Alain de Botton on Why We Should Be More Pessimistic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          1. life generally goes wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

          8. most days will be uneventful and uninteresting 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alain de Botton on How to Lengthen Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cezanne fruit

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

The problem?

We most certainly are not other people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should adopt a similarly inquisitive attitude toward ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

luxury final #2

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

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

Are many luxurious things beyond our bank account?

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

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

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

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

chanel shopping bags

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

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

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

Bell Hooks on Why We Shouldn’t Prioritize Products Over People

The U.S. is one of the richest countries in the world because it has perfected the art of making people loathe themselves.  Glamorous fashion magazines and accelerated trend cycles make us feel as if we need more: more sunglasses, more shoes, more Chanel perfumes, more Dolce and Gabbana belts.  In order to sustain itself, capitalism ultimately must make us feel like who we are and what we have isn’t enough.  After all, why would we spend money to acquire more things unless we were discontent with ourselves?  Dissatisfaction equals profit.  As historian Frederick Allen once wrote, the consumer must be persuaded to “buy and buy lavishly” or else “the whole stream of six-cylinder cars, super heterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts and electric ice boxes” will not sell.

Shiny shopping malls glitter with the promise of solving our problems.  Too shy?  Buy a sophisticated blazer and finally be bold enough to speak up at board meetings.  Too klutzy?  Buy an expensive pair of designer heels and you’ll strut like a supermodel instead of stumble through the streets awkwardly.  The secret to being happy/lovable/charismatic/confident—we believe— lies in clothing racks and checkout lines.

When we empty our wallets, we’re not just buying an object— we’re buying an idea.  Why do you think women have loyally bought Chanel N°5 since 1921?  Do they dish out over a hundred dollars for the mysterious scent of rose and jasmine, bright citrus top notes, and sensual touch of vanilla?  Or do they buy it for its timeless rectangular bottle?

No, Chanel N°5 remains the world’s most iconic perfume because of its mystique, its aura.  N°5 isn’t just a fragrance: it’s a pathway to becoming the woman in the ad, a classic beauty in diamond earrings and fur stole.  Millions of women flock to the perfume counter for this world-famous fragrance in hopes that it will transmit the qualities of Chanel: effortless elegance, enduring style.  As loyal citizens of America, the cellophane-wrapped land of McDonald’s and Coca Cola, we swipe our credit cards because we believe what we buy will transform us into better versions of ourselves.

chanel no 5

But despite what our consumerist culture tries to convince us, a bottle of perfume or Prada bag can’t solve our complex psychological problems.  If we call ourselves disgusting fat cows every time we look in the mirror, no piece of clothing, no matter how stunning, will ever make us feel beautiful.  Love, happiness, self-worth: all are internal issues.

In her revelatory All About Love, scholar, feminist and cultural critic bell hooks argues our society is sick because we care more about things than people.  Since the 1950s, we’ve descended into a netherworld of materialism where we seek material solutions to spiritual problems; if we’re bored, we buy the latest trend on TikTok; if we’re overcome with existential dread during our lunch hour, we buy new shoes.  Such material things might offer a momentary thrill but they never really get to the heart of our issues.  As hooks, writes:

“Although we live in close contact with neighbors, masses of people in our society feel alienated, cut off, alone.  Isolation and loneliness are central causes of depression and despair.  Yet they are the outcome of life in a culture where things matter more than people.  Materialism creates a world of narcissism in which the focus of life is solely on acquisition and consumption.  A culture of narcissism is not a place where love can flourish…Left alone in ‘me’ culture, we consume and consume with no thought of others.  Greed and exploitation become the norm where an ethic of domination prevails.  They bring in their wake alienation and lovelessness.  Intense spiritual and emotional lack in our lives is the perfect breeding ground for material greed and over-consumption.  In a world without love the passion to connect can be replaced by the passion to possess.”

1950s television

Rather than seek fulfillment from objects and prioritize products over people, hooks believes we should focus on loving, both ourselves and other people.  Love— what she defines as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”— is ultimately what makes life worthwhile.

Bell Hooks on What Love Is & What Love Is Not

The definitions of love are many.  For poetess and prototypical feminist Sylvia Plath, love is a Venn diagram of two independent but intersecting identities.  For fellow feminist Edna St. Vincent Millay, love might not be “all,” but “many a man is making friends with death for lack of love alone.”  Perhaps the best definition is no definition at all; as poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes, “love is the great intangible.”

In her revelatory All About Love, scholar, feminist and cultural critic bell hooks aims to clarify this all about loveindefinite emotion.  Though at first love seems beyond definition, too elusive to be captured in a semantic net of description, hooks attempts to define love because “our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving.  If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying.”  After all, we can only love (and be loved) if we know what love is.  As Rebecca Solnit once so elegantly expressed, calling things by their true names “isn’t all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.”

Our cultural conception of love is often unrealistic.  Hollywood movies portray happy couples prancing off into the sunset, the moment of a couple’s romantic reunion at the airport or tender first kiss— never tense dinners in silence or squabbles over dirty dishes.  We usually only see the idealized initial stages of love but what happens after the end credits?  Had Jack not froze to death at the end of Titanic, would him and Rose have made it?  Would they have rode horses along the beach like they had imagined?  Would they be happily married or would Rose resent having to relinquish the material comforts of her aristocratic existence?  Would she eventually regret leaving the millionaire steel tycoon for the starving artist?

Most romantic movies end before the couple has to grapple with the difficulties of being in a long-term relationship.  Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles: all end with the beginning of a relationship: a first kiss, a grand declaration of love and reconciliation.  Because we only witness love in its intoxicating early stages, we have unrealistic standards for our real-life romances.  We equate love with uncontrollable passion, Gone With the Wind kisses and bouquets of roses.  If our partner is truly destined for us, we believe, things should be easy: we should finish each other’s sentences, always want to have sex, and never quarrel.  Our partner should know that we hate the volume too loud on the TV without us having to say so.

Despite these prevailing myths, love is often difficult.  In All About Love’s opening chapter “Clarity: Give Love Words,” hooks argues love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb.  In other words, loving is a choice we make day after day, it’s something we do.  It’s easy to choose love in the beginning of a relationship, when our beloved is a distant crush we’ve barely uttered “hello” to.  It’s far more difficult to choose love— to compromise, to sacrifice, to hold our tongue, to listen attentively, to express gratitude— the longer we’ve been with someone.

In the first dizzy days of love, we think our beloved is an idol, a god.  But this is a chimera.  When we obtain the object of our desire, when the crush we admired from afar finally becomes our significant other, we realize they’re just as flawed as we are: they’re occasionally petty, often jealous, insufferable after a long day of work and grouchy when tired.  To love any one for any length of time requires we forgive these frailties and foibles. 

According to M. Scott Peck, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  Though we usually imagine love is accepting someone for who they are, hooks maintains—much like charmingly cynical philosopher and unlikely love guru Alain de Botton— that love is a form of education.  Our significant others are instructors in the school of life, coaches who challenge us to build upon our strengths and remedy our weaknesses.

While it’s true your partner shouldn’t try to shape you into something you’re not, growth is the cornerstone of the greatest relationships.  Each of us— no matter how intelligent or attractive or accomplished— are flawed: we sulk when our feelings are hurt, we throw fits when we lose at trivia, we furiously honk our horns and cut people off when driving on the highway during rush hour.  A good partner will possess the qualities we lack and teach us how to express our emotions, control our road rage and stop being such a sore loser.  As hooks writes, when we commit to love, we commit to being changed by another.Ultimately, love is care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest, open communication.  Love isn’t abuse, belittlement, cruelty, or humiliation.  In a moment that is as revelatory as it is painfully obvious, hooks declares “love and abuse cannot coexist.”  Though it seems self-evident that love is incompatible with mistreatment, many of us— especially those who were abused as children— struggle to accept this fact.  As any psychologist will tell you, our conception of love begins with our family of origin.  If we were physically, psychologically, or emotionally abused, if we were constantly criticized or compared to another sibling, if we were simply neglected and never listened to, we will make the logical leap that love = pain/neglect/abuse.

As adults, we replicate the same childhood scripts but find different actors to play the roles of our dysfunctional parents.  If our father beat us after one too many gin and tonics, we marry an alcoholic who’s just as short-tempered and just as violent; if our mother was a narcissist, we only find ourselves attracted to the most self-absorbed women.

Hooks contends that if we grew up in a dysfunctional home where our parents said “I love you” but also hurt us, called us names, minimized our feelings or acted as if we didn’t exist, we have to come to terms with a devastating fact: we do not know what love is.  We’ve never known love and, sadly, have spent much of our lives in a state of lovelessness.

The good news is that love is a skill: we can learn to love just as we learned the state capitals and letters of the alphabet.  Want more insight into this rare and immensely important ability?  Read Alain de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, how heartbreak dispels our hubris, love as the origin of beauty, the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, and dating as a form of performative playacting.  Longing for even more lessons on how to love?  Revisit French novelist Marcel Proust on how to be happy in love and philosopher, painter and poet Kahlil Gibran’s timeless meditations on love as our most demanding work.

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Scavenger Hunt of Curiosity

When Sylvia Plath wrote her perennial classic The Bell Jar, we imagine she was overcome by a burning passion for her subject, that she was obsessed with the repressive patriarchy of the 1950s, mental hospitals and electro-shock treatments.  But what if she wasn’t immediately infatuated with her concept?  What if The Bell Jar began as a simple attempt to recreate that “queer, sultry summer” in 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle and the Rosenbergs were electrocuted?

I write often about how we romanticize the artist’s life.  We glamorize the tired and trite “suffering artist” archetype, we worship the myth of the “muse.”  But perhaps one of the most persistent (and pernicious) myths about art is that the artist only creates because he “has” to.  To write— we think— the writer must be seized by a Big Idea.  In a sudden burst of ecstatic inspiration, he has no choice but to obey the callings of the muse.  His productivity is frenzied, fiery.  He can’t sleep, he can’t eat.  All his thoughts unceasingly circulate around one thing: his idea.  His work most closely resembles a passionate love affair.

I myself rarely have this experience.  Indeed, at first, I almost never am “in love” with an idea.  A topic might interest me like a handsome, mysterious man in the corner of a bar.  Do I want to dramatically kiss him like we’re Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca?  No, but I’m intrigued enough to walk across the room, spark a conversation and buy him a beer.

In her wondrous Big Magic, the ever-endearing Elizabeth Gilbert makes an unconventional argument: if you want to write, you need curiosity, not passion.  In our passion-crazed culture, we believe our work should be a consuming love affair as steamy as a clandestine kiss stolen in an elevator.  However, our next idea rarely (if ever) arrives in a lighting bolt of inspiration— it comes in hints, murmurs, and whispers.

In one of my favorite chapters “The Scavenger Hunt,” Gilbert describes the process of writing her page-turning period piece The Signature of All Things, a tale of adventure and discovery that traces the story of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant botanist during the 19th century.  Before she embarked on The Signature of All Things, Gilbert was experiencing a dry spell.  What— she wondered for months— did she want to do next?  Did she want to write a sweeping historical novel?  a piece of non-fiction?  another Eat, Pray, Love-style memoir?

Like many of us, Gilbert longed for irrepressible desire; she wanted her next project to give her goosebumps and butterflies, to sweep her off her feet, to court and woo her.  When such an idea never came, she decided to settle for curiosity.  Rather than wait for the idea to magically fall from the sky, she asked herself a simple question: was there anything she was interested in?  anything at all?  As Gilbert writes,

“I kept waiting for a big idea to arrive, and I kept announcing to the universe that I was ready for a big idea to arrive, but no big ideas arrived.  There were no goose bumps, no hair standing on the back of my neck, no butterflies in my stomach.  There was no miracle.

[…]

Most days, this is what life is like.  I poked about for a while in my everyday chores— writing emails, shopping for socks, resolving small emergencies, sending out birthday cards.  I took care of the orderly business of life.  As time ticked by and an impassioned idea still hadn’t ignited me, I didn’t panic.  Instead, I did what I have done so many times before: I turned my attention away from passion and toward curiosity.

I asked myself, Is there anything you’re interested in right now, Liz?

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?”

Once Gilbert decided to let go of the need for passion and instead follow her curiosity, she realized she was interested in something: gardening.  Was she obsessed with gardening?  Would she die for a field of red carnations?  No, but she was curious.  She had just moved to a small town in rural New Jersey and wanted to plant a garden.  So she planted heirloom irises and lilacs and tulips.  In the process, she discovered that many of the gorgeous flowers in her garden actually originated in faraway, exotic places.  Her tulips were from Turkey; her irises were from Syria.  Every little flower in her garden contained a history she had not been aware of.

The more Gilbert learned, the more her curiosity bloomed.  She read books about botanists and explorers; she trekked across the globe from her small town in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of Polynesia; she poured over historical documents and interviewed experts.  Soon Gilbert was so fanatically obsessed with botanical history that she decided to write a book.

Had Gilbert disregarded her interest in gardening, she would have never written The Signature of All Things.  As she confesses with equal parts humor and humility,

“It was a novel I never saw coming.  It had started with nearly nothing.  I did not leap into that book with my hair on fire; I inched toward it, clue by clue.  But by the time I looked up from my scavenger hunt and began to write, I was completely consumed with passion about nineteenth-century botanical exploration.  Three years earlier, I had never even heard of nineteenth-century botanical exploration—  all I’d wanted was a modest garden in my backyard!— but now I was writing a massive story about plants, and science, and evolution, and abolition, and love, and loss, and one woman’s journey into intellectual transcendence.

So it worked.  But it only worked because I said yes to every single tiny clue of curiosity.”

If you’re feeling stuck and having trouble choosing your next project, heed Ms. Gilbert’s advice: stop romanticizing the drama and excitement of passion and instead follow the not-so-obvious clues of your curiosity.

Elizabeth Gilbert: What’s Your Favorite Flavor of Shit Sandwich?

In her radiant, resplendent Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, who taught us how to embrace the paradoxical principles of creative living and rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence, tells the story of one of her friends who was an aspiring writer.  Much like her, he wanted nothing more than to be published.  Despite his determination, the only thing in his mailbox were rejections.  As time went on, the young writer got more and more discouraged.  What was the point?  Why write at all if he wasn’t going to “make” something of it?  “I don’t want to be just sitting around,” he grumbled to Gilbert, “I want this to all add up to something.  I want this to become my job!”  Tormented by the thought that all his hard work would come to “nothing,” the young writer sank into a serious depression.  Eventually, he put down his pen and paper and gave up.

Why did this young man stop writing?  Simple: he wasn’t willing to eat the shit sandwich.

What’s a shit sandwich?

The shit sandwich is a concept Ms. Gilbert borrowed from the four-letter-word-loving provocateur Mark Manson.  The idea goes that anything worthwhile comes with its own stinky brand of shit sandwich.  Every relationship, every city, every job, every profession has disadvantages.

The man of your dreams may possess everything you’ve ever wanted— a sharp mind, a good sense of humor, a gentle, sensitive nature— but have one serious flaw; perhaps he has an obnoxious obsession with recounting movie plots or has children from a previous partner.

The city you’ve always romanticized may be picturesque on postcards but have sidewalks littered with heroin needles and a serious homeless problem.

No matter how glittery or glamorous a job may seem, there will always be tedious things lurking beneath its glossy exterior.  A fashion editor, for instance, may get free Prada handbags and sip champagne in chiffon, but she may also have to work on a tight deadline and deal with constantly being chewed out by her tyrannical boss.  A famous musician may get to play in front of thousands of screaming fans but also have to live out of a suitcase on a tour bus.  A doctor may possess the prestige of a PhD and make a six figure salary, but also have to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before he can call himself a doctor.  As Gilbert writes:

“What Manson means is that every single pursuit…comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects.  As Manson writes with profound wisdom, “Everything sucks, some of the time.”  You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with.  So the question is not so much ‘What are you passionate about?’  The question is ‘What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?'”

elizabeth gilbert #2

Gilbert’s friend claimed he wanted to be a writer but he wasn’t willing to do what it took to be a writer.  The demoralizing rejection letters, the lack of respect or recognition, the concerned looks of sensible relatives: this is the stomach-churning shit you have to eat if you want to be a writer.  Writing isn’t just Pulitzer prizes and interviews with Oprah: it’s years of toiling away in obscurity, it’s hurtful criticism, it’s losing contest after contest, it’s impersonal form rejection letters.  But if you love writing— or anything— enough, you can tolerate the shit sandwich that accompanies your sumptuous feast of a three-course dinner.  The joy of writing— of simply putting one word against another— makes up for the heartbreaking years of being a nobody and the sting of a harsh review in the New Yorker.