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alain de botton

The secret of success? Self-loathing

Last week, I watched Free Solo, a documentary about 33-year-old Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb El Capitan in 2017. It’s a horror film. You watch squirming in your seat, as this likeable young man dangles by his fingertips 2,300 metres off the ground in Yosemite. Even the cameraman can’t watch.

Yet he manages it, grinning all the way.

What powers this superhero? Honnold is quite frank about the secret of his success. He’s driven, he says, by a ‘bottomless pit of self-loathing’. His father died when he was young, and his rather icy mother didn’t hug him or show him much affection, but instead told him repeatedly that ‘nearly is not there’ and ‘good is not good enough’.

That’s what powered him to success – a critical mother, plus an unusual amygdala which doesn’t really feel fear, plus layers of Stoic armour.

He’s able to climb to the top of his sport because he has no fear, and no attachments. He lives in a van. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He eats his dinner straight from the sauce-pan with a spatula. He is totally focused on climbing. He accepts that ‘everyday you may die, and there’s nothing wrong with that’.

The problem is, Alex falls in love.

He meets Sanni, a beautiful bubbly and basically adorable woman, at a book signing. He decides to give it a go though he is barely committed to her at the start of the film.

Gradually, we see Alex let down his Stoic armour and allow Sanni in.

That’s when he starts to have accidents.

The first is her fault – she lets go of a rope and he falls on his back. The second is his fault. While climbing with her, he just lets go, falls ten feet, sprains his ankle.

He blames it on her: ‘I’ve never had an accident, then I meet her, and I have two in a year.’

He is beginning to feel fear, because he recognizes that he is vulnerable. He has something to lose.

His friend explains. To free solo effectively, you need to be single. Have no attachments, nothing to distract you.

And now he has an attachment. An emotional rope. She loves him, she doesn’t want him to die.

He buys a house with her. She’s excited, imagining where all the furniture will go. He couldn’t give a shit. ‘I could just sleep on the floor’ he shrugs. His indifference drives her mad.

As they become closer, she asks him tentatively, would you consider making longevity more of a priority? Absolutely not, he replies. It’s nice that you care if I live, but no.

He reflects out loud one day, as he drives to El Cap, that Sanni has different goals in life. She cares about things like relationships and happiness and contentment. But ‘nobody achieved anything great by being happy and cosy’.

He tells her he doesn’t want her around in the days before the free climb. She hugs him and drives off. As the camera stays on her, her lip begins to tremble, and then her face crumbles. She can’t bear the thought of not seeing him again.

He climbs El Cap. Sanni calls him at the top, and she bursts into tears with relief and love. ‘Don’t cry, you’ll make me cry. Maybe it’s OK to cry’, he says, trying to figure out what he feels.

Will he settle down now that he’s achieved climbing immortality? Will he commit to a long life with Sanni? Or will he carry on, and probably die in the next decade? I don’t know.

I thought about Alex, and his remark about achievement versus happiness, when I listened to a Tim Ferriss interview a few days later.

Ferriss is a self-declared ‘Type A’ personality.

He’s written five best-selling books, he has several million subscribers to his newsletter, his podcast has been downloaded three million times. He’s been an early investor in companies including Uber, Facebook, Twitter and Alibaba. He’s a world champion of tango, a polymath, a body-builder, an oenologist, an archer.

Seriously, fuck that guy.

I first became Interested in Ferriss back in 2011, because of his love of Stoicism. I wrote about him in Philosophy for Life.

I was interested in him because he’s such a self-improvement freak. There was something fanatical and obsessive about his self-experimentation and his obsession with being the best he could be in all facets of his life.

But I can’t say I liked him. He seemed like a plastic action figure rather than a genuine human I’d want to hang out with.

Since he launched his podcast three years ago, I’ve grown to like him a lot more. In conversation with his guests, he’s warmer, softer, humbler. And he’s opened up about his mental health issues.

It turns out, he’s a mess.

He said in this week’s podcast: ‘For the vast majority of my adolescence and high school I came to the conclusion that I was not designed to be happy. And that was OK – I would be an instrument of competition and learn to be very good at things that were valued at college and in the business world. I would focus on being the best competitor possible.’

While amassing the accolades he went through ‘many bouts of extended depression’, and ‘came very, very close to killing myself in college’.

He carried on being unhappy but mega-successful all through his 20s and 30s, and then burned out after writing The Four Hour Cook-Book in 2012. That’s when he launched the podcast and started exploring mental health, meditation and psychedelics.

Like Alex Honnold, he has reflected on the connection between success and self-loathing. He says:

If I were happy, I wouldn’t be contributing to the things that are very clearly contributing to my success… I don’t just not love myself, there’s a deep sense of loathing – how could you be so stupid, how could you be so lazy. Toughen the fuck up. You may not have control over all things but you could get really get at absorbing pain. Then maybe you can be ‘successful’.

The stories of Tim and Alex show us that self-loathing can be the ultimate life-hack. Self-loathing is the lacerating edge to self-improvement culture.  We hack ourselves into a more acceptable mental, emotional and physical shape, because we’re obviously not good enough as we are.

We don’t see this honestly acknowledged in self-improvement books or workshops. I think it’s a gap in the market. ‘Klutz: How to hate yourself and build the life you dream of’. ‘Blank: how my emotional emptiness powered my success’.  ‘Where’s Daddy? How my absent, abusive father made me the man I am today.’ ‘I’m shit, you’re shit.’

Alain de Botton, for example, has built an international self-help empire, offering lessons in self-love to CEOs and yummy-mummies (and daddies). But what actually drives him, underneath the bonnet? What dirty fuel keeps him motoring? It’s the fact he had a violent tyrannical father who never accepted little Alain or made him feel good enough. All his books, he has said, were an attempt to connect with Pater Horribilis. The School of Life should offer a workshop in Radical Self-Loathing.

Given the close correlation between success and self-loathing, will we lose our edge if we learn to accept ourselves regardless of external achievements?

It all depends on your definition of success. If your definition of success is to have a life that looks incredible from the outside, but which is actually quite lonely and depressing on the inside, then whatever you do, don’t stop hating yourself. Keep that edge of self-loathing well sharpened. You will stay unhappy, toxic, and alone. But you will probably amass some accolades before you die. Woo-hoo!

Alternatively, you can change your definition of success.

To my mind, true success, true achievement, means dedicating yourself to helping all beings suffer less. Helping them be happier, wiser and more liberated.

‘All beings’ includes yourself. The deep well of compassion for others begins when we become kinder to ourselves.

If you’re being unkind to yourself, the poison from your self-loathing will seep out and affect other people, whether you mean to or not.

Imagine bringing all the dedication and energy and drive that Alex brings to climbing mountains, or that Tim brings to being a successful author, to the goal of relieving suffering. That’s what I see happening in Ferriss these last few months. And it’s beautiful. He’s helping millions of people be more aware of mental health.

Of course, awakening doesn’t happen instantaneously. Your ego comes along on the ride. You want everyone to know how spiritual you are. You want to be the best at meditation, have the most intense spiritual experiences, take the coolest psychedelics. Ferriss can’t help name-dropping the famous friends who told him about meditation and psychedelics. He’s still, to some extent, running on the dirty fuel of approval-neediness. So am I.

It’s a long road, which perhaps we travel over many lives. But hopefully we’re heading in the right direction.

 

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Where next for well-being policy?

783472895I went to the book-launch of a new book on well-being policy yesterday, which brought together some leading figures in this nascent movement – including David Halpern of the government’s ‘nudge unit’, Canadian economist John Helliwell, psychologist Maurren O’Hara, and Juliet Michaelson of the new economics foundation. The book – Well-being and Beyond – is edited by Michaelson and Timo Hamalainen, and has some great essays in it, including a particularly interesting one by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi on ‘the politics of consciousness’.

With the news that the government is set to establish a What Works research centre for evidence-based well-being policy, and that David Cameron may be resuscitating his well-being agenda, it seems like a good time to take a panoramic view of the politics of well-being in the UK, some of the areas into which it’s developing, and some of the areas where more research is needed. It will obviously be a partial and incomplete view, but here goes:

Schools

The ministry of education under Michael Gove pulled back on some of New Labour’s well-being initiatives, such as Every Child Matters and the promotion of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). However, there seems renewed political interest in the idea of teaching character skills like resilience, with all three parties recently offering broad support for such a move. The work of James Heckman, focused on early interventions, is particularly popular with policy-makers at the moment.

The area is likely to progress through local and regional evidence-based initiatives, rather than top-down national initiatives like SEAL. Key players include the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, Jen Lexmond’s work at Character Counts and elsewhere, James O’Shaughnessy’s Positive Education network, the Education Endowment Fund’s research, and the National Citizen Service, which apparently is building up a great evidence base for its intervention. The challenge is how to teach not just skills but also values within a pluralistic and multicultural society – more on this below.

Work

There’s growing interest in the importance of well-being at work, partly driven by the high economic cost of sick days due to stress and mental illness. Some of the more enlightened companies have bespoke well-being courses for their staff – like Google, Zappos, M&S, British Telecom or Saracens rugby club – in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. A key player in this area is the firm Robertson Cooper, which established the Good Day at Work network.

Nils Mordt of Saracens brushing up on some philosophy

As in schools, the new focus on work well-being ties in – or should tie in – with an ethical focus on values, character strengths and social responsibility. Saracens’ personal development course is a good example of how to teach well-being + values but in a flexible and peer-led way, compared to Zappo’s which, from the outside, seems quite inflexible and even authoritarian in its collective happiness ethos. Well-being at work ties in to another policy area, adult education (of which more below) – see, for example, Google’s emphasis on adult education for its workers, again reminiscent of Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. I also love the Escape the City network (by the by!).

Health

One of the main recommendations in Sir Gus O’Donnell’s Legatum Institute report on well-being, released last month, was that the NHS should focus more on prevention of ill-health, and also treat mental illness as equally important as physical illness.

That means greater support for the burgeoning Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme across the UK, particularly in Wales, where there are high levels of depression and long waiting lists for talking therapy. It also means public health organizations like Public Health England taking more of a lead in promoting mental well-being. It means more support for peer-led well-being networks (one of the themes of Michaelson’s chapter in her book), which can draw inspiration from historical models like 19th century Friendly Societies. And it also means trying to work out a better way to treat psychosis, as the government is now trying to do.

Well-being health policy ties into well-being policy in other areas, particularly schools, work, and adult / online education. Empowering people to take care of their own physical and mental health means treating them as reasoning agents rather than as malfunctioning machines.

Prisons and probation services

At the book launch yesterday, John Helliwell mentioned a paper he’d written on well-being in prisons, championing the Singapore Prison Services’ reforms. Singapore pioneered a mutual model of well-being, in which staff, inmates, former inmates and the wider community worked together to help inmates flourish.

We’re a long way from that here, but there is some interest in the ‘desistance’ model of rehabilitation, whereby inmates make a reasoned choice to leave their former criminal life and to pursue a new narrative. This fits with the coherence model of well-being, in which well-being is connected to our ability to find meaning and value in ourselves and the world. Some charities and probation organizations are also looking to extend the desistance / mutuality model beyond the prison walls – I’m meeting with one such organization, Co:Here, next week.

In England, the probation system is on the verge of a massive privatization, which is likely to cause stress to the system and to the people in it. However, the chaos will also create opportunities for new and innovative approaches. I’m interested to learn more about the RSA’s research on prison learning.

The economy / housing / urban planning

The O’Donnell report suggests the best economic policies to promote well-being would be to reduce unemployment, which has a particularly negative impact on well-being. Fine – but which government says it’s in favour of high unemployment? Other well-being economists suggest there is a correlation between income equality and national happiness – but so far this has failed to lead to major tax distribution policies, and inequality continues to rise.

The UK housing bubble also continues to grow, with the average property price in London now approaching half a million pounds. This is likely to have a significant impact on people’s well-being, and their ability to feel in control of their destinies. As more and more humans live in ‘mega-cities’, will we know and trust our neighbours, will we have access to green spaces, will we have any real connection to nature?

More research needs to be done on the rise of solo living, which is particularly popular in Scandinavian countries (typically championed as happiness templates). What is the trade-off between autonomy and loneliness? Is solo living sustainable or equitable? Are new forms of conviviality emerging? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done good work in this area.

Adult education / online learning

So far there is little policy focus on the importance of adult education to well-being. Adult education is, in general, ‘off the radar for policy-makers’, as David Halpern put it. This makes no sense to me, considering all the research into the importance of coherence, meaning, reasoning and collective engagement to well-being – all of which points to adult education as a booster to well-being. There’s been some work showing that engaging in adult education predicts higher well-being, but that has not fed into policy discussions at all, sadly. The national budget for community education shrinks every year.

schooloflife-3However, informal learning continues to grow, with various organizations appearing dedicated to raising well-being, including Action for Happiness and the School of Life. There have also been some encouraging developments in online well-being courses. Stanford’s Greater Good centre is launching an online happiness course in September, Berkeley has also launched a Positive Psychology MOOC, Action for Happiness recently launched an online course, while TED’s Understanding Happiness course has been in the top ten of iTunesU for a few years. Online learning connects to health policy in well-being, particularly with the rise of health apps.

It’s also worth mentioning the boom in mindfulness courses – including for example the phenomenal success of the book / CD ‘Mindfulness’, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, which has been in the top 30 of Amazon for two years. Mindfulness is a policy intervention that can be deployed in health, work, education and prisons – similar in that respect to ‘mental resilience’ interventions.

Academia

British higher education seems so beleaguered that the well-being of staff and pupils is off the official agenda for the time being. If change comes, it is likely to be driven by students and staff rather than top-down, though perhaps some enlightened VC or chancellor will take the lead (eg Floella Benjamin at Exeter!) But this is a sector which potentially could play a very important role in the development and implementation of well-being interventions.

For example, universities could – and should – offer free courses in well-being to undergraduates. Such courses should (in my opinion) teach some of the techniques of well-being, such as meditation, gratitude, self-determination, resilience, while also providing a space for philosophical discussions about what it means to flourish. If done pluralistically, such courses would be an important space for inter-faith discussions, preventing campuses from becoming divided on religious lines.

I also think universities should do more to support the well-being of their staff, particularly PhDs, where burn-out and drop-out rates are high. Some PhDs, such as the LSE’s Inez von Weitershausen, are beginning to work on this, and I think funders like Wellcome are keen to support more work in this area.

Academia could also play an important role in promoting adult education, as it used to do in the university extension movement. Unfortunately, humanities academics seem to have little time for adult education work and little faith in well-being politics – which is typically dismissed as ‘neoliberal’. A few humanities academics, however, understand that well-being policy is an important way to champion the impact of the arts and humanities in national policy. The work of the Reader Organisation, based at Liverpool Uni, is a good example of this more enlightened and engaged approach (they have their national conference in London next month, by the by).

Sports / arts / the festive

Burning Man festival

Well-being research tells us how important sport and exercise is to our well-being. It’s also beginning to tell us about the importance of the arts to our flourishing, particularly arts that engage us collectively, such as singing in a choir or reading in a book club.

I’d like to see more research on the importance of ‘the festive’ to well-being – think of the work of Durkheim, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jonathan Haidt, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor in this area – or Dan Ariely’s writing on Burning Man festival.

Why do the residents of the Orkneys have such high well-being? Ian Ritchie, former co-director of the St Magnus festival there, tells me that that one reason is the islands are so rich in festivals – a folk festival, a blues festival, a well-being festival. Parties, clearly, are good for us, particularly when we help to organize them. It would be good to study the well-being impact of starting a festival in a town. For example, Wigmore, a small town in Scotland with high unemployment, launched its own book festival two years ago and it seems to have revitalized that community.

More generally, well-being economists and psychologists need to connect with arts and humanities practitioners to explore the role of beauty, awe and wonder in well-being, and the higher states of consciousness which arts and ‘the festive’ can create. That means going beyond a aridly Benthamite notion of happiness towards a more Millsian appreciation of the transformative power of the arts.

The media

Alain de Botton has been generally mocked by humanities academics for his latest book, The News, but as is often the case there is wisdom beneath his gimmickry. Our well-being is deeply connected to our culture, and therefore to the media – in the broadest sense of TV, online media and advertizing. How, in a free market economy, can we try and make sure the messages we soak in are not entirely shallow?

This morning, it was announced that Richard Hoggart, the great public intellectual and critic of commercial television, has died. He thought commercial TV pushed viewers towards a way of life ‘whose texture is as little that of the good life as processed bread is like home-baked bread’. His involvement in the Pilkington Report led to the establishment of BBC 2. But the vision of Hoggart, Reith and others – that broadcasting could be a force for the raising of public consciousness – seems to be in abeyance.

Perhaps this area of policy links up with health and adult education – the BBC is looking to launch MOOCs on FutureLearn, and to develop its online learning platforms. I know people in BBC Arts have been interested in promoting things like meditation or ancient philosophy, but it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, there is a weird absence of ethical / spiritual discussion on TV. Radio 2’s Sunday morning show, once a province of spiritual discussion, is now presented by a sports presenter, which sums up the BBC’s (understandable) unease with promoting any particular ethics in a multicultural society.

The environment

Clearly the big question for well-being policy is: is it at odds with the coming environmental catastrophe? Are we meditating while Rome burns?

In Well-Being and Beyond, Csikszentmihayli outlines three constituents needed for consciousness to flourish: first, the freedom to think what you want and decide what is true (rather than being coerced and lied to by our government); second, to find flow in meaningful and purposeful activity (he understands the importance of higher or altered states of consciousness like awe, wonder, transcendence and ecstasy). And finally, we need hope.

We need the hope, or faith, that tomorrow will be as good as if not better than today. That drives all of our activity, all our plans, our investment in our work and family. Without that, ‘consciousness becomes idle and atrophied’, or it shrivels up in despair or short-term hedonism.

What is weird and unnerving about this historical moment is the loss of hope. Living standards are declining, the young are poorer than the old, but above all, there is a collective sense that the future will be worse – perhaps much worse – than the present, that nature will be severely depleted, the world will be more crowded, politics will be more unstable, the weather will be more violent, and we may see mass migrations and perhaps mass extinctions of animals and humans. Indeed, the animal mass extinction has already begun.

Religion and Wisdom

This brings me to my final point, the final area of research which I think would be fruitful. I don’t think secular humanism is going to be sufficient to sustain us through the coming crisis, because its hope in progress and a better tomorrow will not last in the face of mass extinctions. You need something more transcendent to believe in and give you the strength to do the right thing and to take care of the weak, even in the face of mass extinction and social collapse. Techno-humanism – in which the rich get to detach or upgrade from the rest of humanity – seems to me a much, much worse option than a return to the wisdom of older religious traditions.

Religion seems to me the massive elephant in the room of well-being policy. Well-being policy practitioners sometimes seem to me like people who have had their cultural memories wiped, so that they need to re-discover the basics of human flourishing from scratch. ‘We’ve discovered volunteering is good for well-being! So is collective singing. So is a sense of meaning and purpose. So is gratitude. So are higher states of consciousness. So is neighbourliness, reciprocity and mutuality. So is self-control coupled with an acceptance of the limit of one’s control over the universe. So is faith in the future.’

Well…yeah. All of which we used to get from religion, before we trashed it and turned to psychologists for guidance.

How do we spread the wisdom of religious traditions in a multicultural and increasingly secular society? To me, the key word is wisdom. Wisdom gives us the ability to appreciate the insights and practices of multiple religious faiths, to have respect for those faiths and to learn from them, while also finding our home in a particular tradition.

We need to learn not just the techniques of ancient wisdom traditions (meditation, gratitude, self-control etc) but also to create the space to discuss the different moral ends or goals which those traditions promote – nirvana, union with God, happiness, inner peace, Aristotelian flourishing etc. These different ends should be discussed rather than forced upon people. Socratic discussion is a way to include these moral ends / values without imposing them on people.

At the heart of most of the ancient wisdom traditions is an optimism that humans can use our reason to take care of our souls and our societies, combined with an acceptance that our reason is bounded, and that flourishing emerges best through habits and shared practices. These wisdom traditions are therefore opposed to a more biomechanical model of humanity, which sees negative emotions as chemical imbalances to be corrected with medication.

We need universities to take wisdom seriously, but I actually think we need a new sort of research institute – closer to the Esalen model – which combines intellectual and experimental research with practice. Sort of a think-tank / monastery. As Alasdair MacIntyre says at the end of After Virtue: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Well, those are some areas of possible research. A lot to be getting on with! But this is an important movement, and the UK is blessed with some pioneering thinkers and practitioners in this field, not just in economics and psychology, but also in the arts, technology, philosophy and faith.

PS I forgot to mention mental health in the military services. But that’s obviously another potential area for interventions to promote resilience.