Wednesday, February 14, 2007


My commuting journey takes three and a half hours on the train and involves two taxis at either end (a total of four taxis and two trains) there and back. (Note to train users - the best seats are always the 2 rows at the ends of each carriage - there's a bit more legroom there - not many people seem to know that).

About 70% of the time, taxi drivers start talking to me, which often results in some pretty strange conversations. Yesterday, a taxi driver who had been quiet for 10 minutes suddenly broke the silence by launching into a long unprompted story about how he'd been in a motorcycle accident 10 years ago when driving up from Portsmouth and lost a leg. He had nearly died and had lost his job as a marine. So what did I say? "How long did it take you to get back on your feet?" There goes any claim I had to sensitivity. At least he laughed about it.

Commuting at least means I get work done on the train, and have plenty of time to read. I've been reading Oliver James' latest book Affluenza. It's a bit of a cheesy title, but the central concept, that most societies are becoming obsessed with what Marxists call "false needs": being famous, having social status, acquiring stuff, earning lots of money, looking young or attractive, while ignoring our real needs: namely loving relationships, doing things we find fascinating, is something I can agree with.

He visits a number of different countries and interviews a range of people, particularly rich ones whose wealth doesn't seem to have brought them any happiness at all. Oddly it's places like New Zealand and Denmark that have lower rates of mental illness and depression, whereas America, with its enormous inequalities of wealth has one of the highest rates of depression and mental illness in the world. The UK is only trailing slightly behind.

Speaking from my own experiences, I can point to a number of friends and acquaintences who have what James calls "Affluenza". One friend I have is highly intelligent, sociable, witty and attractive, she has a great job and earns plenty of money. Her parents are obscenely wealthy, although she doesn't get on with them. Her house is full of lifestyle magazines, stacked into piles. She is unhappy with her weight and constantly comparing herself to her friends. I hate to talk about myself in front of her because I can see how any reference to things I've done at work makes her unhappy. She's not jealous, but she's so hard on herself that anyone else's success equals her failure.

James also has a chapter which focusses on education and in particular exam stress - it's not surprising that the most academically successful students are also more likely to be the ones who suffer from anxiety and depression - getting a first at university means you're probably on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Again, I can vouch for that. As part of my job I give out coursework extensions to students, and every year I seem to see more and more students who are depressed and stressed out about their work. At first I was a bit incredulous - after all, students do seem to have it easy - 8 hours a week of lectures, 4 essays a term to write (accounting for 10,000 words - I write more than that in a day sometimes). Student life is very focussed around (binge) drinking and socialising. So what do they have to worry about? Clearly, not all of them are bothered about exam results, but for the ones who care, who's identity is very much tied to their grades, then it's very easy for exams and marks to take over their lives, and they'll always be unhappy, thinking they could have done better, no matter what mark they obtain. I've seen students like that - it seems particularly bad in students who have an older sibling who has already done well at university. The pressure to attain (comparing oneself again) seems to reach fever pitch then.

James advises people to entangle their "wants" from their "needs". He asks, do you really need a new plasma screen? Why do you want to replace your sofa with a new one? Do you need a bigger, more lavish house (taking out a mortgage worth 6 times your salary?) Such things just tie you into a cycle of expenditure, which might give a short-term buzz but distract you away from things that actually matter.

I don't agree with everything he writes, and sometimes he seems to contradict himself, but it's been an enlightening, if not difficult book to read at times (I recognise myself in some of the descriptions). And it's made me want to change.


FloppingDead said...

I only point this out due to you being a linguistics expert and me being an uneducated pleb - you have used an apostophe incorrectly. :)

Now I can sit back and feel smug.

Lubin said...

That's OK. I don't really pay much attention to my punctuation or spelling to be honest, unless I absolutely have to.

jetpack said...

for a minute there I thought you'd been reading Jamie Oliver books on the train, but that didn't seem quite right somehow...

matty said...

That commute would kill me.

I get impatient on my 20 minute one.

...and one can't read on a bus in San Francisco -- it jerks about far too much.

I seem to want a lot of things more than I need them. But I enjoy things I 'want' and tend to loath things i 'need" ...go figure.

And, I am determined to lose 10 pounds! It must happend! It will happen!

Jamie Oliver makes me think of food. Not good. And, how come he is never really naked? Seems like that would be great marketing ploy!