I spent all morning trying to set up Mesh wifi (fail) and all afternoon trying to mirror my phone onto the TV (epic fail). Yesterday I spent an afternoon editing a pdf document to help someone apply for a UK pension (pass, barely).
And then my HP printer had a seizure of some kind and went into a gobbledygook printing frenzy. HP detected this and immediately sent me an email to say they are really pleased I am having fun with my printer and look forward to more printing in the future, possibly a golden age of print. It’s 1476 all over again.
This is all fine, first world problems, but it’s not quite the future we expected when Tomorrow’s World was on TV. After the moon landings, Velcro and Pot Noodles we looked forward to free energy and a working week of 1 hour when we went in to feed the robots.
Finding that people tend to be optimistic is one of the most important and far reaching discoveries in Psychology. It explains why people keep on buying lottery tickets, electing pathological liars to Downing Street and hitting 3 woods out of fairway bunkers.
People are more optimistic than they really should be.The human spirit is seemingly hard-wired to be indomitable.
Though it must be said, a lot of optimism research was carried out in the USA, often using samples of college students and arguably during a more optimistic period of history.
During that era, post war, the cultural vibe was an expectation of progress, that each generation would become more prosperous and happy than the one preceding. According to historians* ‘the belief that things are going to get better was already connected to a figurative America even before European settlers set out for the New World’.
The American Dream preceded D:ream and their song ‘things can only get better’ by 3 centuries at least.
A word of caution about the American Dream, regarding nomenclature. Call me a pedant, but we need to separate out the differences between Dreams, Daydreaming and Wishful Thinking. People who like to think wishfully fall into the ‘two biscuits later’ category, instead of the ‘one biscuit now’ group who end up in prison. Wishful thinking overlaps to an extent with positive thinking, which can be helpful to the positive thinker, if detrimental to everyone around that person.
The new wishful thinking in politics is to bring back an imaginary world where the map was mainly coloured pink, ambulances arrived within 2 minutes and your GP had a housekeeper called Janet who could mainly solve your problem herself with a shilling’s worth of homespun wisdom. Otherwise a GP would visit before the kettle had even boiled.
Such imagery was perfected by John Major who put it thus: ‘long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and – as George Orwell said (he didn’t) – old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ (He said ‘hiking’ not ‘bicycling’; call me a pedant again).
Choosing to embrace nostalgia instead of optimism led to Major’s Conservatives being eclipsed by Labour in 1997, who deployed the above mentioned anthem ‘Things can only get better’, by D:ream. Featuring TV scientist and Professor Brian Cox, D:ream were probably the only band ever to use a colon in their name, a device that artfully referenced the computer language underpinning electro-pop.
Dreams, daydreams, nightmares, flashbacks, are all different mental experiences. But they are quite interchangeable in the context of popular music. We are not expecting artists to use psychological terms accurately, (especially as most psychiatrists use them inaccurately too).
Daydream is a Mariah Carey album from 1995, featuring the singles ‘Fantasy’ and ‘One Sweet Dream’. Daydreaming, unlike Mariah Carey herself, is only of limited interest to psychiatrists, since it is a normal mental experience. Daydreaming is a normal mental event, ditto Fantasy and having One Sweet Dream. Or so we thought, until the concept ‘maladaptive daydreaming’ was invented in 2002 by Eli Somer, by which time Mariah Carey had moved on to her ninth album, ‘Charmbracelet’.
The diagnosis of maladaptive daydreaming was never accepted mainstream. There’s always a backlash against attempts to medicalise aspects of normal life, though anyone could see that daydreaming might be a problem, say, for a fighter pilot or the person who inserts pins on a grenade assembly line.
Daydreaming is more usually counted as a positive and constructive mental experience, where ideas can flourish. Nevertheless, Somer thought that daydreaming could be problematic if it became excessive or morbid in content.
Somer was a daydream believer but we are left with the philosophical question first raised by The Monkees: Oh, what can it mean?
Daydreams are what we do when boring people are giving long speeches. If they are maladaptive they can equally be adaptive. Some of my best thinking, such as planning the list of plumbing parts I will need for a new drain, has taken place as my mind drifted during a long sermon (sorry Father Chris).
The American Dream, which never was really a Dream, somewhere in recent history, seemed to reverse its mood polarity. As Billy Joel put it in the song ‘Allentown’, ‘every child had a pretty good shot / to get at least as far as their old man got’. The lyrics go on to say that, ‘something happened on the way to that place / they threw an American flag in our face’. The song marks roughly the time when the optimism curve started to trend downward.
(That time was emphatically not 1982, which was the year I got married. Allentown was written a few years before that, but yes it was released in 1982. Apologies to Mrs EP).
The life expectancy curve took longer to start declining, but by 2020 most countries, other than New Zealand, Taiwan and Norway, (the smug countries) were predicting reduced average lifetimes.
Something has gone a bit wrong, but who can we blame? In ‘Allentown’ the problem was the decline of the steel industry, or more accurately its export to Asian countries.
The obvious suspect is the onward march of so-called neo-liberal economics and its fellow apocalyptic horsemen: war, climate change, plague and library closure.
Social division has increased and people are more unhappy in countries with higher levels of wealth inequality. Commentators have linked neoliberal economics to general dissatisfaction and anxiety and to a huge increase in the prescribing and consumption of antidepressants.
Children in the UK, especially girls, were particularly unhappy compared with other European countries, according to a 2015 study, being made to feel inadequate in one way or another.
Schools continued to overload both students and teachers with assignments and assessment despite the finding that during the plague year, when schools were closed for months on end, the students got better exam results than they ever had when the schools were open.
Social media companies are helping to fuel the fires of envy and self loathing. They are essentially advertising agencies, though more artfully targeted than billboards and posters.
The targeting still seems erratic, which is why I keep getting adverts from HomeStoreandMore for Patchwork Posie Kitchen Textiles. Or, today, ‘how to make it look like you have abs in every photo’. Instagram is trying to ab-shame me now. And that’s right on top of being cholesterol-shamed at the health centre.
The internet has a lot to answer for and is routinely blamed for every type of disruption. The internet wasn’t a thing in 1982 when Allentown was released, and it wasn’t a thing during most of the 20th century’s wars and genocides. But one has a feeling that the IT revolution exaggerates every social trend, from redefining the ideal female eyebrow to closing small shops and is probably making wars even more deadly than they ever were.
Despite very difficult times ahead, as we collect our thermal pyjamas and hazmat suits from HomeStoreandMore, can we rely on people to stay cheerful?
Hard-wired optimism is one reason why all of us are not depressed all of the time. Is this resilience being gradually overwhelmed by a tide of damaging online experiences? Yes, clearly, for some, such as adolescents who use Instagram and have been presented with ‘the bleakest of worlds’**.
There is evidence to suggest that Optimism Bias, though basically an incorrect prediction, leads to better outcomes than seeing the future realistically:
‘that the mind has evolved learning mechanisms to mis-predict future occurrences, as in some cases they lead to better outcomes than do unbiased beliefs’***
This raises a problem for therapists, at least those whose system is based on countering cognitive distortions. This probably explains the recent trend of therapy morphing into Coaching. Check out your therapist’s footwear next time around. If the Clarke’s cornish-pasty loafers have been replaced by Air Max, you may be predicting a ‘better version’ of yourself in the world to come. New Balance might be better.
According to Wikipedia, Billy Joel is still only 73, so ideally placed for a future presidential run.
*‘Things are going to get better: the American dream in contemporary young adult chicano literature’ Marlene Roider and Stefan Brandt, Graz, 2017.
**Now we know that big tech peddles despair, we must protect ourselves; Zoe Williams, Guardian, 7 Oct 2022
***Sharot, 2011, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982211011912