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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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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