Alain de Botton certainly takes a unique philosophical view on life during his School of Life sermon. As he describes it, there is beauty and wisdom in looking at the glass as half-empty.
I chose this video in part simply because of the unique point of view. His opening statement alone was enough to hook me.
“This is unfortunately going to be a very bad lecture. I’ve brought you here under false pretenses. You will learn almost nothing. You will come away from this talk disappointed, thinking that I let you down, that your life has not been enhanced. Things will then start getting worse. You will come to the realization that life is essentially meaningless. That your efforts are headed nowhere. And then at some point you will be struck down by death. And your loved ones and all your achievements will wither and return to dust. These are the basic facts of life, although they are often denied.”
About midway through his lecture, he talks about self-help books (particularly those popular in America). He believes there are two categories of these. The first encourages people that they can do anything they set their minds to. The other deals with the low self-esteem issues that inevitably follow when people try and do not succeed. As he argues, any society that tells you can achieve anything will very quickly have a lot of people who think that something has gone wrong.
“We live on unstable ground and must accept this as a fundamental starting point. We must not respond with injured surprise to bad things. These bad things are written into the contract of life.”
The data-driven nature of the DIY Health/Quantified Self movement stands in contrast to the theoretical speech both in Botton’s presentation and the self-help books he criticizes. It replaces these broad statements about goals, drive and ambition with measured results. I hope and expect that this approach leads to less self-esteem issues for those involved.
Nonetheless, Botton also sees value in a pessimistic approach to life for the greater society because it is less isolating for individuals. No longer are those that supposedly fail unable to share in “collective consolation.” When I read this, I think of the power of the social networks incorporated into health sites. These can be powerful and effective venues for sharing emotions. In fact, the anonymity of online experiences could prove more comforting because it can allow the user to be completely honest with less potential “real-world” ramifications. In fully airing their issues, they can more quickly move on to addressing the issues with a new course of action.
Nonetheless, the QS movement does inspire its own unique form of optimism. The deeply personal presentations often contain comments by people who have “beaten” supposedly deadly diseases with their own experimentation and research. As such, they do build upon the belief that we are entering a new age of medicine where some of the old rules may not apply.
In his lecture, Botton uses the example of Bill Gates. Self-help books suggest that if we too are to get a garage, build upon a knowledge of computers, generate a few good ideas and build a set of contacts, we too should be able to achieve a similar level of success. It seems “simple, really. It’s not.” One could argue that Ari Meisel fits into the same mold. Just because he was able to overcome his sickness does not mean that every patient can. In fact, the numbers show that the vast majority will not.
I think Botton makes several valid points. These should be kept in mind during the design and implementation of any self-care system. Most importantly, they should be incorporated into the group support system. With this approach, a change in health status does not also need to include a deep drop in self-esteem. At the end of the day, data can inspire but data can also be a source of comfort.