science of us

A Book That Helped Me Accept Sadness

Photo: Jan Håkan Dahlström/Getty Images

What is love? What is happiness? Why does everything I chase disappoint me? Why am I often in pain, why am I a stranger to myself? Why was I an idiot for so long? Why am I still an idiot? Why doesn’t any of this feel the way I think it will? Why did I mess up that job I had, why don’t I like the feeling of being loved? Why am I always grouchy, why does fun stuff happen when I’m expecting things to be bad? Why am I a bitch? Why was I such a monster to the person I cared about most? Why do I want to be alone, and then when I’m alone yearn to be with other people? Why does this vision I have in my head — of myself laughing and being happy somewhere in the sun, with a husband and a little baby — basically not exist? Where did it come from and why does it torment me? Who on Earth am I, and what do I want? Do other people know this stuff, or is it just me who’s this messed up?

If you wonder any of these questions, which I have just randomly generated and which have no relation to my own life, I recommend a new book called The School of Life: An Emotional Education. It’s from a website of the same name that features a bunch of essays about life’s biggest questions, all of which repelled me at first — I don’t want a mysterious, byline-less British website telling me how to live my life — but then I did actually want exactly that.

Like the site, the book is broken into several major topics (Self, Others, Relationships, Work, and Culture), with an introduction by Alain de Botton, one of the School of Life’s founders. It has a sort of melancholy tone (there is, in fact, a whole section about how much of life is inevitably melancholy), which I loved.

Actually here is my overall summary of the book: Life is pain, romance is a lie, sex is impossible, work will never be good, and yet everything is still kind of nice and basically all right. We are all messed up, and we will never be as happy as we think we should be, but still there are lots of nice things to share and enjoy, and it is good to be nice to one another. It’s still often a good idea to get married, too, even though your spouse will be a constant disappointment, as you will be to them. Each of these thoughts felt like a huge relief.

I actually found the book so convincing that I took its ideas into consideration while making some major decisions in my own life recently. I therefore reserve the right to update this review in 15 years or so, in case it all turns out badly.

A Book That Helped Me Accept Sadness