Why life is good

A dangerous gap exists between our personal experience, which is mainly happy, and our view of a soc

Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.

It is pessimism of a particular and pernicious kind. People are not generally negative about their own lives. In fact, we systematically exaggerate the control we have as individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has shown, we tend to give our conscious minds credit for many reactions that are in fact instinctive. Other studies - of what we say has made us happy and what has actually increased our levels of contentment - show that we have a huge capacity to rationalise our life choices. When we are forced to make a choice between limited options, we are as likely to end up claiming the choice as our own as we would if it were unconstrained. And the more we like a future possibility in our lives, the more inclined we are to believe it will happen. The human mind is hard-wired to be personally Panglossian.

In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general. Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81 per cent of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same people were asked whether they thought the National Health Service was providing a good service nationally, only 47 per cent felt able to declare it was so, and most think the NHS is going to get worse.

This perception gap is not restricted to public services, as a recent BBC poll on families confirms. Some 93 per cent of respondents des cribed themselves as optimistic about their own family life, up 4 per cent from the previous time the survey was conducted, 40 years ago. Yet more people - 70 per cent, across race, class and gender - believe families are becoming less successful overall. While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.

What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs.

The media seem to be the most obvious cause of this phenomenon. Bad news makes more compelling headlines than good. Tabloids and locals feed off crime stories, middlebrow papers are dismayed at the chaos of the modern world and the alleged venality and ignorance of those in power, and left-leaning broadsheets enjoy telling us that global instability is endemic and envir onmental apocalypse inevitable. Mean while, the content of television programmes - from dramas to news bulletins - contributes to what the communication theorist George Gerbner called "mean world syndrome": people who regularly watch TV systematically overstate the level of criminality in society.

Yet it is too easy to blame the media; the job of commissioning editors is to give us what we want. We make our own contribution to social pessimism. In the burgeoning industry of reputation management, it is generally argued that people are much more likely to tell others about bad experiences of services than good ones (5:1 is the usual ratio). Academic research suggests that people tend to exaggerate in the direction of the general mood. Viewing our own lives positively but wider society negatively, we will tend to pass on and exaggerate evidence that supports these prejudices.

Evolutionary determinists may seek an explanation of our predilection for bad news in neurological hard-wiring; perhaps, for the survival of hunter-gatherers, warning is more important than celebrating. But it is in two of the mega-trends of modernity that more likely reasons for our social pessimism are to be found.

First, there has been the inexorable rise in individualism since the Enlightenment. As Richard Sennett brilliantly argued in The Fall of Public Man, aspects of modernity such as the power of consumer capitalism and the ubiquity of the idioms of psychotherapy have accelerated the process by which we see our authentic selves as revealed in the private and personal spheres, rather than the public and social.

Unstoppable force

Hand in hand with the rise of individualism, we have seen the decline of industrial and pre-industrial collectivist institutions, including the organised church, trade unions, political parties and municipal elites. Robert Putnam's work on social capital suggests this decline in collectivism reaches down into our social lives, with people choosing to spend less time with acquaintances and more with intimates. Putnam's more recent work controversially argues that trust levels are lower and loose social networking less common in more diverse communities.

This points to the second of modernity's mega- trends. Increasingly, we feel that we are the victims of processes set in train by human activity but no longer under anyone's control. Globalisation is the gravity of modern society: an unstoppable force that will knock us over if we try to defy it. The origins of the current credit squeeze in the US sub-prime mortgage market show a financial system that is beyond not only its managers' control, but even their capacity to chart.

Illegal immigration, terrorism and pandemics are seen as the inevitable flip side of cheap travel and consumer goods. Philosophers and policy-makers argue about how best to regulate emerging science and technology in genetics, nano technology and artificial intelligence. But can anything long delay the advance of knowledge - especially if it has commercial applications?

It is not only that we as ordinary citizens feel beset by forces beyond our control. We are ever less likely to believe in the power or authority of our elected representatives (although we much prefer our own MP to MPs in general). At a time when they have more to prove to us than ever before, our leaders are diminished by the politics of a populist consumerism. In this time of uncertainty, is it surprising that the more politically successful national leaders - think Chávez or Putin - are those who offer strong leadership in defiance of democratic constraints?

This is the anatomy of social impotence. By definition, progressives argue for the possibilities of progress; but is anyone inclined to believe us? A hundred years ago, Joseph Rowntree established his charitable works after analysing the social evils of his age. When, last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked today's public for its definition of the "new social evils", the list had changed very little. Greed, poverty, crime, family and community breakdown all featured on both lists. But at a seminar to discuss the findings, advisers from the foundation and elsewhere agreed on one big shift between the late-Victorian era and today: while Rowntree had seen his evils as the unfinished business of society's onward march, today we see social patho logies as the inevitable consequences of an idea of progress that itself feels imposed upon us.

Brainier than before

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.

As for the powerlessness of leaders, the Bali deal last month may leave much to be resolved, but isn't this at last a sign that nations can unite in the best interests of the planet? And should we really lose faith that human determination and ingenuity ultimately will win through? Despite the power of international finance, this is a world where it is possible to be economically successful in societies as deliberately different as those of Sweden or the United States.

We rightly worry about rogue states and terrorists with dirty bombs; but let us also remember that since Nagasaki we have managed to carry on for 60 years without anyone unleashing the power of nuclear warfare. Not only have there been three generations of peace in Europe, but when in the past has a project as grand as EU enlargement been accomplished, let alone accomplished in a decade?

Progressives want the world to be a better place. We bemoan its current inequities and oppression - yet if we fail to celebrate the progress that human beings have made, and if we sound as though the future is a fearful place, we belie our own philosophy. Instead, we need to address a deficit in social optimism that threatens the credibility of our core narrative.

There are many aspects to this; we should, for example, be making the case for a more balanced and ethical media. But my starting point is the need to forge a new collectivism. It is in working with others on a shared project of social advance that we can be reconnected to the sense of collective agency so missing from modern political discourse. It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that brings hope. The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there's nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope and develop solutions.

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience. Compare that to the last Labour Party, trade union or council meeting you went to.

Roll up your sleeves

The failure to provide routes to collective fulfilment means we assume that our journey is best pursued alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, new left movements at home and abroad placed emphasis on forms of political organisation and debate that were innovative, exciting and (dare I say it without mockery) consciousness-raising.

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration. Gordon Brown's citizens' juries are a tentative step in the right direction, albeit without much fun or risk-taking, but generally, progressives seem more interested in bemoaning the state of the world than in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism.

Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it. Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster