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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Insatiably curious, children have a hard time concentrating on any one thing for too long; if you sit with a child and try to teach them long division, for example, you’ll most likely be met with the disgruntled complaint “I’m bored!!!” After a single problem, your restless pupil will want to play his saxophone, pretend to be an astronaut, or draw stick figures on the board.
In many ways, the goal of education is to teach children to withstand such boredom. From 8:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon for twelve years of their lives, children have to resist the urge to write stories and build blanket forts so they can learn how to add two digit numbers, compose neat, orderly paragraphs, and locate the atomic mass of elements on the periodic table. To excel academically, they must endure long periods of boredom.
On one hand, there is obviously value in this educational model. School teaches the discipline and steadfastness to stick with a subject even when it doesn’t immediately interest us. If we couldn’t occasionally tolerate doing things we disliked, we’d never be prepared to enter the adult world. After all, much of adulthood is doing things we don’t want to: going to long meetings, listening to maddening elevator music while waiting on the phone with Comcast, having dinner with our in-laws to name a few.
The problem is as we grow up, we become too good at ignoring our boredom. Because school requires us to suppress our natural curiosity and essentially disregard our interests and enthusiasms, we stopped listening to our boredom. But boredom— like all emotions— has something valuable to teach us. Boredom is a sign that something is amiss. If we feel wearisome, whatever we’re doing is lacking interest and engagement.
Rather than be a strict school master to ourselves and demand we do things we find dreadfully dull, we should find what truly exhilarates us. In his edifying A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton makes the compelling claim that the average human life is only 26,000 days, far too short to squander on occupations we find boring. Ultimately, Botton gives us permission to stop being such dutiful “good” students. Instead of obey our inner school teacher and do things out of a dreary sense of duty and obligation, we should be like children and value our own penchants and predilections.
Pick up the latest bestseller only to find it so yawns-worthy you couldn’t get past the first five pages? Don’t demand that “you finish what you started.” Find a book that absorbs your attention and keeps you turning pages.
Go to an art museum only to struggle to stay awake? Ditch the MOMA and go see a movie. There’s no reason to make yourself appreciate Van Gogh if you find reading placards and staring at paintings all day woefully uninteresting.
Force yourself to read the morning paper every day even though you dread the exercise? Stop trying to “be informed” and read something you find fascinating, whether that’s children’s literature or 19th century poetry.
When we listen to our boredom, we learn what we like and dislike, what we love and what we loathe; we discover what sort of books we prefer, what kind of music stirs our souls; we define our aesthetic, our sense of humor, our taste in clothes. In other words, we become like all great artists and develop a “late style.”
What, exactly, is a late style? According to Botton, as artists get older, they tend to create far better works. Take Picasso. A child prodigy, Picasso exhibited extraordinary artistic talent from a young age. In the masterful “Study of a Torso” (depicted below), he had already grasped the fundamental principles of painting. Remarkably, he made this work when he was only 14.
Though Picasso’s early work demonstrated considerable technical skill, his later work was far more original. Take the below oil painting “The Dream” as an example. Painted in a single afternoon in 1932 when Picasso was 50, “The Dream” is a revolution of color and form. No longer bound to traditional ideas of how to depict reality, Picasso experimented with distorted shapes and bold, contrasting colors.
The titan of 20th century art once said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. What he meant was that it took him decades to unlearn all his instruction and instead paint like himself. In school, he learned to paint “properly”: how to proportion a face, how to depict a beautiful woman sitting on a sofa. He mastered the principles of line and shape, unity and harmony, color and form. The result? He produced many expertly-crafted paintings, but they were paintings we’d seen countless times before.
However, as he got older, Picasso became less afraid of breaking from convention and more devoted to pursuing his own pleasure. Rather than “ignore [his] inborn ideas and impulses,” he listened to his boredom. He didn’t want to paint faithful-to-life representations— he wanted to paint in a way that reflected his own perspective. So he abandoned the traditional rules of composition and started painting like he wanted: with a playful disregard of reality, with a passion for the phantasmagorical, with expressive brushstrokes, with strong, striking colors.
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.
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.
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 Times, May 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.
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.”
Is 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.
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.”