Alain de Botton on making the humanities useful, studying ads, and the need for a “wisdom industry”

Making philosophy popular.
Making philosophy popular.
Image: EPA/Jeon Heon-Kyun
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Best known for his writing and his TV series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, Alain de Botton is one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals. His books include Status AnxietyThe Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and Religion for Atheists. A popularizer of philosophy, he’s convinced that modern economies fail to adequately provide for human flourishing. He also runs the School of Life, an educational institution that seeks to apply wisdom from a range of academic disciplines to everyday life. Quartz asked him via email about the future of work and his vision of a “wisdom industry.”

QZ: You’ve written on the need for a “wisdom industry” to help us meet our “flourishing needs.” Describe those. 

de Botton: Roughly we can be said to have material needs and psychological needs. For an OK (or better) life we need a decent place to live, enough money, nice food, physical safety, medical services, some time off from work, and so on.

But we also need more elusive but very important psychological things: a sense that our work is meaningful; good, lasting relationships; we need to come to terms with the complex intensities of our sexuality; we need to develop a mature perspective on what went well or badly in our childhoods; we need to be able to explain ourselves to others, cope reasonably well with disappointment and frustration.

These are flourishing needs—because, although we can survive without meeting them, they are crucial for the better (more flourishing) lives we ideally want. These needs are things we can in principle be helped with.

With advertising constantly telling us what we need, how do we resist its influence and discern what our true needs are?

Advertising is—quite often—alive to our real needs. It’s just the products on offer might not be the things that will help us satisfy them.

For instance, an advert might show people walking on a beach—they’re good friends, they seem to be having a fascinating conversation. This is deeply appealing because we really do want closeness. But the product the advert has in mind is only a lambswool jumper. And that’s not the key ingredient in developing greater intimacy.

A car advert might show a family having a picnic or going on an adventure holiday. It’s lovely because we really would like to have that kind of family life. But there are many obstacles probably in our path—our family members don’t like doing the same things, [they have] a tendency to squabble [and] divergent ideas about how much planning is needed. So the thing on offer—a car with excellent fuel consumption and a beautifully designed dashboard layout isn’t going to solve our problems—however fine it is as a vehicle.

The solution as consumers is—perhaps surprisingly—to take adverts very, very seriously. We should ask ourselves what it is that we find lovely in them—the visions of friendship, togetherness, repose, or whatever. And then consider what would actually help us find these qualities in our lives. It might be that we need to listen more carefully when other people talk to us, or be more patient, or find better ways of dealing with conflict.

Religion attempts to provide for the flourishing needs you describe. Has its decline in the developed world left a corresponding vacuum?

Religions were very imperfect in many ways. But they did often have a track record of taking flourishing needs very seriously. They would say—for instance—it’s really important how you address staying calm in the face of life’s ups and downs, or it’s really important that you forgive people who have upset you, or that you should take time everyday to reflect on how you might not be being very nice to the people around you.

Religions didn’t always give great advice, but they did keep some key issues at the front of people’s minds. So there is a bit of a vacuum if and when religious belief fades (as it has dramatically in certain places like Germany and the UK).

Why do existing professions meant to address these needs, like therapy and counseling, often fail to do so?

Therapy and counseling can do wonderful things for people. But they have emerged so far as what are sometimes called “cottage industries”—that is, as individuals or small groups offering generally quite expensive services to a few clients. (Before there were factories, weavers in the UK used to run small businesses from their cottages, which is where the name derives from.)

So therapy and counseling remain relatively unfamiliar and perhaps daunting. Therapy hasn’t been “industrialised” (in the way that Henry Ford industrialised car making and turned the motor vehicle from a lovely, rare luxury into a mass-market possession).

What happens if we neglect these needs?

The results tend to be a sense of pointlessness (my job doesn’t fulfill me, my relationships are stale), disappointment, corrosive worry, and lots of conflict.

What might a wisdom industry that provides for these needs  look like? 

Up to now our industries have tended to focus on the physical needs. That made a lot of sense. But as societies progress, the big opportunities for development are more on the meaning and psychological side; that is, they are concerned with our search for wisdom.

Take for instance the travel industry. The goal behind leisure happiness is that my travels will augment my life—I’ll become a slightly better and happier version of myself via travel.

At the moment this is channeled through ideas like: I’ll visit a city with a big history, I’ll go to a very comfortable hotel, I’ll see an iceberg or crocodile. These aren’t bad things in themselves by any means. But the link between me (the customer) and the place is undeveloped. And this is often reflected in the way that holidays are—though we don’t much like to admit it—often a letdown. We don’t really get the inner boost we sought.

An ideal travel sector would join up the inner journey (where I’m trying to go in my life) with the outer journey (which outward destination I visit and what I do there).

With the value of a humanities education hotly debated, what role could arts graduates play in a wisdom industry?

In theory, the arts hold many clues to wisdom—they are repositories of a lot of important ideas.

However, the kind of education people tend to get in the humanities isn’t usually focused on extracting and making those ideas clear and useable. (A typical humanities paper doesn’t ask “What life lessons do we learn from the French revolution?” or “How could Hegel’s ideas about the development of ideas help us work out what kind of job we might be most suited to?” though these are actually very pertinent questions.)

Your Book of Life website suggests that ideally 20% of the population would be employed in “mental health and flourishing” and 30% in “building an environment that could satisfy the soul.” Why are those important? 

Mental health flourishing means coping well with the ordinary challenges of a day (from an emotional point of view). To take a tiny example: A family tries to have dinner together. The food is nice, they all have a chair to sit on—the supermarket and home furnishing industries are well organized. But one person gets upset by a small, cutting remark; another is always checking the phone; the conversation never really gets frank or intimate. These are all principle issues that can be addressed. There’s a huge amount of work to be done in improving our emotional lives.

An environment that satisfies the soul isn’t as mysterious as it sounds. A few villages, towns, and parts of certain cities are very beautiful. Usually people absolutely love them and they often become tourist attractions as a result. When we’re there we feel that they express and encourage the nicest parts of our nature. But most of the world isn’t like this. Vast areas are pretty unappealing. Building lovely cities is an enormous commercial and logistical task.

What has running the School of Life, which could be seen as part of the wisdom industry, taught you about the feasibility of such an industry?

The School of Life is a business and has to compete on commercial terms for audiences and sales. Across a dozen countries the school is quietly but solidly successful from an economic point of view.

One thing we’ve really focused [on] is the alignment between our ideals (what we truly want to say) and market signals. We’ve got to be very loyal to both. That means much of our work is around nuancing products and services to find the elusive (but real) points where ideas can meet demand.

We spend a great deal of time and effort working out how to make an idea attractive, given where the audience is coming from. In other words we don’t just ask: What do people want and try to provide that (the pure market-driven model). Nor do we say: What do we want to offer and, who knows, there could be an audience out there (the academic model).

How might, say, a consulting firm guided by wisdom do things differently?

The central task for a business is to make a profit. The challenge is to make a profit by doing things which are genuinely good for people and good for societies. We know this is possible because it sometimes happens already.

However, the level of skill a firm needs in order to profitably pursue the good is very high because they have to outcompete rivals who have a simpler business model. They have to get very efficient at building a market for the things they want to offer; they have to explain their point of view in a compelling way; they have to find staff who deeply understand the vision of the business; they need to tailor their products and services very carefully; they need a strength around innovation.

In other words they have major strategic and operative challenges—which are the traditional focus of consulting firms. But currently consulting firms are answerable to the bottom line. A wisdom consultancy would be as well—but with this difference: The concern is on how the profit is made as well.