How Alain de Botton's School of Life helped 100,000 fix love woes
Writer known for his acute observations has had global success with classes training people to manage the complexities of modern life and relationships - something he's telling Hong Kong audiences about this week
Philosophers have been pondering for millennia the best way to live. To try to answer that central question in today's context, Alain de Botton has been examining the intriguing details about our lives.
De Botton, 45, looked at how we travel by once spending a week hanging out at London's Heathrow Airport (and writing a book about it). He has studied how we look at art, how we think about sex, how anxious we are about status, what and how we use what we learned at school, how we can be changed by what we read (especially if it's Proust) and what kinds of spaces we choose to live in.
Then he does something about the information he's gained, which distinguishes him from just about every other philosophical writer.
He's opened a school, for example.
In 2008, de Botton helped set up an establishment in a shop near London's King's Cross that he called The School of Life. The idea was to offer courses on subjects that were more interesting and relevant to our real lives than the subjects you usually find being taught.
Subjects such as (and this is from the current curriculum) the risks and rewards of friendship, how to manage stress, how to be confident, and even the increasingly relevant "how to get better at online dating".
The School of Life - which is one of the subjects de Botton will be speaking about in two open forums in Hong Kong today and tomorrow - has been phenomenally successful. It now has 10 branches round the world, and some sources say it's actually beginning to make a profit.
"What we set out to do is to give people tools to better understand themselves and make them more effective in two areas in particular: relationships and with work," says de Botton.
In the past seven years, more than 100,000 people have passed through the various doors of the School of Life in Istanbul, Turkey; Belgrade, Serbia; Antwerp, Belgium; and Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Brazil, as well as London.
De Botton remembers a couple who were on the verge of breaking up when they attended one of the courses.
It introduced them to the ideas of the late psychoanalyst John Bowlby, in particular his powerful ideas of the avoidant and the anxious partner in a relationship.
"This enabled them to understand destructive patterns in their love story and to try to correct them," de Botton says.
That was a class with plenty of tears, he says, but he remembers most their "lovely commitments to try harder at the business of love".
His own schooling - at eight, speaking very little English, he was sent from his home in Switzerland to boarding school in Britain - gave him plenty of technical ideas and knowledge, he says, but very little wisdom or emotionally intelligent advice.
This reflects the standard bias round the world: "We're taught as if we were just machines for working rather than questing, suffering, complex emotional beings."
He and his wife have two young sons, Samuel and Saul, and they are trying to incorporate lessons from the School of Life in their upbringing "in a subtle way".
"We don't mention Plato … " he says, "but we try to bring them up in an emotionally intelligent way. So far, so good. But a good life always means mistakes, of course."
In 2010, de Botton told the BBC that his goal in raising his own children is that "they will never read a book or at least not be that dramatically inclined towards writing". This was because he hoped they should not have the kind of anxiety that had led towards his own need to read and write. That hasn't quite happened.
"They are both keen readers," he says. "But I think the best way to introduce children to the life of the mind is through action; through behaving intelligently and sensitively around them, not delivering lectures."
He does, of course, deliver plenty of lectures ("I'm always terrified as I'm very shy. The best way to get over it is to think that people don't really care and are very friendly deep down, anyway. No one is setting out to scare you.") and also he presents TV programmes, and directs and designs comic video shorts (which can be found on The School of Life YouTube channel) about the art of living.
But his main form of public expression is still books. De Botton has written more than 20 of them, mostly with quirky, surprising titles such as The News: A User's Manual and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. But even after all those, writing is still a painful process, bringing sorrow as well as pleasure.
"Everything is hard in writing. The key thing to focus on is trying to answer the question that's at the heart of a book," he says.
"I start my books with a big simple question, like: 'What is beauty?' or 'How can a relationship work?' Then I suffer for three years."
In 2013, he wrote Religion for Atheists, which set out to "explore the possible uses a religion might have for an unbeliever" like himself. In it he talked about how, instead of questions about what you do, or where your children go to school, we should ask questions that might give a more sincere revelation about a person. What do you regret? Whom can you not forgive? What do you fear?
His own answers are, in order: Not being focused early enough on what I really wanted to do; No one, everyone can be forgiven; Dying in the coming years, before my children are over 25. Incidentally, he is not bothered what kind of funeral he has, he says. "But I'd love my children to be there."
Religion for Atheists is a melancholy, revealing book, which partly stems - as so much of his work does - from his father, a self-made, extremely wealthy Swiss banker who left most of his money in a foundation, which de Botton has opted not to use. He was a secular Jew, an atheist who "placed religious belief somewhere on a par with an attachment to Santa Claus", de Botton says.
"I recall my father reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight."
De Botton does get melancholic, "but it's almost always because I'm exhausted and haven't eaten properly. So it's best to go straight to bed in such moods. Also, sadness is a legitimate part of life; it's no use trying to banish it totally."
His best therapeutic, idea-generating activity is swimming.
"The interesting thing about thinking is that it doesn't happen when it's supposed to; that is, when you're at the desk on Monday morning. This is a very unfruitful time.
"It happens when your guard is lowered and the weirder thoughts that lead to good ideas are able to slip out."
A few years ago, de Botton wrote a book about the problem of architecture: The Architecture of Happiness.
"It got a healthy amount of attention, on the back of which I was invited to a stream of conferences about the future of architecture," de Botton says.
"But one night, returning from one such conference in Bristol, I had a dark moment of the soul.
"I realised that however pleasing it is to write a book about an issue one feels passionately about, the truth is that - a few exceptions aside - books don't change anything."
Indeed, he realised that if he cared so much about architecture, "writing was just a coward's way out; the real challenge was to build."
So on the back of a notepad a project was born.
Living Architecture, which was launched two summers ago, is a not-for-profit organisation that builds houses around Britain designed by some of the world's top architects and making them available to the public to rent throughout the year for holidays.
"Our dream was to allow people to experience what it's like to live and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice."
Living Architecture's houses are deliberately varied. One of them by the Dutch firm MVRDV, named Balancing Barn, hangs precariously, and in a completely unlikely way, off the edge of a hill in Suffolk.
One that will open next year, by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, is what de Botton describes as a "secular mini-monastery" that will aim to bring an ecclesiastical calm and solemnity to the Devon countryside.
For de Botton, the salvation of housing lies in raising standards of taste.
"If one considers how rapidly and overwhelmingly this has been achieved in cooking, there is much to be optimistic about," he says. "Consumers have learned to ask probing questions about salt or fat levels, which it wouldn't have occurred to a previous generation to raise. With the right guidance, a similar sensitivity could be fashioned to the worst features of domestic buildings."
Living Architecture is not just giving people interesting weeks or weekends in spaces that might amaze them. "My hope is that a holiday in a Living Architecture house will, in a modest but determined way, help to change the debate about what sort of houses we want to live in."
It is just a step from there to change the debate about the sort of lives we want to live.
"I have met a few people who seem content with what they have, even if it isn't everything and it can never be," he says.
"That's true wisdom. I am very moved by these calm, wise spirits, who are so different from the rest of us mad monkeys."
Alain de Botton, along with writers Simon Sebag Montefiore and Carol Thatcher, will speak at two authors' forums hosted by David Tang for the Hong Kong Book Fair: today, 5pm, Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai; and tomorrow, 10.30am. Loke Yew Hall, 1/F Main Building, University of Hong Kong