Happiness interview: Alain de Botton.
I’m a longtime and ardent fan of Alain de Botton. Sometimes, you find a writer who shares your preoccupations, and this is absolutely the case for me with his imaginative, insightful work. Subjects including happiness, work, love, and the problem of biography — his books tackle all these fascinating subjects, and more. His latest book is A Week at the Airport, about his experience as the “writer-in-residence” at London’s Heathrow Airport. It’s about travel, globalism, the power of place…many things.
Also, I’ve always been fascinated by how structure and presentation of ideas influence the way people perceive them. Many of Alain de Botton’s books — including the one that’s probably my favorite, How Proust Can Change Your Life — use unconventional structure to drive home the analysis. I love playing with structure, and in fact, of the four books that I published before The Happiness Project, like Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, all used unconventional structures.
Because I’m so powerfully interested in what interests him, I was thrilled to get the chance to ask Alain de Botton some questions about happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Alain: I am never happier than when I give myself time to be on my own, with a pad and paper, with the space to think. This sounds easy, but it’s very easy to feel that this is unproductive. I like a quote from Nietzsche: ‘Whoever cannot spend two-thirds of the day alone, doing what he pleases, is a slave.’
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That happiness is made up of moments not vast stretches. It’s hard to be happy for more than half an hour at the time. But that’s OK, we are creatures who relish a challenge and happiness is the reward for achievement.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I get easily anxious about how little time there is left to live and how much there is still to do.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
I love this quote from Seneca: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’ It’s pessimistic, but like many dark things, it’s funny and cheers one up. We’re often under the mistaken impression that cheering people up involves being sunny.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I like to listen to Bach’s Cantatas, beautiful, melancholic, well structured music that articulates the sounds of the soul in pain.
* I loved seeing this display of treehouses from around the world. Beautiful
* If your book group, spirituality book group, or church group is reading The Happiness Project — or considering it — I’ve prepared a one-page discussion guide for book groups, as well as a guide tailored for church groups, spirituality book groups, and the like. If you’d like either discussion guide (or both), email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.