For more than a decade the School of Life has been the go-to institution for insight on everything from love to grief. After years in the business it really knows what makes people tick. The key to personal happiness, it says, lies in understanding who you are and what motivates you; only then can you make the right life choices. In this exclusive extract from its new book, it lists the life lessons that will help you find your happy place.
1. The importance of staring out of the window
We tend to reproach ourselves for this as time wasting when we are supposed to be working, studying or ticking things off a to-do list. The point of staring out of the window is not to find out what is going on outside, but to discover what’s really going through our own mind. It’s easy to believe that we know what we think or feel, but we rarely do entirely. There’s a huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates through our minds unexplored.
We need periods of purpose-free calm. Staring out of the window offers just that. We see the world going on – a patch of weeds is holding its own against the wind; a grey tower block looms through the drizzle. But we don’t need to respond. The potential of daydreaming isn’t recognised enough in societies obsessed by productivity. Some of our greatest insights come when we stop trying to be purposeful and instead respect the creative potential of reverie.
2. Accepting anxiety
Anxiety is not a sign of sickness, or a frailty of mind for which we should always seek a medical solution. It is often a very reasonable and sensible response to the genuine strange uncertainty of existence. Anxiety is our basic state for good reason: we are intensely vulnerable physical beings and often do not have sufficient information to be able to make important life decisions.
With this in mind, there is no need to be anxious about being anxious. It isn’t a sign that our lives have gone wrong, merely that we can suffer just by being alive. Laughing about our anxieties, if possible, is the best relief. If a private agony is crafted into a joke and shared with equally anxious friends and neighbours, we give anxiety the more public dignity it deserves. It isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a masterpiece of insight – a justifiable response to the chaotic world we live in.
3. Becoming a good listener
This is one of the most important and enchanting life skills that anyone can have, though few of us know how to do it because nobody has taught us how.
The good listener doesn’t want to dominate or impress; they know that conversations benefit hugely from encouragement to go into greater detail. The good listener is curious to know more about the person they are talking to – why is it that they don’t like their job or are having rows with their partner?
A good listener doesn’t interrupt with their own ideas. They give the impression that they recognise and accept human weakness and reassure us that they’re not going to humiliate or judge us. They confess to weaknesses too as a way of showing that we all struggle with being imperfect human beings.
4. Choosing a partner
In these modern times, we think we have complete freedom to choose who we would like to be with, but even now new pressures dictate who we pick, often making it harder to settle for someone. Romantic love says that we should understand one another intuitively, our lover should be our soulmate and best friend, and that sex should always be satisfying, therefore we will never be attracted to anyone else. The reality is always different.
We also rarely understand how our upbringing might affect our choices. Sometimes we fall in love with a person not because they care for us best, but because they care for us in ways that are similar to our experience of love as children. Far more than happiness, we search for familiarity, being ‘loved’ in the same way – even if that is with humiliation, neglect or abandonment. We can reject healthy and nurturing candidates simply on the basis that they feel odd, and nowhere near as satisfying as a bully.
To get at these subconscious instincts, finishing these sentences might help:
If someone shows me kindness and consideration, I _______.
If someone isn’t entirely convinced by me, I _______.
When someone tells me they really need me, I _______.
Honest reactions can help reveal underlying assumptions about the kind of love we feel we are allowed – and they need to be explored. Relying on the assumptions of there being a ‘soulmate’ or ‘true love’ out there certainly won’t help us find the lover who might be the best for us.
5. Living with the knowledge that we are all imperfect
It’s never us who’s difficult or beset with bad habits in a relationship, is it? Eventually, though, a partner will call us out, and we take it as a horrible personal attack that we presume a more understanding person would not have put us through.
But everyone, seen close up, has an appalling amount wrong with them. Annoying characteristics in ourselves and our partners tend to have their roots in childhood. They are often strategies that were developed for managing stresses that could not be coped with by the immature mind of a child.
We are ready for relationships not when we have encountered a perfect fit in someone else, but when we are willing to give normal human flaws the charity they deserve. Many less-than-happy couples stick together because of the children, or because they are scared of being lonely or maybe are just worried that anyone else they found wouldn’t be much better. Having a difficult partner may be more satisfying than being alone.
The capacity to compromise is not a weakness. It can be a mature, realistic admission that there may be no ideal option.
6. The necessity of being alone
The pace of modern life is relentless, particularly when we are around other people. There can sometimes be so much insight and excitement in ten minutes of social life that it takes an hour of thought just to process it. Perhaps an anecdote sparked off an envious ambition that might be worth pursuing? Maybe someone said something bitchy, which we didn’t really notice at the time?
We need quiet to console ourselves with an explanation of where that nastiness may have come from. For we are all more tender-skinned than we like to imagine. By retreating into ourselves, it may look as if we are isolating ourselves from others, but solitary moments are, in reality, a homage to the richness of life with other human beings.
Unless we’ve had time alone, we cannot be who we would really like to be when around other people. Time alone may, in fact, be a precondition for being a better and more attentive friend or partner.
7. The need for greater kindness
Taking pride in being kind can sound like a weakness. Kind people do not seem well cut out to win when business success appears to depend on an ability to be tough and not be held back by sentiment. There can also be a subconscious association with sexual weakness. We want our friends to be nice to us but appreciate our lovers a touch dangerous.
But being kind to one another can coexist with being successful, interesting and sexual. It’s difficult to succeed without being interested in the welfare of one’s colleagues. It’s easier to be uninhibited in bed with a bedrock of trust built on kindness. Being kind to others makes us feel better about ourselves. It also means others are more likely to be kind to us when we go through hard times. Kindness is the foundation of a healthy society because it means we can respect human vulnerability as common to us all.
8. The modest advantages of marriage
If love either works or it doesn’t then many now believe that the forced commitment of marriage merely makes it harder to disentangle two lives when they need to. However, marriage can help keep our more dangerous impulses in check. Tethering ourselves to another makes our unavoidable fluctuations of feeling have less power to destroy a relationship, one that we know, in calmer moments, is still important to us. Together we embrace a set of limitations on one kind of freedom (the freedom to run away) so as to protect and strengthen another kind – the shared ability to mature and create something of lasting value.
We change gradually through a long-term relationship. It’s far easier to seem kind and normal if we keep starting new relationships, when the truth about who we really are and therefore what we might need from someone only becomes clear over time as we trust them with our deepest weaknesses. We can grow and change for the better when we stay put. Marriage makes it possible for us to make decisions about what we do with our lives because it offers security. For the past 50 years, attempts have been made to make separation easier. The challenge now lies in a different direction – in reminding ourselves why flight doesn’t always make sense.
9. Our unavoidable links to nature
Nature reminds us that we are not, as we often think, all that free. We imagine we can create exactly the lives we desire. However, the inevitability of change is central to the natural world. Trees shed their leaves in the autumn. The river must erode its banks. Salmon swim back to where they were spawned to lay their eggs. The laws of nature are governed by forces nobody has chosen and we are as much a part of that as any other living being.
When we contemplate nature, we think about the limitations that apply to us as well. We, too, must mature, seek to reproduce, fall ill and die just like all the wildlife and plants around us. As in nature, what we most fear can happen irrespective of the way we try to control our lives. Seeing ourselves as part of rather than separate to the natural world can be deeply reassuring. Caring about the car having a scratch, or that one’s sofa is a bit moth-eaten feels less important. Agonising about differences in accomplishments and possessions feel far less significant when we are immersed in a large forest or by the sea.
In nature, days are just days; today and tomorrow are essentially the same. You are reminded that your existence is a small, temporary thing.
This is an edited extract from The School of Life: An Emotional Education, to be published by Hamish Hamilton on 5 September, price £16.99. To find out more, go to theschooloflife.com.