For most of history, the idea that the goal of our lives was to be happy would have sounded extremely odd. In the Christian story which dominated the Western imagination, unhappiness was not a coincidence, it was an inevitability required by the sins of Adam and Eve. For the Buddhists, life simply was in its essence a story of suffering. Then, slowly at the dawn of the modern age, a remarkable new concept came to the fore: that of personal fulfilment, the idea that happiness could be achievable both at work and in relationships.
Unfortunately this new concept coincided with a belief that the skills required to achieve happiness could be picked up outside of education. It is to this error that our current malaise can be traced.
Our societies have a huge collective regard for education; but they are also oddly picky in their sense of what we can be educated in. We accept that we will need training around numbers and words, around the natural sciences and history, around aspects of culture and business.
But it remains markedly strange to imagine that it might be possible — or even necessary — to be educated in our own emotional functioning, for example, that we might need to learn (rather than just know) how to avoid sulking or how to interpret our griefs, how to choose a partner or make oneself understood by a colleague.
That we think so well of untrained intuition is because (without realizing it) we are the inheritors of what can be summed up as a Romantic view of emotions. Starting in Europe in the 18th century and spreading widely and powerfully ever since, Romanticism is a movement of ideas that has been deeply committed to letting our emotions play a large and untampered role in our lives. Instead of nuancing or educating them (as earlier, Classical theories recommended), Romanticism has suggested that we learn to surrender to emotions with confidence and trust that they have much to teach us in their raw, untrammeled forms. If we feel joyful we shouldn’t necessarily try to analyze why. Reason can harm or distort feeling. If we are sad, we shouldn’t seek to moderate our passions. Anger should be vented, not bottled up; you should tell other people how you feel, without worrying about the consequences of emotional honesty. When choosing whom to love, you should be guided by instinct; it is the best way to choose a partner. Being true to feelings is, Romanticism insists, always a virtue.
Romanticism was a deeply well-intentioned movement, but it has had some extremely tricky consequences, because attempting to navigate our emotional lives by intuition alone has to it some of the recklessness of trying to land a plane or perform a surgical operation without training. Our emotions, if left unexamined and unschooled, are liable to lead us into some profoundly counter-productive situations in regard to our love choices, our careers, our friendships and the management of our own moods.
The task before us is therefore how we might acquire a set of emotional skills that could reliably contribute to a capacity for ‘emotional intelligence’. The term sounds odd. We are used to referring to intelligence without necessarily unpicking the many varieties of it a person might possess — and therefore do not tend to highlight the value of a very distinctive sort of intelligence which currently does not enjoy the prestige it should. Every sort of intelligence signals an ability to navigate well around a particular set of challenges: mathematical, linguistic, technical, commercial and so on… When we say that someone is clever but add that they have made a mess of their personal lives; or that they have acquired an astonishing amount of money but are very tricky to work with, we are pointing to a deficit in what deserves to be called emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the quality that enables us to negotiate with patience, insight and temperance the central problems in our relationships with others and with ourselves. It shows up around partnerships in a sensitivity to the moods of others, in a readiness to grasp what may be going on for them beyond the surface and to enter imaginatively into their point of view. It shows up in regard to ourselves when it comes to dealing with anger, envy, anxiety and professional confusion. And emotional intelligence is what distinguishes those who are crushed by failure from those who know how to greet the troubles of existence with a melancholy and at points darkly humorous resilience.
At various points in the past, there have been forces at work which hoped to teach us emotional skills in systematic ways. They didn’t always do the job ideally well — but they did keep the general idea on the agenda. It is noteworthy that none of these forces are currently very powerful in our lives today.
The first of these forces was religion. At their best religions sought to retrain, and improve, the quality of our customary emotional responses. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul (the decisive figure in the development of all the Christian churches) sought to teach people to be ‘Slow to anger and quick to forgive’. The project was based on the wise assumption that better emotions are by nature highly teachable and that we are, of course, usually swift to fury and extremely stubborn about forgiving. Yet St Paul knew there might be another way — and believed that a retraining program could belong to one of the central ambitions of his new religion. Therefore, for centuries, week by week, congregations were asked to reflect very seriously on their own failings to be humble rather than proud; to feel pity and tenderness in directions they normally wouldn’t consider and to refocus feelings of admiration away from worldly success and towards sacrifice and renunciation.
The point isn’t to insist that churches were always successful at or ideally focused on emotional education — but to highlight that they were peculiarly and inspiringly devoted to trying. The capacity for churches to keep up this project has now badly withered. Religion may still be a major force in the world but it suffers from the insurmountable drawback that it is perceived as being built upon incredible suppositions; it simply feels too strange to a great many sensible people to believe that a cosmic deity might be in control of the destiny of human beings and yet, for reasons we are not equipped to fully comprehend, would allow the world to roll on in endless, grotesque suffering. However nice some aspects of its emotional education program might be, religion cannot now be a force suited to conveying it.
When religion first declined in the West in the 19th century, a widespread assumption was that universities could take up some of the slack. Culture could replace scripture. But these hopes too have been conclusively betrayed. A range of academic subjects — philosophy, history, literature — are in principle highly connected to the task of educating our emotional lives; they capture the course of human experience in all its complexities — and the leading universities have often been hugely well resourced and housed in majestic settings. From the outside they have looked like places that would have the authority and the opportunity to help individuals and even whole societies becomes emotionally wise. But, this grand promise has been tragically undercut (or, more bluntly, betrayed) by an academic obsession with abstraction and obscurity. If an individual turned up at one of the great universities frankly asking for help, they would be regarded as deranged and forcibly removed.
A similar betrayal has happened around art museums. Here too the hope was that these could take over some of the tasks of religion: that museums could become our new cathedrals. The great galleries of the world may sometimes look the part, but close up they harbor no comparable ambitions to guide and elevate us. Cathedrals were intended to provide very specific courses in emotional education and guidance, taking us in ordered stages through a process of training leading to a specific and admired conclusion. No such ambitions attend galleries. One would be equally unwise to show up in sorrow at a museum asking for help in knowing how to live and die well.
At the same time, the whole idea of emotional education has been vilified by elite culture — at least in its popular form as what has been universally labelled ‘self-help.’ There is no more ridiculed genre than the self-help book. Admit that you regularly turn to such titles to help you cope with existence and you are liable to attract the scorn and suspicion of all who aspire to look well-educated and serious. As if on a mission to deny the category even a shred of respectability, the publishers of self-help books deck them out with lurid covers while booksellers entomb them near the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section, where they blur into an indistinguishable mass of sickly pink and purple spines.
It wasn’t always like this. For two thousand years in the history of the west, the self-help book stood as a pinnacle of literary achievement. The Ancients were particularly adept practitioners. Epicurus wrote some three hundred self-help books on almost every topic, including On Love, On Justice and On Human Life. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote volumes advising his fellow Romans how to cope with anger (the still very readable On Anger), how to deal with the death of a child (Consolation to Marcia) and how to overcome political and financial disgrace (Letter to Lucilius). It is no injustice to describe Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as one of the finest works of self-help ever written, as relevant to someone facing a financial meltdown as the disintegration of an empire.
Christianity continued in this vein. The Benedictines and Jesuits poured out handbooks to help one navigate the perils of earthly life. In his medieval bestseller, The Imitation of Christ, the theologian Thomas à Kempis recommended that one note down sentences from the text, learn them by heart and repeat them at moments of crisis. Great self-help writers were still dispensing advice down to the early nineteenth century. Consider that master of pithy and useful phrases, Arthur Schopenhauer, author of On the Wisdom of Life, who explained in 1823, ‘A man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more disgusting in the day ahead’. The assumption behind this long tradition was that the words of others can benefit us not only by giving us practical advice, but also — and more subtly — by recasting our private confusions and griefs into eloquent communal sentences. We feel at once less alone and less afraid.
So what explains the gradual decline in the prestige of self-help books that continues to this day? A key catalyst was the development of the modern university system that in the mid-19th century became the main employer for philosophers and intellectuals and started to reward them not for being useful or consoling, but for getting facts right. There began an obsession with accuracy and a corresponding neglect of utility. The idea of turning to a philosopher or historian in order to become wise (an entirely natural assumption for our ancestors) started to seem laughably idealistic and adolescent. Alongside this came a growing secularization of society, which emphasized that the modern human being could do the business of living and dying by relying on sheer common sense, a good accountant, a sympathetic doctor and hearty doses of faith in science. The citizens of the future weren’t supposed to need lectures on how to stay calm or free of anxiety. Go to a university today in the hope of finding answers to life’s great dilemmas and the academics will laugh — or call for an ambulance.
And so the self-help field was abandoned to the many curious and often unfortunate types who thrive in it today: people who are reclothing the Christian message so as to promise us financial heaven if we believe in ourselves, have faith, work hard and don’t despair. Or else those with a passing acquaintance with Buddhism, psychoanalysis or Daoism. What unites modern practitioners is their fierce optimism. They make the grave assumption that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that all will be well. They are utterly cut off from the spirit of their more noble predecessors, who knew that the fastest way to make someone feel well is to tell her that things are as bad as, and possibly much worse than, she could ever have thought. Or, as Seneca put it so well, ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’
We need self-help books like never before, so it seems especially sad that our most serious writers are unalive to the possibilities of the genre and that the very idea of saying something is ‘useful’ to a reader has become synonymous with banality. ‘Twenty tips from Othello on relationships’ might seem like a silly idea for a book, but that has more to do with the sort of contents generally filed under such a heading than anything intrinsic to the idea. Imagine what this could have been if Carlyle, Emerson or Virginia Woolf had had a shot? In our current moral and practical confusions, the self-help book is crying out to be reborn and rehabilitated.
The idea of emotional education therefore remains at once deeply relevant and widely neglected. The challenge before us is to break down emotional intelligence into a range of skills, a curriculum of emotional skills, that are at work in wise and temperate lives. We should be ready to embark on a systematic educational program in an area that has for too long, unfairly and painfully, seemed like a realm of intuition and luck.
Modern societies are very interested in tracking how children grow up. Twentieth century psychology, beginning with the work of the Swiss clinician Jean Piaget, pioneered an approach to child development which meticulously identified and labelled every principal stage an average infant might go through on the developmental journey of its earliest years. Thanks to this work, we now know that at six months, a child will be able to sit up on its own, pick up a small object (such as a raisin) using a thumb and forefinger and recognize its own image in a mirror, though it will most likely take another three months before it can drink from a cup on its own and understand simple requests. By two, it will start to say ‘I’ and ‘you’ and it will probably be able to put on a hat by itself. Around four, one can expect it to use sentences several words long and quite possibly invent an imaginary friend (an achievement that belongs to what Piaget called the Symbolic Function Substage). Between the ages of four and seven, children enter what Piaget termed the Intuitive Thought Substage, in which they begin to grasp abstract concepts but have difficulty holding on to distinctions, typically making mistakes around the use of ‘less than’ and ‘more than’.
Parents, uncles, aunts and grand-parents tend to be deeply interested in these developmental milestones — which become the stuff of family legend and the material for photographs and playfully supportive stories. Around the family table, much is likely to have been made of the first time a child took its own steps, the first time it assembled a sentence with a verb in it and the tribulations and triumphs of the first day at school. Families have a background sense that celebrating these milestones is part of what encourages a child to keep going with the hard business of maturation.
However, a curious silence sets in with age. Gradually, the attention society pays to the maturation of an individual becomes ever more coarsely grained. For a few years, we still have a picture of some of the stages of psychological and emotional growth but these are much less precisely known, named and identified. We’ve got a diffuse notion that a 14 year old will be different psychologically from a 17 year old, but it can be hard to pin down exactly how and why.
After twenty or so, the vagueness becomes overwhelming. Insofar as there is any kind of script of post-childhood development, our public thinking concentrates on external, material matters: we track what someone gets in their university degree, what job they secure and how they progress up the corporate hierarchy.
Yet, in truth, we never stop growing up. The possibility of emotional development is present throughout life. We don’t track the changes, but they may be occurring nevertheless, with none of the public status accorded to a big birthday, a promotion or a business school degree. Perhaps between the ages of 27 and 29, without anyone really focusing on this happening, we may radically rethink our view of how to handle our parents’ shortcomings. Or our view of envy takes a leap forward in the middle of our 36th year. Or, as we approach 45, lying in bed early one morning in a hotel, we amend our sense of who is to blame in certain marital conflicts. We may look more or less the same, but inside, slow, unheralded emotional shifts may be gestating.
A capacity for emotional development is constantly available to us, but we have nothing like the clear, detailed terms of reference that babies and young children enjoy — and that might give us the encouragement we would need to note and foster stages of growth. It’s a symptom of the neglect of the whole idea of emotional growth that we are used to narrating our own lives — to friends and ourselves — with the emphasis firmly on the external and the material. If asked by an old acquaintance how the past few years have gone, we would be unlikely to nominate a new approach to anxiety or a reconsideration of guilt as among our proudest achievements. It would simply feel more natural to recount how we’d moved back to Singapore after a stint in Taipei or had taken on a new, and properly significant, role in developing online sales.
In other words, we live in a culture that refuses to foreground the idea of lifelong emotional development, not because such a script is inherently impossible, but because it hasn’t taken the care to write it. But in truth, every adult life contains — in latent form — a set of skills that we can acquire on a map towards maturity, each stop in its own way as significant as a child mastering a quirk of language (in English, for instance, saying ‘I thought rather than I thinked’) or learning to ride a bicycle.
On an ideal map of emotional development, there would be stops that would identify our acquisition of a range of key insights. For example, it would herald as a crucial developmental milestone when a person becomes seriously willing to admit that they might not know themselves very well, or that they might not always be in the right — even though it feels as though they must be — or that they can recognize that they must strive to explain their irritations with others with calmly-delivered words, rather than simply falling into a sulk. We know how to celebrate someone’s fortieth birthday, but we would — in a wiser world — also know how to have public celebrations of the moment when a person had finally developed the skill of apologizing or of recognizing that the bad behavior of other people usually has more to do with anxiety and fear than nastiness.
Other areas of life show us the benefit of having clear benchmarks of progress. In the aeronautical field, we are able to track someone’s increasing knowledge of flying, from their first theoretical exams through to their ability to fly a jet across an ocean. In golf, there are precise handicaps to register strengths across the fairway. But when it comes to our inner lives, we still find it grievously hard to identify and tell a developmental story. We speak in vague terms about someone still having some growing up to do — or we might express a wish to take time off to learn a bit more about ourselves. But our hold on the underlying milestones remain perilously weak and sketchy.
In an ideal society, emotional development would attract the same kind of interest and prestige that currently attaches to career or age milestones. Currently we might throw a party to celebrate professional advancement, the start of a new decade or the move to a new house; in the future, we might do so to mark someone’s newfound mastery of self-compassion or serenity around sexual issues.
In an ideal society, it would not only be children who went to school. Adults in general would see themselves as in need of continuing education: of an emotional kind. One would know one had to stay an active alumni of a psychological curriculum. Schools devoted to emotional intelligence would be open for everyone, so that children would feel that they were participating in the early stages of a life-long process. Some classes — about anger or sulking, blame or consideration — would have seven-year-olds learning alongside fifty-year-olds, the two cohorts having been found to have equivalent maturities in a given area. In the Utopia the phrase ‘I’ve finished school’ would sound extremely strange.
At present we don’t give any acknowledgement to the key fact that people can, and must, continue to grow internally and make psychological progress across life. We don’t typically have any clear sense of what that progress looks like — and how we might encourage it. We struggle alone. That’s why, in a better world, we’d keep going to school, just a very different school to the one we knew as kids: a school of life that would help us with the ever-tricky and unfinished business of becoming that elusive thing: a real grown-up.
It would, in most circles, sound distinctly odd or eerie to declare that one had made it a life goal to become more emotionally mature — a phrase as unfamiliar as it is peculiar.
Societies have throughout history provided their members with scripts of what a fulfilled life might involve: piety, wealth, fame and military bravery have been among the leading options.
But the area targeted under the phrase emotional maturity has been singularly absent. We shouldn’t be surprised. The opposite condition, that of emotional immaturity, is no shameful lapse, it is our natural state, the way we are born and remain unless something very unusual and generally unheralded happens to us. It has for long seemed there could be no alternative.
Our normal relationship to our emotional lives runs a little like this: we struggle to understand many aspects of how we function emotionally. The reasons why we are anxious, sad or excited elude us day to day. Our characteristic ways of responding to hurt, of getting close to someone or of manifesting our desires don’t as a result feel well charted. A range of uncomfortable sensations are pushed into the darkness, we fail to acknowledge or process them, and so they give us symptoms: irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, addiction. We stumble trying to explain ourselves to others, and surprise or hurt them with our erratic swerves. At the same time, we have difficulties interpreting others’ behavior with imagination or charity. We easily view them as mean rather than damaged, as intentionally cruel rather than suffering. The challenges of emotional life come to a head around relationships. It is just highly unlikely that we can — beyond a few months — happily tolerate another human. Work presents no fewer challenges, for it requires us to find an accommodation between our deeper, more authentic selves and the strident demands of society and the expectations of our families. We too easily end up angry, fruitlessly envious or crushed by disappointment.
The idea of emotional maturity doesn’t have to remain a vague pipedream. It is, when one approaches it more closely, made up of a number of coherent steps and insights that can move us beyond our natural state. To develop emotionally involves learning to understand and sympathize with oneself; to take proper stock of one’s childhood influences; to communicate flaws and eccentricities to others in good time, to interpret others beyond what they have directly said to us, to recognize the hard edges of reality without being destroyed by them, to accept one’s needs for consolation and assistance, to achieve a necessary degree of confidence, to be able to detach oneself from turmoil and appreciate local pleasant circumstances, to know how to despair without wholly giving up on existence…
The notion of an ‘inner journey’ is tired and tarred by woolly associations, but it retains a power to describe the different staging posts one might need to visit in order to accede to (an always fragile) emotional maturity. We can imagine the different zones of emotional life like islands, each one of them marked by settlements, cities and landmarks which we should take the trouble systematically to work our way around, as we might the cities of Renaissance Italy, or the beauty spots on the Pacific Highway.
To know that such a journey exists and to have a sense of its different moments can give us a focus and sense of purpose. What had seemed merely entirely nebulous and therefore unreachable emerges as a plausible ambition. We might describe our attempts to reach emotional maturity alongside other, better recognized goals: to achieve financial security or take a child through to university.
The journey might even acquire a little prestige. Far from seeming like an eccentric individual choice, it could become a generally accepted part of what it means to be an accomplished adult. One might plausibly declare that one was, in the coming years, going to set oneself the challenge of moving on towards emotional maturity — a goal no less prestigious, and even more useful, than the mastery of golf, the violin or the paying off of the mortgage.
The general lack of emotional maturity — evidenced in our rage, our anxiety and our failed relationships — should not be a source of any shame. It’s only very recently that we have even begun to conceive of the task of growing up emotionally as something we might put our minds too. We have resigned ourselves too early. We have deprived ourselves of one of the most useful and thrilling of all ambitions.
There is a deliberate paradox in the term The School of Life. School is meant to teach us what we need to know to live — and yet, as the phrase ruefully suggests, it is most often life — by which we really mean, painful experience — that does most of the instruction for us. The real institution called The School of Life therefore carries a hope and a provocation. It dares to believe that we might learn, in good time and systematically, what we might otherwise acquire only through many decades of stumbling. We have collectively left some of what it is most important to know to chance; we have denied ourselves the opportunity systematically to transmit wisdom — reserving our belief in education to technical and managerial skills. Yet education properly understood should encompass all areas of experience and it is no less of a folly to imagine that each new generation should work out for themselves how relationships work than to insist that they try to reinvent physics or the laws of economics every twenty-five years. The School of Life is — ultimately — an institution that believes in attempting to save us time.
If you enjoyed this article, many of its ideas are explored further in The School of Life: An Emotional Education: a twenty-first century introduction to the modern art of emotional intelligence.
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Founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is a global organization helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. We share ideas through a range of channels, including books, eBooks, films, virtual classes and tools for emotional well-being.