I’m feeling a bit racked off at the moment. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit off colour for about a decade. I put it down to my age. Surveys of contentment over the lifecycle consistently show people over 55 as the happiest, those under 30 next and the middle aged the most miserable. ‘But why’ I hear my reader ask?
A few years ago, Dan Gilbert’s wonderful book ‘Stumbling on happiness’ (the book that got me into thinking about brains and behaviour) summarised research showing we humans are bad not only at predicting what will make us happy, but even at accurately recalling how past events made us feel. Bear in mind also the evidence that we consistently exaggerate our own qualities, so, for example, 90% of motorists will say that they are ‘above average’ in their driving abilities. Then there is a type of attribution effect whereby we put down our own qualities to our inherent strengths and our failings to circumstance, but tend to do just the reverse with other people.
My theory for the lifecycle contentment valley relates to the power of self delusion. When we are young, those of us who are reasonably undamaged are very receptive to all the ways we are inclined to think we are wonderful and are bound to succeed. In middle age we are starting to see through the tricks performed by our brains; the way we are inclined to think of ourselves keeps bashing against the reality of the mistakes we’ve made, the ambitions unfulfilled. It’s very uncomfortable. Some people get depressed (more often women); some become angry and misanthropic (more often men).
Then, when older age dawns, we start to get over it. In the end what does it matter how successful we are in our jobs? There’s not much point being vain when time’s gravity is dragging down your skin, plucking your hair, and tricking your memory. What matters then are more prosaic comforts: family, food, warmth, and for the most blessed, a nice garden to tend.
What’s this got to do with Michael Gove? It’s not just that I don’t like being older than most ‘senior’ politicians. Several weeks ago, after he had spoken here at the RSA, I wrote a post asking Michael seven questions about Conservative schools policy, particularly concerning the curriculum. He promised to reply, a promise his office, and even he personally, later repeated. But no reply is yet forthcoming.
Now, were I under 40 I would see this as evidence of my brilliance. Clearly, my forensic questioning is causing great concern in the Gove camp. They have probably spent many hours in meetings wondering how on earth to deal with my questions in ways that are acceptable to the educational traditionalists but not frightening to ordinary parents. Had this been 1999, I would be out there accusing Mr Gove of running scared and hiding his true intentions for Government. Perhaps I would drop a note to Ed Balls: ‘Hi Ed, I know we’ve never exactly been pals, but I’ve got your opposite number on the run …..’
Not now. When I wake in the night with some minor ailment or other, I don’t comfort myself with the idea I am causing waves in the pond of education policy. Instead I see my blog post gradually moving down a pile on the corner of the desk of one of Mr Gove’s more junior researchers. Perhaps it is with the letters in green ink that all MPs get from people who have had their internal organs invaded by aliens or want assistance with their twenty year old quest to prove it was they who invented the internet.
Perhaps, Crispin or Jemima have looked up one morning from the cappuccino they are drinking outside a charming riverside pub in Chiswick and said to one another ‘oh gosh, we really must deal with that tiresome blog by that chap who used to work for Tony Blair, or was it Harold Wilson’. But maybe even this is a self serving fantasy.
Never mind, just a few more years and the final delusions of grandeur will become a memory, rather like the waist that used to hold up my trousers unaided (how is it that waists disappear when you age, how can the middle not be there when both ends still are?). Thank you, Michael, your silence brings the comforting balm of my dotage a little closer.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.