Cloudbusting: Is the dour Scot stereotype an accurate one?

FOR a few days there, the sun was cracking the pavements and we rolled up our trouser-legs, prostrated ourselves on any green patch available and luxuriated in the heat. That was day one. By day two, it had started. The griping. "It's a wee bit hot," moaned a sunbather friend. "Shall we move into the shade?" And from a photographer I know, "Great weather, but the shadows are a bit hard." Then, from a gardener acquaintance, "Aye, glorious, but the fruit needs a bit

Enough! Why can't we just enjoy something without complaint? Are we a nation of negative thinkers driven to Calvinistic carping, come rain or shine (preferably rain)? Is it the weather, diet, genetics, a childhood of tart rhubarb and gooseberry crumbles, a higher propensity to ginger hair and pale skin that makes us 'Only Happy When it Rains', to quote the ginger-haired, pale-of-skin Scots singer Shirley Manson. As a nation, is our glass half empty? And are we more likely in the current recession to be wandering around saying, "Well, this was bound to happen"?

Who better to answer these questions than Carol Craig, chief executive at the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, in Glasgow. Established in 2004, the centre was funded by the Scottish Government to the tune of 450,000 from 2005-2008 and enjoys core funding until 2010. It also receives financial support from organisations including Scottish Enterprise, Alfred McAlpine Business Solutions, BT, Morris and Spottiswood and Clydesdale Bank as it seeks to bring more optimism, self-belief and sense of purpose to Scottish culture – although, as yet there are no figures or statistics to prove that this commitment translates into pounds, shillings and pence. But is it right to spend so much time and effort into making us Scots less dour? Is there anything wrong in seeing the glass half-empty?

"We in Scotland have a problem," says Craig. "We are almost at the bottom of the international league for confidence because Scotland is a put-down culture that doesn't encourage people to feel good about themselves. There is no automatic feeling that you're a worthwhile person. You have to prove that you are, you have to earn it. And that's difficult, particularly since there is also a strong Scottish ethos of egalitarianism that says you mustn't feel you are better than anyone else, you mustn't put your head above the parapet."

Craig also suggests that our national lack of cheer might have something to do with high levels of emigration. "Scotland exported so many people over the years. Yes, there were the Clearances, when people were forced to go, but the overwhelming majority of people who left went willingly because they thought they could make a better life elsewhere. They were the optimists. The pessimists didn't go – they were thinking, 'We'll die in the boat!'

"So America is a positive place because it's an artificial population full of people with dreams and aspirations. If that type of person is creamed off from a country's population, won't it have an effect on the culture? We are the pessimists," she says.

Or you could argue that we're the knuckle-down, make-a-go-of-it hard workers, determined to survive through dint of sheer hard graft. Evolutionary psychologists tell us we are all descended from those who survived precisely because they were aware of danger and ready for a struggle, the Pleistocene pessimists who prioritised negativity and criticism because it was important to help them stay alive, and not their dolly-daydream, devil-may-care relatives who didn't make it. We're related to the ones peering round the door of the cave saying, "I don't like the look of that mammoth." Or, "Looks like rain again. Let's stay in." So we're hard-wired to be negative. Why does it matter anyway if we're a bit on the miserable, thrawn side? Can business put a price on misery? "We would love to have research that shows what an impact it has, but that takes time and money. We hope it's something we can do in the future," says Craig.

"It matters for us in Scotland because pessimism is linked with poor health," adds Craig. "In some parts of the country male life-expectancy is only 55 or 56, and we need to analyse why, because it's not just down to poverty and unemployment. There's another factor. Chief medical officer Harry Burns says it's about a lack of hope, and lots of people have that lack of hope on a daily basis. That's why optimism is really important."

While male life-expectancy may be shortened by a lack of hope, women aren't always achieving their full potential either (see opposite). For both sexes, support pays dividends. Craig cites a recent project in Glasgow's Easterhouse, where volunteers had their self-esteem tracked. By asking them to count what was good in their lives, their esteem levels were boosted, and even after the study ended, levels continued to rise. So it seems that hope is tied up in being valued and in making a contribution, and despite the fact that we live in a materialistic society, it's not about amassing goods and status symbols. "A materialistic agenda leads to dissatisfaction, depression and less happiness. We should be looking less at money, appearance and fame and focusing on meaning, purpose and relationships with others," she says.

We could be on to something here, with the idea that making a contribution to society instead of only thinking of ourselves makes us happier. In Scotland it's left to individual consciences, but in the Himalayan state of Bhutan the constitution makes it a duty for citizens to personally provide help to others, uphold justice, be a pacifist and – something that would make our politicians very afraid – act against corruption.

Being a Buddhist country, Bhutan doesn't leave happiness to chance and has a state commitment to maximising "gross national happiness". It's an integral part of the constitution, and government policies are assessed by the amount of happiness they produce. Agriculture, foreign trade and education are all judged not by the economic benefits they produce, but by the smile quota.

It was in a bid to attain gross national happiness, or GNH, that the Bhutanese accepted the resignation of the popular king as an absolute monarch and held the country's first democratic election a year ago. Commenting on the financial crisis in the world beyond Bhutan's snow-capped peaks, prime minister Jigme Thinley put the cause down to "greed, insatiable human greed", adding, "What we need is change. We need to think gross national happiness." Easily said in a country with only 70,000 citizens and no traffic lights in the capital, where cigarettes are banned and traditional dress compulsory.

But the Bhutanese are not joking. Happiness is a serious issue, their weapon against globalisation. It just remains to be seen if it can stem the in-flow of Western influence, especially since the Bhutanese gained access to television ten years ago. According to Kinley Dorji, secretary of information and communications, "Before June 1999, if you asked any young person who is your hero, the inevitable response was, 'The king'. Immediately after that it was David Beckham and now it's 50 Cent, the rap artist."

Challenged by the World Bank and the IMF as to how happiness could be measured, the Bhutanese came up with a GNH index and formulae. Psychological well-being, for instance, is represented by an equation – but since it seems to be a list of fairly random numbers, perhaps they made it up to raise a smile?

Meanwhile, their would-be near-neighbour, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is similarly upbeat about the pursuit of happiness in his Book of Wisdom. He says, "The basic fact is that all sentient beings, particularly human beings, want happiness and do not want pain and suffering. On those grounds, we have every right to be happy and to use different methods or means to overcome suffering and to achieve happier lives."

A "right to be happy"? As a card-carrying Scottish pessimist, I would never have presumed such an audacious thing. It could only end in tears. Wasn't it the Rev I M Jolly who said, "It's far more important to make someone else happy than to be happy yourself"? But the Dalai Lama suggests looking at things from different angles. Instead of looking only at the negative side of having been forced out of his country, he chooses to appreciate "another type of freedom, such as the opportunity of meeting different people from different traditions. From these experiences my life has been enriched.

"I think the person who has had more experience of hardships can stand more firmly in the face of problems than the person who has never experienced suffering. From this angle then, some suffering can be a good lesson for life," he says.

Given the current financial crisis and consequent job losses, on top of the Scottish predilection for suffering, no one can accuse us of shirking on the lessons front. But there's a huge body of opinion that thinks it's actually good for us.

American psychology professor and author Barry Schwartz, who is delivering a workshop in Glasgow this month, says in his best-seller The Paradox of Choice that the secret to happiness is having low expectations. Schwartz argues that the more choice we have, the more we are overwhelmed and unhappy. "With so much choice, we are never happy with what we have because we always think we could have done better. With 100 different kinds of something on offer, if we can't get exactly the right thing, we blame ourselves if we're not happy with our choice. This has led to an explosion of depression and suicide because people have a disappointing experience and blame themselves, thinking they're a failure," he says.

"We have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare. Expensive, complicated choices make us worse off and are bad for us. If there was some income redistribution it would make everyone better off. Clinical depression has exploded because people's standards are too high and they think they're at fault if they're disappointed."

He's absolutely right. My mobile phone is dying but I can't face the rigmarole of choosing a new one, having to decide between 20 different models when I would really rather they just allocated one to me. "Can't you just choose?" I ask the salesman. "Well, it depends whether you want one with a better camera or one with a better music player," he says. I think I'll leave it for another day, like a consumer rabbit caught in the blinding headlights of too much choice.

We need to lower our expectations, stop chasing that must-have handbag, job, partner, body and settle for "good enough". Could it be that the Scots who didn't opt for the New World knew this all along and decided they would be happy enough staying put? That the grass was probably greener on the rainy, damper side of the pond?

This could also be why we like our politicians downbeat and, dare I say it, dour. According to a Scottish Labour Party spokesperson, "People in Scotland want their politicians to act seriously and sensibly, and don't buy the glitz that David Cameron represents. Before he went into politics he worked in PR, while Gordon Brown is someone whose character is moulded by a very Scottish experience of public service and a desire to serve society." And it's probably a good thing that there's no footage of the Prime Minister kicking his height in abandon to a groovy theme tune at party conferences to come back to haunt him in these less jubilant times.

Back at the Centre for Confidence, Craig thinks that, despite the downturn, we have cheered up generally, notably since the election of a nationalist government. "Even though only 20 per cent of the population voted SNP, in some circles it had a positive effect. I did feel there was more optimism and national confidence around that time. Labour went for the negative approach but the SNP changed tack with their election campaign, and rather than saying, 'Look how badly we're doing, it's terrible,' they presented a more optimistic programme that focused on the positive. That made them more electable. They realised that terrifying people and making them negative doesn't work. Research has shown that over the past 100 years, in all presidential elections bar one, if you analyse the candidates' speech content, the more optimistic one wins. You can see that with Obama and the hope he projected. He even called his book The Audacity of Hope."

In the light of the recession, are businesses attempting to encourage their workers with a little positive thinking? At Standard Life, one of the capital's biggest employers, last week saw them celebrating the annual Chairman's Awards initiative, which rewards the efforts of staff in their local communities, whether it be linked to volunteering, fundraising, education or the environment. "This is the most important time to be motivating our staff, and indirectly things like this have a positive effect in financial returns. We believe that through engaged people, who are aligned behind our strategic priorities, we will be better placed to deliver superior business performance and shareholder value," says a spokeswoman for the firm.

And what about practical advice for those losing their jobs? MPs, for instance? How easy is it for them to think positively? "I would argue that people shouldn't try to go into positive thinking too quickly," says Craig. "I was made redundant 18 years ago, and it's a kick in the teeth. I went too quickly into thinking I could cope, and didn't express my feelings and anger. It's appropriate to feel negative, to grieve for your job, but don't let it last too long. Pull yourself out of it with physical activity and get some structure into your life by volunteering. That will help you rediscover your self-worth," she says.

So if you do lose your job, get yourself out there now. What are you waiting for? Has it started to rain? That'll have been the summer then. Happy now?

• Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (7.99, Harper Collins). The Choices Worth Having: A Masterclass with Professor Barry Schwartz is on Tuesday, from 1:30pm to 4:15pm, at Oran Mor, Great Western Road, Glasgow. Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, Level 3, 45 Union Street, Glasgow (0141-221 2626, www.centreforconfidence.co.uk)

The power of a woman

POSITIVITY isn't something lifestyle coach Dawn Breslin is short of. Now the bestselling author and motivational speaker is determined to inspire other women to join her, and has established the new Consciously Female clubs, which started up in Edinburgh this month.

By targeting women specifically, she aims to help them confront a lack of confidence and self-esteem and to make positive changes in their lives. "I wanted to create a club that is exciting and fun and where networking for business or losing weight aren't the main focus but may be the byproducts of what goes on," says Breslin.

During the women-only meetings, a range of educational and empowering talks will be coupled with exercises to help women get the best out of life and themselves, to break down the barriers that are stopping them achieve their potential. "I want it to be something that we look forward to for a million different reasons. Somewhere you can check in week-in week-out and experience the support and encouragement of people who truly want the best for you.

"We all need encouragement, whether it is to reach for the stars or to change our lipstick and hair colour," she says.

"I welcome every type of woman, I acknowledge that we all have different life stories, body types, lifestyle demands, budget and goals."

• Consciously Female club meetings are at David Lloyd Newhaven, Edinburgh (0131-554 5000) on Wednesdays at 10am and 7pm. For further information, visit www.dawnbreslin.com

Ten steps to happiness

CAN you make yourself feel better in the midst of uncertainty and when all around you are in the doldrums? The Centre for Confidence and Well-Being reckons you can – by trying its top ten tips for boosting happiness.

1 Do something meaningful or worthwhile – something where the achievement is not just about you but serves a larger goal. This could mean doing charity work or even helping out a friend.

2 Get more exercise. Research shows that taking exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week, fights depression.

3 Be thankful. At the end of each day, write down three things you have felt grateful for, such as having a nice meal or speaking to your mother.

4 Don't become obsessed with how you feel. Remember bad feelings don't last. Worrying too much about something without taking action to rectify it will make you feel worse.

5 Spend more time on hobbies and leisure activities that you find absorbing and stimulating.

6 Watch less television. Tuning into the box is not a rewarding experience and usually leads to boredom and apathy.

7 Spend time with loved ones and cultivate personal relationships. All the research indicates that being married is more important for happiness than anything else.

8 Spend more time with friends and the people you really like. The most successful happiness-boosters can be the relationships we have with other people.

9 Don't let your job overtake everything else in your life. If you have to commute long distances every day, have a really good think about whether this is undermining your happiness. Getting a job closer to home, even if it reduces your income, may lead to an increase in your overall happiness in the long term.

10 Cut down your exposure to advertising, as it encourages you to compare yourself with other people – and ultimately to feel dissatisfied with what you have. If you're female, this may mean giving up reading women's magazines.

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