Why are we so pessimistic? What accounts for a pervasive social and cultural miserablism? Is it possible to live a more positive and uplifting life?
Blank out the everyday friction and noise and these are the profound questions that haunt us – and ones from which we shrink. And then we wonder why our lives seem imbued with failure.
Two controversial books now command interest and attention. The first is by psychiatrist, academic and social commentator Jordan Peterson: 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos. It has become the current best seller on Amazon.
The second, newly published, is by Steven Pinker, entitled Enlightenment Now – The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. His view is that we have achieved colossal advances in health, wealth and well-being – a fantastic record of progress and achievements, but one which has been denigrated and denied by academics and commentators.
Both books have attracted cult-like devotion – and condemnation. The entry of Peterson, a warrior against political correctness, into the cultural mainstream has brought sneers and ferocious denigration from the bien pensant. But he has struck a reverberating chord: his recent adversarial interview with Channel Four’s Cathy Newman has been viewed six million times on YouTube.
His 12 Rules for Life, drawing on the ancient philosophy, religious belief and the psychological insights of Carl Jung, extol the virtues of contemplation, discipline and self-improvement. Amid these, he rails against what he sees as a post-modern Marxism that is now the prevailing ideology of the academic establishment across America and Europe.
Of the two, it is Pinker’s assault on pessimism that may be said to pose the greater challenge to Scottish sensibilities. For we are widely held to be a despairing people, quick to seize on the negatives of everyday life and the dark matter beyond.
All manner of explanations are advanced: our Calvinist past, the near-constant wet weather, the resentment of a larger, over-bearing neighbour, the Clearances, our over-use of alcohol, our poverty, our lack of opportunity, our poor life choices, de-industrialisation, Thatcherism, Brexit – history has constantly rained on our parade. Happiness is not, it seems, in our natural gift. It can require massive effort.
But this is a mere blip compared with Pinker’s panoramic critique of today’s ubiquitous pessimism. We are, he writes, in the grip of “progressophobes”, a broad church comprising, inter alia, the hard Right, the hard Left, religious zealots, eco-pessimists, anti-globalists, anti-consumerist academics and intellectuals who have championed ‘declinism’: the belief that almost everything globally is on the skids. In the packed Faculty of “We’re a’ doomed”, it’s standing room only.
His book bulges with the counter-factual. On health, for example, there is no country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950. On wealth, inequality is not the cause of social problems as Thomas Piketty suggests: as societies have become richer, they have become more munificent in supporting the less fortunate.
Between 1820 and 1900, global income tripled and it has tripled three more times since. The number of people in extreme poverty has fallen by 137,000 every day for the last 25 years.
As for the fulminating doomsters, nuclear power has not brought mass destruction, nor have grim prophecies about genetic modification come to pass. “Peak Oil” has come – and gone.
What of life experience closer to home, where every day brings dire news of falling real incomes and rising inequality: our fortunes have rarely seemed so low.
But we are not only wealthier than we have ever been, more comfortable in old age than we have ever been – but also happier than we have ever been. A recent Office for National Statistics study found that between July 2014 and June 2016 the aggregate total net wealth of all households in Great Britain had risen 15 per cent to £12.8 trillion. Median household total net wealth was up by £34,300 to £259,400.
Aggregate total private pension wealth of households was up 20 per cent to £5.3 trillion on the immediate previous two-year period. In terms of other assets, the value of household net financial wealth – bank and building society current and savings accounts, Individual Savings Accounts and stocks and shares – rose two per cent to £1.6 trillion on the previous two-year period, while our physical wealth – household contents, possessions and valuables such as antiques, works of art and classic cars – showed a rise of eight per cent to £1.2 trillion.
More recent is an ONS survey of UK personal well-being between April 2016 and March 2017. The figures, it said, “may surprise some”. Indeed they do. The survey revealed that despite bleak economic forecasts there were small year-on-year improvements in average life satisfaction ratings, with the proportion of people reporting very high levels of life satisfaction up from 27 per cent to 30 per cent and feeling that things done in life are worthwhile.
The proportion of people reporting very high levels of happiness was up from around 32 per cent in 2012 to 35 per cent. Average ratings across four measures of personal well-being in the year ending March 2017 were: 7.7 out of 10 for life satisfaction; 7.9 out of 10 for feeling that ‘what you do in life is worthwhile’; 7.5 out of 10 for ‘happiness yesterday’ and 2.9 out of 10 for ‘anxiety yesterday’.
You would glean very little of this media and academic commentary today. As for Peterson’s book – a self-help manual comprising common-sense injunctions about personal responsibility – the rules range from “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” through to “Compare yourself to who were yesterday not to who someone else is today” and “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”.
The essays are richly illustrated and packed with excellent advice on how we can restore meaning and a sense of progression to our everyday lives. I can well see why believers in “government” and public policy solutions would find his rules, delivered at some length, an experience akin to verbal waterboarding. Others would say they amount to little more than a well-read Patience Strong.
However, for those who are downcast, or convinced that everything is getting worse, or that we can do nothing to improve our life situation, both these books are compelling antidotes. They are also extremely challenging of the prevailing ideology across academia and the commentariat. If you are on a Scottish university campus or anywhere near Holyrood, take a tip: read behind a plain brown paper cover.