Alexander McCall Smith: Looking on the bright side can save your life

Slow trains, noisy neighbours and bad weather can have their upsides if you adopt a positive mindset, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

Mice in the kitchen arent as bad as pine martens in the roof. Pine martens are much worse. And then again you could have deer (Picture: Neil Hanna)
Mice in the kitchen arent as bad as pine martens in the roof. Pine martens are much worse. And then again you could have deer (Picture: Neil Hanna)

I have been searching the newspapers over the last week for encouraging news but I have not been all that successful. The news seems to have been uniformly bleak, particularly with all these epic political quarrels and exchanges of vitriol. Neighbour has been turned against neighbour, friend against friend. There is no peace in the land.

The times in which we live are undoubtedly distressing, but so, I suspect, have been the times in which everyone has lived. One needs to remind oneself that the world has often been a vale of tears, and to dwell in that vale may unfortunately be the inevitable lot of humanity. And that leads to a rather interesting philosophical problem: how are we to react to the difficulties, tensions, and set-backs that assail our senses every time we open a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast?

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This is where the nocebo effect comes in. We all known about the placebo effect, which may make you feel better because you think that what you are doing (often the pill you are taking) is going to have a positive effect. The nocebo effect is the opposite of that – and it has a body of evidence to prove that it exists. This is the negative effect that people feel when they think that things are bad, and are going to get worse. In extreme cases, the nocebo effect can kill you – if you think that you are going downhill, you will.

So, taking a positive view of life actually represents a sensible approach to bad situations. This is not to say that everybody has to be Polyanna, but it does suggest that there are rational grounds for putting the best construction on negative developments. Do not dwell on how bad things are – rather, think of how things that seem negative might actually be positive when viewed in a particular way. Glib advice? Possibly, but remember the nocebo effect and what it may bring.

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Here are some suggestions as to how one might recast apparently negative developments in such a way as to make them seem less bleak. After one has tried this approach for a few days, the world, I believe, will seem less unattractive and one will be able to approach life with greater optimism and equanimity.

Firstly, the weather. This has recently been rather discouraging. We have had Storm Gareth and various other unusual weather events. Things are undoubtedly going to get worse ... and so it may be helpful to remember the advice of W.H. Auden. In his Bucolics, Auden wrote: “Winds make weather; weather is what nasty people are nasty about, and the nice show a common joy in observing ...” That should be our guide, and it gives us something to aim for. So, no more complaints.

Lost luggage. Now this is admittedly a trying development, especially if your luggage is lost at the beginning of a holiday. But once again, one should look on the positive side. Material possessions – including clothes – tie one down, as the Buddhists remind us. Do you really need all those clothes, especially if you are travelling to a warm destination? You do not. And remember that it was through losing all their clothes that some people have discovered naturism and made a whole lot of new friends. Once again, it is all a question of thinking positively.

And the same can be said if you lose all your money. For some that would be disaster, but they should be reminded that money causes concern and if you have none, you do not need to fret about it losing its value or being confiscated by the government. And if you have no money, then you are beyond the reach of the taxation authorities. They can huff and puff all they like – they can’t harm you.

Noisy neighbours: this is another problem that can cause great distress, but which, if viewed in the right light, becomes a very positive thing. Some people do not like it when noisy students move into the flat next door. That is the wrong approach: if this happens to you, be grateful. Having young people living next door will help to keep you young. You will be kept up-to-date with all the latest pop music, through the walls. That is a very positive prospect, if viewed correctly.

Mice in the kitchen? This can be upsetting for some, but the positive thinker reminds himself or herself how it could be worse. We had pine martens living in our roof in Argyll for some time. They are much worse than mice. And if you have pine martens in the roof, again you should perhaps remind yourself it could be even worse. There could be deer in your roof, as is the case in some large houses in the north of Scotland.

Finally, slow trains and cancelled services. Do not rail against ScotRail. Remember that a cancelled train means you don’t have to go anywhere, and can spend the time you would have spent travelling in doing something more satisfying. And it is always better to travel than to arrive, which means that there is a great deal to be said for slow trains.

These are just a few suggestions. You will find more of your own choice. Your life will be transformed, and the world will not seem to be such a bad place after all. It’s all a question of attitude.