‘It's unfortunate we live in a world of hope,' said De Botton as he delivered a Sunday ‘sermon' to the School of Life yesterday on the benefits of being extremely pessimistic. He argued that the world's escalating economic turmoil isn't the sudden end of boom times - we should instead accept that such chaos is the natural state of things, and that the world is built on unstable ground. He then played devil's advocate, saying it was good to see modern civilisation crumbling, as it gives us a chance to reflect and apply some perspective - rather like visiting the ruins of ancient cities.
That may not go down so well with anyone who has suddenly found themselves scanning the job ads - they've probably got a sharp enough perspective on things right now. But De Botton called on history's thinkers to give weight to his hypothesis. The Stoics preached that it's optimism which makes us angry, and that the emotion comes from an inflated expectation of how things should go. Seneca suggested that upon waking, one should run through all the dreadful things that could happen to you through the course of the day, to make what actually happens seem that much more palatable. Of course, a man who tried three different ways to kill himself before it actually worked may not be the perfect life-coach.
De Botton also found time to put the boot into self-help books. Selling the idea that everyone can succeed always leaves us feeling envious, and creates far greater issues of self-esteem than it solves. ‘An investment banker once told me that 98% of business ideas will fail,' he said. ‘But you're still led to think that if you have a garage and know a little about software, you could be the next Bill Gates.' Which, he continued, is like living in seventeenth-century France and aspiring to be an aristocrat.
At times when economic survival comes to the fore, demanding the perfect job may seem even more out of place. De Botton connected such heightened expectations, and the rise in anxiety that they bring, with the changing nature of work: Christianity preached that work was punishment for the sins of Adam; for ancient Greeks work was akin to slavery. Only from the mid-eighteenth century did it suddenly become a means to ‘become yourself'. While he didn't dismiss the value of ambition altogether, De Botton called for balance, suggesting we'd been sold a fallacy making a norm of something ‘beautifully rare' - that work can be a perfect fit.
His proposed antidote for these modern anxieties? Putting skulls on our desks. That way we'll be reminded of our own mortality and be encouraged to give our attention to the things that really matter. Not the most obvious way to lighten the mood, especially if the metaphorical heads are already rolling in your place of work. ‘Live your sadness to the full,' said De Botton, before closing proceedings by leading in an admirably straight-faced version of Elton John's Sad Songs (Say So Much).
Alain De Botton writes more on the changing nature of work in the April issue of MT.