What makes a good friendship? In the past year, my wife and I have found ourselves contemplating this question far more than we would ever have imagined in our early 20s, when everyone was a good friend so long as we all had had the same amount to drink. These days, when awkward silences descend on an evening with new friends, or when old ties become strained, I think of a cartoon man whose wide grin disappears when he drops his scoop of ice cream on the floor in front of his friend.
This is how The School of Life chooses to illustrate the relationship between friendships and vulnerability. The message of their video is simple: Good friends are not those who are impressive or who make interesting conversation, but those before whom we can drop our ice cream without feeling humiliated.
Founded in 2008 by British-based philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is an organization devoted to developing emotional intelligence and helping people of all ages deal with the dilemmas that their school textbooks did not equip them for. They hold classes and workshops, offer therapy sessions and publish books, but the easiest way to benefit from their explanations and practical advice is to watch the videos on their self-named YouTube channel.
Three videos are uploaded every week. Some deal with important questions—Why are we all so anxious? Why do we feel melancholy? Why do we cry at the happy moments in movies? Why is falling in love difficult? Why do we love to blame our partners? Some break down psychological concepts, such as confidence and self-flagellation, or look at the causes of emotions such as jealousy and envy. And some give us quick histories of types of human behaviour—the history of manners or the history of religion, for example—or of the basic ideologies of philosophers and writers.
Most are under 12 minutes long and consist of illustrated images with a voice-over. The illustrations are simple but memorable, and quite funny sometimes. Most importantly, the expressions on the faces of the characters are relatable. In the video on self-compassion, when you see the cartoon girl overwhelmed by stress, you know you’ve had that look on your face too; in one on procrastination, the mixture of glee and guilt on the procrastinator’s face when she puts off work by distracting herself is so believable that it makes you giggle.
It has become fashionable to introspect by detaching yourself from the world—taking a temporary vow of silence in the mountains, going on a trip along the coast to “find yourself”, quitting your job and building a cabin in the woods. What is refreshing about The School of Life is that it suggests ways in which you can be more in touch with your emotions while continuing to engage with modern life. While most of the videos simply explain concepts, some offer advice. One on “philosophical meditation” asks you to spend a few minutes every few days asking yourself three important questions—What am I currently anxious about? Who am I upset with, and why? What am I currently excited about? The video on self-compassion gives you a five-step method to stop feeling like a failure.
Many of the videos answer questions about sex, a subject our school system seems to believe will turn us into sociopaths if discussed. Whether discussing the roots of various fetishes, or why relationships often become sexless, or why a big fight usually ends in make-up sex, The School of Life’s videos offer more nuanced insights and views on sex and relationships than you are likely to find in any agony aunt column or magazine.
The advice and views in the videos don’t have the same scorn for modern times that you often find in philosophical or spiritual thought. The School of Life accepts that technology will continue to shape behaviour and incorporates that in its views. There are even videos about pop culture, including a particularly interesting one on why we find actor and activist Emma Watson so alluring—it’s because she remains dignified in all situations. Often, the videos attack issues with humour, such as one titled The Sexiness Of Bookish People.
The School of Life’s YouTube channel will not end all anxiety, self-doubt and anguish in your life. But it will make you think more about why you feel a certain way, give you the comfort of knowing you are not alone in dealing with stress, guilt and confusion, and encourage you to come up with your own solutions to your trials.