The School of Life: Helping People Disconnected from Meaning, Purpose and Community

A Conversation with Tamara Harrison

Mental health has become Australia’s number one health concern. RACGP made this abundantly clear in their Health of the Nation 2018 Report when they showed a whopping 62% of all GP consultations are for psychological reasons, revealing that “Australian patients talk to their GP about mental health more than any other health issue.”

And, it’s not just RACGP calling attention to this concern. A 2017 JAMA Psychiatry Survey of 150,000 participants from 26 countries found that Australia had the highest rate (8%) of anxiety disorders in the world – more than twice the global average (3.7%). And according to The World Health Organisation’s 2017 Report, Australians have the highest rate of depression (5.9%) among countries in the Western Pacific Region.  

The role disconnection plays in depression

While, of course, many Australians visit their doctor for serious psychological issues like schizophrenia, bipolar, and PTSD, there are also a lot of mental health issues that arise from disconnection. This is something we explored last year in our exclusive interview with New York Times bestselling author, Johann Hari.  

Above: A snippet from our interview with Johann Hari explaining how loneliness affects depression

If you missed the interview, the jist is that Johann Hari is a Cambridge social scientist who suffered from depression in his younger years. Later, he journeyed across the world, speaking to hundreds of scientific experts so he could learn more about the causes of depression.

During his travels, he discovered that while there is evidence for nine different causes of depression, only two of these types are biological. The other seven causes are all elements of disconnection:

  • Disconnection from others
  • Disconnection from childhood trauma
  • Disconnection from meaningful work
  • Disconnection from meaningful values
  • Disconnection from status
  • Disconnection from a hopeful future
  • Disconnection from nature 

For these people, especially those disconnected from others, meaningful work and meaningful values, it can be difficult to know how to help them. For many, they don’t need so much as a psychologist or a mental health plan, as they do a community and somewhere they can go to find a greater sense of purpose.

Fortunately, a place like that exists… it’s called The School of Life.

The School of Life (TSOL) is a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. Founded in London in 2008 by Alain de Botton, it applies philosophy, psychology and culture to everyday life, helping people experience greater fulfilment.

While The School of Life isn’t for those with severe mental health problems, it can make a significant and lasting difference in the lives of the many Australians struggling to feel plugged in and connected to their communities.

When The School of Life first opened in Melbourne in 2014, it was the second branch in the world. Later, The School of Life opened a branch in Sydney, making Australia the only country in the world with two outposts.

Today, The School of Life Melbourne and Sydney run TSOL’s popular core curriculum of classes and workshops, as well as public business workshops. TSOL also has a special, dedicated business arm which runs tailored workplace programs on the topic of emotional intelligence.

Additionally, people can find classes, films, books, and games online and in The School of Life’s branches around the world, including Melbourne and Sydney. The School of Life also has a YouTube channel with nearly 5 million subscribers.

To learn more about the organisation and how it helps people searching for more meaning in their lives, we sat down with The School of Life Australia’s Acting Managing Director, Tamara Harrison. 

The School of Life’s goals and who it can help

Tamara Harrison explains, “We’re a global organisation and our goal is to help people lead more fulfilled lives. The basis of our thinking comes from Socrates, specifically his quote about how living an examined life is a worthwhile pursuit. We believe greater fulfilment in life is all to do with pursuing a journey of self-knowledge.

“In terms of how we actually do that, we do classes, we do workshops, and they’re all about different issues and topics that can make or break our lives. Things like choosing the right career, choosing the right relationships, or just betterment skills to help you truly enjoy life.

“The content that we offer is clustered around four pillars: love, self-knowledge, worth, and culture. We also run a business program, and that outlines the 24 emotional skills that you need to thrive in the workplace.

We believe the most pressing problems in the contemporary workplace are really to do with shortfalls of emotional intelligence, rather than deficiencies around hard skills.

“It’s those difficult, often intangible pieces of the puzzle that we’re trying to look at and help people with. As a contemporary philosopher, Alain is really focused on helping people learn skills that are applicable to contemporary living,” she added.

When asked who the organisation helps, Harrison responded, “I like to think we’re for everyone. Ultimately, we’re all on the same path, just at different phases of the journey.

“Perhaps, you’re just beginning to ask a few questions about where you’re at and where you’re going, that first inkling towards self-awareness. Or maybe you’ve got this little niggling thing in the back of your mind about something that went on in your family life, or why you respond to certain situations in a particularly default manner, and it’s something you might want to unpack.

“More often than not, people might be at some sort of crossroads or a crisis point. They may need to make some big decisions – whether to leave a job, or a relationship. And they’re looking for some answers and direction around that.

“But I also think one of the things we do particularly well is that we create the space and time to have meaningful authentic conversations with other adults. It’s about creating a solid framework for real discussions to unfold, not just standard surface-level stuff about mortgages and kids. Finding the right time and space to talk about really important topics is becoming increasingly rare in our day-to-day lives,” she added.

The School of Life’s services

The School of Life offers both online and offline help. Harrison explains, “We’ve got some fantastic online resources. One of the main portals that lead people to our classes and other things that we’re doing is The Book of Life.

“This is sort of like the ‘brain’ of The School of Life. It’s a gathering of some of the best ideas around wisdom and philosophy.

“Similarly, we’ve also got a fantastic YouTube channel with hundreds of useful videos, all of which touch on topics that we teach in our classes.

We also offer five-day intensive courses. Often people sign up when they’re at a crisis point and are looking to explore something in real detail.

“I often find that these people have already spent a lot of time before the course engaging with material in the Book Of Life or watching our YouTube videos. And 100% of the time, without fail, people say that our online content has already been very helpful for them, which you know, is the best feedback imaginable.”

As comprehensive as The School of Life’s online offerings are, their offline services are no less so. “Getting people in a room together is the mainstay of what we do. The classes run two or three nights a week for 2.5 hours. There are also half-day and full-day workshops, plus the five-day intensive workshops I mentioned before,” says Harrison.

“In Melbourne, our classroom and bookshop are open for anyone who may be curious. The idea is that anyone who comes in will get a sense of what we call ‘enlightened hospitality’.

“If a class starts at 6:30, you can come in fifteen minutes early and have a glass of wine and some cheese, and chat to the person on the desk before you walk into the classroom space.

“Or, if you come in to buy a book from the bookshop, the person who is helping you will spend a bit of time to really think about what you’re looking for and make a nuanced recommendation. So, we try and elevate all interactions from merely just a transactional relationship,” Harrison explains.

If you’d like to become involved with The School of Life or to refer a patient to its services, there are many different ways to become involved.

“We’ve got a lot of pathways through which people can interact with us”, Harrison says. “There is a self-knowledge class, which is a good starting point to kick things off.”

Once a month, we do a social activity. It’s an event called ‘A Night of Better Conversation’, where we meet at a bar or a restaurant and talk. I think that’s a great place to have a deeper conversation with other people.

“I guarantee it will be a really lovely, gentle, introduction to The School Of Life. The people are fun, they will engage with you, it will be a mix of established members and new people, but everyone is there to talk about the same ideas. And, again, the purpose of the event is just for the joy of actually having an authentic conversation with someone.

“Even if you’re not sure what your malaise might be, or what area you want to work on, the impact of actually having an authentic conversation with someone is incredible. So, I think that is probably the starting point, even before you might decide to go and sit in a formal class or do a workshop with us,” she explains.

Although these activities are based in Melbourne and Sydney, people who live elsewhere still have opportunities to engage with The School of Life.

For instance, Harrison suggests that if you or a patient can’t attend an event in-person, you take a look at their online resources.

“I’d recommend checking out the Book of Life or the YouTube videos. With the five-day intensive events, we actually get a lot of people from interstate who started with the online content and then felt compelled to make a trip to Sydney or Melbourne for an in-person event.

“The fact that people are willing to do that shows how useful the stuff we put out truly is,” she concluded. And this is a great thing, because clearly with such a high number of Australians suffering from anxiety and depression, it’s apparent that many in our community desire a greater sense of connection and fulfilment.

To learn more about the School of Life

If you’d like to learn more about The School of Life, you can visit the organisation’s website theschooloflife.com. Alternatively, you can click on the appropriate city to visit The School of Life’s Sydney or Melbourne sites. 

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