So I think where people tend to end up results from a combination of encouragement, accident, and lucky break, etc. etc. Like many others, my career happened like it did because certain doors opened and certain doors closed. You know, at a certain point I thought it would be great to make film documentaries. Well, in fact, I found that to be incredibly hard and very expensive to do and I didn’t really have the courage to keep battling away at that. In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So it's all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.
He was sent to the Dragon School, a boarding school in Oxford, where English became his primary language. Describing himself as a shy child, he boarded at Harrow School, before going up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read History (1988–1991) and subsequently completed a master's degree (MPhil) in Philosophy at King's College, London (1991–1992). He began studying for a PhD in French philosophy at Harvard University, but gave up this research to write books for the general public.
In his first novel, Essays in Love (titled On Love in the U.S.), published in 1993, de Botton deals with the process of falling in and out of love. In 2010, Essays in Love was adapted to film by Director Julian Kemp for the romantic comedy My Last Five Girlfriends. De Botton wrote a sequel to Essays in Love, published in 2016, titled The Course of Love.
In 1997 he published his first non-fiction book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, based on the life and works of Marcel Proust. It was a bestseller in both the US and UK.
De Botton used to write articles for several English newspapers, and from 1998 to 2000, wrote a regular column for The Independent on Sunday. He travels extensively to lecture and has his own production company, Seneca Productions, which makes television documentaries based upon his works. He has given lectures at TED conferences. In July 2011, he spoke in Edinburgh about "Atheism 2.0", an idea of atheism that also incorporates our human need for connection, ritual and transcendence. In July 2009, he spoke at Oxford University about the philosophy of failure and success, and questions the assumptions underlying these two judgments.
De Botton was born in Zurich, the son of Jacqueline (née Burgauer) and Gilbert de Botton, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and expelled under Nasser. Gilbert went to live and work in Switzerland, where he co-founded an investment firm, Global Asset Management; his family was estimated to have been worth £234 million in 1999. Alain de Botton's Swiss-born mother was Ashkenazi, and his father was from a Sephardic Jewish family from the town of Boton in Castile and León.
This was followed by The Consolations of Philosophy in 2000. The title of the book is a reference to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, in which philosophy appears as an allegorical figure to Boethius to console him in the period leading up to his impending execution. In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton attempts to demonstrate how the teachings of Philosophers such as Epicurus, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Seneca, and Socrates can be applied to modern everyday woes. The book has been both praised and criticized for its therapeutic approach to philosophy.
In The Architecture of Happiness (2006), he discusses the nature of beauty in architecture and how it is related to the well-being and general contentment of the individual and society. He describes how architecture affects people every day, though people rarely pay particular attention to it. A good portion of the book discusses how human personality traits are reflected in architecture. He defends Modernist architecture, and chastises the pseudo-vernacular architecture of housing, especially in the UK. "The best modern architecture," he argues, "doesn't hold a mirror up to nature, though it may borrow a pleasing shape or expressive line from nature's copybook. It gives voice to aspirations and suggests possibilities. The question isn't whether you'd actually like to live in a Le Corbusier home, but whether you'd like to be the kind of person who'd like to live in one."
In 2008, Alain de Botton founded The School of Life. Based in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Seoul, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, São Paulo, Berlin, Zurich and Melbourne, The School of Life offers an emotional education focusing in particular on the issues of Work and Relationships. In an interview with Metkere.com de Botton said:
In May 2009, de Botton launched a project called "Living Architecture" – which builds holiday rental houses in the UK using leading contemporary Architects. These include Peter Zumthor, MVRDV, JVA, NORD and Michael and Patti Hopkins. The most recent house to be announced is a collaboration between the Turner-prize winning Artist Grayson Perry, and the architecture firm FAT. The houses are rented out to the general public. De Botton, the creative Director and chairman of Living Architecture, aims to improve the appreciation of good contemporary architecture – a task which is the practical continuation of his theoretical work on architecture in his book The Architecture of Happiness. In October 2009, he was appointed an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), in recognition of his services to architecture.
In 2011 he presented a series of talks for the BBC Radio 4 series A Point of View.
In January 2012, de Botton published Religion for Atheists, about the benefits of religions for those who do not believe in them. De Botton put it: "It's clear to me that religions are in the end too complex, interesting and on occasion wise to be abandoned simply to those who believe in them". In April 2012, he published How to Think More about Sex, one in a series of six books on topics of emotional life published by his enterprise, The School of Life.
In October 2013, he published Art as Therapy, co-written with the Australian-Scottish art Historian, John Armstrong. Art as Therapy argues that certain great works of art "offer clues on managing the tensions and confusions of everyday life".
In August 2014, de Botton was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September's referendum on that issue.