How to fix your (sex) life
SELF-HELP :. . . and other advice from Alain de Botton’s School of Life. TOM KELLYtackles the booklist
ALAIN DE BOTTON is a man with a mission. Another mission that is, as well his continuously stylish philosophical reframings of our everyday living in books like How Proust Can Save Your Life and The Art of Travel. Now he’s out to reclaim the self-help book – after all, these can’t help themselves – prompting and editing a series of six compact, beautifully designed ‘How To’ manuals for life; and, of course, contributing one of the titles himself, How to Think More about Sex.
I’ll come back to sex, as it seems we all do.
Published by The School of Life, an initiative of which De Botton is a founder, while his fellow authors teach there too. Founded in 2008, the London-based school offers workshops and classes to help us lead more fulfilling, richer lives. And have fun while we’re at it. They’re all writers, thinkers and regular media contributors, like psychologist Philippa Perry, digital guru Tom Chatfield – who’d hate that description I’m sure – and social activist John-Paul Flintoff. Roman Krznaric suggests How to Find Fulfilling Work and John Armstrong How to Worry Less about Money. It’s a stellar shelf of intellectual firepower and easy communicators.
Many of life’s big issues are explored and indeed, set as homework here.
Oh yes, these are proper handbooks for living, with exercises and follow-throughs if you want to turn the thinking into action or as Perry puts it, “ongoing practice and maintenance”. Hers has the starkest title, How to Stay Sane and she engagingly charts out routes to deal with stress, develop positive relationships and reinforce our mental resilience. Socrates’s much repeated adage is about to get another airing here: that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. And this a thread that’s rewoven through all six titles. Self awareness, the ability to stand outside one’s self is in some form in each ‘How To’.
The books are peppered with historical snippets, anecdotes, surprising nuggets of research and sometimes brutal honesty about personal issues that drive the narratives of emotional education along briskly. They’re all short at about 150 pages, but the scale of ambition keeps them meaty. Like Flintoff’s How to Change the World, which builds on the reasonable assumption that most of us would like to do something, but we’re pinned down by inertia. Though admitting to probably revealing his own inner hippy in how he lives and thinks, he doesn’t champion any manifesto about what we should change in the world, but just how to get going. It’s funny and practical, like having an appendix that lists 198 methods of non-violent action.
You could think Krznaric’s parsing out of how we might find more fulfilling work would be something of a softer aspiration, yet his silently shocking detail that 60 per cent of workers in the West say we’re dissatisfied with our jobs shows just how fundamental a challenge this is. We’re spending a third of our time doing something we don’t enjoy.
Yet he’s a realist acknowledging that with a current unemployment rate of about 14.7 per cent here – a figure he knew off the top of his head – some would see the idea of seeking fulfilling work as a luxury. But he follows up by suggesting it’s just during these times of change that we need to think most carefully and perhaps differently about our decisions.
Especially when other research shows that salary is right down the list of what gives us satisfaction in jobs.
Philosopher John Armstrong addresses what could be seen as a parallel issue, worries about money. More fertile ground. He’s quick to make the distinction between money troubles – where there are actual cash flow problems – and worries, where it’s to do with our mindset regarding filthy lucre. Still he gets stuck into the nitty gritty, taking on what he describes as “the art of domestic finance” and laying out his own family budget for a year. But it’s not to show where savings might be had, but to explore how it’s our perceptions of what’s important that might let us feel better about our finances – and in turn, about ourselves.
“An embodied, chemical and largely insane human life” is how De Botton pictures us at one stage and it’s balancing of this life that the series takes on. How to Thrive in the Digital Age is entertainingly and astutely examined by Tom Chatfield. Our digital lives permeate virtually every aspect of our tangible ones, with a whole vocabulary of new and repositioned verbs: to Google, to Tweet, to text, to browse, to share and more. Chatfield is especially interested in how we’re going to manage to build “unplugged” moments into our lives as the digital momentum builds.
And finally De Botton’s own page turner, with its provocative title. Sex still sells. He doesn’t disappoint in terms of provocation inside either, whether it’s wondering if infidelity is really so bad, why religious depictions of the Madonna often made her so hot, and if impotency shouldn’t really be seen as the mark of a decent man. As ever, the prose is as delicious as the thinking: “eroticism is the intersection of the formal and the intimate.” Indeed.
For those (of us) for whom the words “self-help books” conjure up the horrors, this series is a lesson in itself. There’s no pushing of any particular agenda or philosophy, no scary evangelist mind games. Except how we might all learn to enjoy a better life. We’ve found ourselves here without the manual. Until now perhaps.
l All six School of Life authors will be appearing at the Sugar Club, Leeson St, Dublin 2 on Wednesday May 23rd at 7pm. Tickets €24 from theschooloflife.com/Events