’!”), they’re kind, forgiving narrators (“You’re brave for so passionately pursing what you love instead of settling for a socially acceptable career”).

The choice of the wrong profession wasn’t an indefensible detour— it was a scenic route.  We might not have taken the most direct road to our destination, but— because we wandered from the main highway— we were able to see some breathtaking panoramic views and get a better sense of what we did want to do.

The decade-long relationship that didn’t work out wasn’t a “waste” of ten years it was a requisite 3,650 day course on how to love and be loved, our most important work.

The countless flirtations that never metamorphosed into something more weren’t humiliating failures— they were stepping stones on the path to finding a loving, long-term partner.

2.  recognize you’re not the sole narrator of your life

Despite the much-loved myth of meritocracy, we’re not in complete control of our lives.  Whether we graduate from an Ivy League university and win the Pulitzer-prize or spend our days mopping floors and doing other people’s laundry isn’t only determined by our talent, work ethic or ability.  Our fates are influenced by many things: our parents, our families, our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our culture, our particular moment in history.  Whether or not we have a good career and money in savings is largely dependent on the state of the economy.  Whether our industry continues to thrive or is squashed by new technology depends on consumers and tech giants in Silicon Valley.  How long we live depends on our day to day choices (what we eat, how often we exercise and rest) but also on modern medicine and genetics.

According to Botton, “the good storyteller recognizes, contrary to certain impressions, that there will always be a number of players responsible for [our life’s] negative events.”  Circumstance, chance, fate: each will contribute its share to our stories.  We might be 35 and mortgage-less— not through any fault of our own— but because, for the past few decades, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living.  We might be single— not because we’re unattractive and completely unlovable— but because online dating has made it seem as though we have an infinite number of potential partners and, consequently, made many men less willing to settle down.

Therefore, if we want to be better storytellers, we should stop cruelly castigating ourselves for our “failures.”  As Botton so wittily writes, “Sometimes, it really will be the fault of something or someone else: the economy, our parents, the government, our enemies or sheer bad luck.”  Man may have mastered many things— fire, language, electricity, atomic energy, small pox— but he will never completely master his fate.  His story will always be cowritten by the stars.

3. be courageous enough to write your own story

Rather than possess the daring and boldness to write our own completely original scripts, most of us cowardly follow our society’s formulaic templates.  We let our lives be determined by custom and convention.  We go to college, we get a job, we get married, we have children.  We uncritically accept the standards of our family, our friends, our countrymen.  The result?  Our stories become no more than dull copies of someone else’s manuscript.

However, we don’t have to mindlessly rewrite our society’s stock stories, recycle the same tired conventions, reuse the same cliched character types— we have the power to pen our own script.  Take, for example, the official story about “success.”  Most people would say success is power and prestige, acclaim and awards: earning a six-figure salary, buying and selling companies, driving a Ferrari, landing a spot on the “30 Under 30” list at Forbes.

But we can define success for ourselves.  Maybe for us, success doesn’t possess all the glitter and glamour of celebrity.  Maybe it just means doing what has to be done with grace and dignity.  Maybe teaching school children to read is just as impressive as leading a Fortune 500 company or climbing Mt. Denali.

“Good narrators appreciate that events can count as meaningful even when they’re not recognized as such by powerful authorities,” Botton writes, “We may be holidaying in a tent rather than the Presidential suite, hanging out with our grandmother rather than a pop group…and nevertheless lay claim to a legitimately meaningful life.”

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.