103. The Optimism Crash.

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


24. Dangling from the last helicopter out.


What a lowly position feels like.

Sometimes Depression is a sign that your predicament is poor. Surveys show large numbers of people think about quitting their job, but very few actually do so.

A life-time ago, I can remember spending Monday afternoons in an operating theatre, assisting my boss, who was a vascular surgeon. Every week, at about 4pm, there would be a commotion in the theatre next door, as the very temperamental colo-rectal surgeon working there went slightly berzerk. Sometimes he would hurl items of equipment at the wall. Usually he would announce his resignation and storm out. He was always back next week though.

Remember the last scene in Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callaghan, throws his police badge into a pond?

What symbol of your job would you throw into the water if you decided to quit in disgust, as the camera zooms out and the credits roll?

If you are a gynaecologist, perhaps an laparoscope would do, an old style – rigid model, thrown like a javelin. The butcher could throw his white trilby hat like a frisbee. But what about the Timpson’s shoe repair and key cutting man, who looks increasingly fed up? He’s big, but how far could anyone throw a lathe?

I have just the thing, which is a John Major era ‘Chartermark’ badge. The citizen’s charter was a policy intended to elevate the concerns of ordinary folk, like the increasing numbers of traffic cones. The problem was, there were no ordinary folk left. The baby boomers were all special.

The badge is made of bronze and about the size of a broad bean. I could skim it far out onto the river on a calm day. I’m sure though, if I went to the river there would be a queue of disgruntled workers hurling various emblematic work items.

What expression should one choose for the camera, just before the zoom-out? Sad inevitability? A mixture of guilt and relief? Or – it’s video remember – deadpan? As though all the life has gone out of you?

More and more people are fed up with work and a lot of them have suffered ‘burnout’. Neil Young said ‘its better to burn out than to fade away’, but in a sense the two things are the same, just different types of oxidation reaction.

The phrase burn-out, which was hyphenated in those days, apparently derives from Graham Greene’s book, The Burnt-Out Case, which features an exhausted celebrity architect who goes to work at a leper colony. The parallel is between architecture and leprosy in terms of their effects on people, which is to make them quite interesting and very thin.

The ‘Whitehall’ studies looked at sickness in various groups of workers within the civil service. They seemed to show that the more lowly paid the job, the more stressful it turned out to be, which is the exact opposite of the commonly-touted belief that high-flying jobs are the most vexing.

Nevertheless, even in medicine, which is quite rewarding in many ways, my impression is that an increasing number of people are walking away, sometimes after a dozen or more years of training and dedication.

I tried to research the number of doctors who are qualified but don’t work in medicine, but it is hard to get these statistics.  A sizable number are still registered and licensed by the GMC but will quit as they come up for revalidation (or to give it its proper name, The Cull.) Many more work part time or intermittently, via agencies.

Whatever the number in work, if you look around your locality, ask yourself: are there any more GPs than there were 20 years ago? And: how easy is it nowadays to sign on with a GP?

As far as I can see, the answers are, ‘No’ and ‘as easy as getting through Tintwistle’. I’m not sure where the GPs are going, but its probably the same place as the bumble bees. Studies have shown that GPs have the highest burnout rate of any professional group, up to 40%, at least in Holland.

Not been to Tintwistle? Let me explain:

The giant industrial cities, Manchester and Sheffield sit about 35 miles apart on either side of a small set of hills called the Peak District. Because they are in the north of England, there is no proper road joining them up. Things start well enough, as you leave Manchester on a fine new highway called the M67. After five miles, the M67 ends abruptly and you are frozen in traffic, as though liquid nitrogen had suddenly been sprayed over the road from a giant cartoon airship flown by Mister Freeze.

During my time at Tintwistle, which was longer than many prison sentences, I reflected on the notion of helplessness, and how it affects the nervous system. The most accurate description I can think of is that helplessness hits the human organism like a rubber hammer. There are no wounds, no broken bones, not even ruptured internal organs. Just a sense that something deep inside of you is broken.

I can remember similar effects from going on fairground rides with inappropriately high and sustained circular motion. What initially seem to be expressions of happiness on people’s faces turn out merely to be rictus grins caused by G force.

Getting stuck at Tintwistle has much in common with being in a low paid job in the civil service. You have little control over your destiny. And its too late to wonder what you were doing there in the first place.

The truth is, no-one gives much advice about the really important choices in life. Things like which partner to choose, what career to follow, or which team to support. These often start out like the M67, wide and promising, and then, suddenly, the road just runs out.

It’s easy to see people who have chosen completely the wrong jobs. There’s the lollipop man who attacked someone with his lollipop. There’s the science teacher who battered a pupil with a 3kg dumbbell, shouting ‘die, die, die’. There’s Tony Blair as peace envoy to the middle east. And there’s the man at Tesco who prints the yellow price stickers, who should be a master villain in a Bond movie.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize – winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman reveals that he and his team of experts were quite unable to predict who would succeed as army officers, despite all kinds of aptitude tests. So it seems unlikely that the school careers teacher will succeed in putting everyone on the right path.

Perhaps people are more likely to change job nowadays in mid life, giving a chance of redemption.

Otherwise I think I have a solution, based a bit on Prime Ministers’ cabinet re-shuffles. My idea is to put someone like the town mayor or an official psychologist in charge of employment. He would be able to shuffle people from one job to another if they are looking burned out.

So the Timpson man becomes the science teacher. The butcher becomes the gynaecologist. The science teacher gets to cut keys. And the gynaecologist gets to kill serial killers in San Francisco.

The civil service can be moved to Tintwistle, so that everyone is always late and the activities of the government will be frozen, like in Italy.

There was no scene showing Harry Callaghan with a snorkel and flippers, retrieving his badge for the sequels, but he returned several times. Even worse, none of the sequels allowed him to move to a less bureaucratically-frustrated role, such as running the police pottery workshop, and the body count continued to rise.

Perhaps the GPs will return for a sequel one day, or even turn up at the end of the movie, like the old naval warriors in Battleship.

Or, just as all hope is abandoned, the bumble bees will swarm back over the horizon in giant black clouds. They have made enough honey not only to feed us but to run our cars too.