What is the meaning of life? What is the key to happiness? Whatever the answer is, The School of Life is here to guide us through the development of our emotional intelligence.

Set up in 2008 by renowned philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life attempts to put learning and ideas back to where they always should have been — right in the middle of our lives. From running events, workshops, books and, of course, designing thoughtful stationery, The School of Life now has branches all over the world, passionate about self-improvement.

We speak with philosopher and writer, Tim Dean about his involvement with The School of Life, emotional intelligence and the meaning of life.

The School of Life

You’re a philosopher and science writer who runs workshops for The School Life in Sydney on the meaning of life. How did you get involved with The School of Life?

My passion for many years has been in getting philosophy out into the world where it can benefit people. I’ve done that via my work in the media and through the philosophy café group that I started over 10 years ago. To my surprise at the time, that group rapidly attracted over 1,500 members, proving to me that there was a demand for deeper conversations about the big questions.

I’ve also closely followed the work of Alain de Botton, so when The School of Life announced it was launching in Sydney, I was keen to get involved, because its mission is the same as mine. I offered to run a Philosophy Salon — where participants hear three big ideas from a philosopher and then get a chance to discuss them over wine and cheese – for the School’s Sydney pop-up in 2016. It was a great success, as was the entire programme.

Since the School officially opened in Sydney in 2017, I’ve been running more Philosophy Salons on a range of thinkers, including Plato, Epicurus, Rene Descartes and Simone de Beauvoir. With the launch of the new curriculum, I’m also running the workshop on The Meaning of Life, which is a topic I think is of tremendous importance.

Photo: Hilary Walker

The School of Life creates really thought-provoking experiences through their stationery, cards and accessories, and has garnered a passionate fanbase. Why do you think people all around the world are so drawn to what The School of Life is doing?

The School of Life fills a gap that is left after we finish regular schooling and are set loose in the world. Our education system teaches the skills and knowledge to become effective workers, but it doesn’t teach us how to become effective human beings.

So many of us find ourselves surrounded by the trappings of success, such as having a high status job, a good income, a long term relationship, a mortgage and heaps of stuff, but we’re still missing something.

Many of the products The School of Life offers remind us that there’s more to life than these superficial signs of success. They remind us of the things that really matter in our lives, which we normally overlook, and also the inevitability of suffering, which we normally try to ignore.

It’s this combination of giving us a pathway to living a better life while remaining grounded in the realities of life that I think makes The School of Life so compelling.

The School of Life

Photo: Andrew Watson

What are your favourite products from The School of Life range?

I personally love the 100 Questions in The School of Life range. These are a set of questions we rarely ask ourselves that tease out how we think and feel on a wide range of subjects. Just by thinking about these questions or discussing them with others, we can learn a lot about ourselves, our values, our fears and our goals.

These ideas all sit beneath the surface and they guide our decisions and our behaviour, but unless we know what they are, we have little control over them. These cards might remind us that we’re worrying about the wrong things, we’re pursuing the wrong goals, or that we’re actually happier than we thought we were. That makes them a wonderful gateway to deeper things.

The School of Life places an emphasis on developing emotional intelligence through culture. Why do you think there is a lack of emotional intelligence in today’s society?

Emotions can be elusive. They guide our behaviour, sometimes without us noticing it. Like, one bad event can trigger a spiral of negative emotions that makes us less able to cope with problems when they arise. Or we can become so focused on how we want to be perceived that we forget who we really are. Or we can get frustrated that our partner is not listening to us while we’re also failing to listen to them.

It takes effort to understand and manage our own emotions, let alone the emotions of other people.

But many of us are not taught how to do these things. We certainly don’t learn them in school. The good news is that emotional intelligence is a set of skills that can be learnt. It’s something we can strengthen with practise, and doing so can improve just about every aspect of our lives, from our work to our relationships to how we handle setbacks and loss. That’s what The School of Life is aiming to offer.

The School of Life

Do you have any tips of how we can develop and improve our emotional intelligence with every day tasks?

The first step to improving your emotional intelligence is to get better at understanding your own emotions. Sometimes that just means taking the time to reflect on how you felt when you made a particular decision.

We’re very good at fooling ourselves by thinking we have good reasons for doing what we do, but often it’s our emotions that are in the driver’s seat and we just rationalise our actions after the fact. By reflecting on how we felt when we made a decision, we can start to see how our emotions are influencing our behaviour, and how the story we tell ourselves about that decision might not really reflect what’s going on.

Another tip anyone can practise straight away is listening well. Think about this: most of us want to be listened to more than we have a capacity to listen to others. If that’s true, then there’s a global listening deficit. This is why it feels so good when someone takes the time to really listen to what you’re saying, asking questions instead of replying, and acknowledging how you feel.

You can return that gift by giving others your full attention, not interrupting with your own thoughts or opinions, but only reflecting back what they’re saying and how they feel. That kind of “active listening” is transformative, and it only takes a few minutes to do. Try it over the dinner table or with friends and see the results for yourself!

And finally, have you discovered the meaning of life?

Wouldn’t that be nice! There’s a great deal of philosophy and psychology exploring this question, and naturally there are many different views. But the funny thing is, when it comes to answering it for ourselves, I think the meaning of life is probably both deceptively simple and devilishly complex at the same time.

We often think of the meaning of life as being some lofty all encompassing philosophy that will bring us enlightenment overnight. I’m not convinced it is anything like that. It’s really just where we find and create meaning in our own lives. If we can figure that out, then we’ll be on track to living a rich and fulfilling life.

The trick is in determining where we find meaning, and each of us will likely have a different answer. The good news is we have thousands of years of philosophy, art, culture and science to draw on to help us find the answers. And we already know that things like genuine connections with other people, developing self-knowledge, work that involves benefiting others and experiencing feelings of transcendence are things that are meaningful to most of us.

Exploring them can certainly help us discover the meaning of our own life.

Enjoyed this interview? Read more interviews with other designers and creatives from various brands on Milligram.

Shop The School of Life at Milligram.

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Find out more about Alain de Botton and The School of Life.

Read Tim Dean’s profile on The School of Life.