Psychology

There’s much to be said for nostalgia

Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator for the EU Commission, called Brexit an expression of ‘hope for a return to a powerful global Britain, nostalgia for the past’ – a mood that ‘serves no purpose in politics’. Popular historians have echoed his view of nostalgia as a syndrome which affects declining societies such as Great Britain. The yearning for a happier past got Donald Trump elected and may re-elect him; it breeds xenophobia and locks societies into a doom loop of reruns, remakes and Facebook feeds of photographs from olden times. Or does it? Two new histories of nostalgia are sceptical about how pervasive or dangerous it really is. Agnes Arnold-Forster’s

Why today’s youth is so anxious and judgmental

What’s not to like about a world in which youths are involved in fewer car accidents, drink less and wrestle with fewer unplanned pregnancies? Well, think about it. Those kids might not be wiser; they might simply be afraid of everything. And what has got them so afraid? A little glass rectangle, ‘a portal in their pockets’, that entices them into a world that’s ‘exciting, addictive, unstable and… unsuitable for children’. So far, so paranoid – and there’s a delicious tang of the documentary maker Adam Curtis about the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s extraordinarily outspoken and well-evidenced diatribe against the creators of smartphone culture. These men, says Haidt,  were once

Have we all become more paranoid since the pandemic?

As anyone who has ever been lucky enough to spend time in a psychiatric hospital knows, you don’t have to be completely mad to be there. A lot of us end up in the care of mental health professionals and jacked up on all sorts of crazy-person meds because something’s just not right: you know it, I know it, the dog in the street knows it. Those people are looking at us funny; those voices just won’t quieten down; it really isn’t safe out on the streets, so it must be better to draw the curtains, triple-lock the door and sit quietly in the dark eating only tinned fruit and

The beauty of mid-range products

Once or twice, when on a crowded overnight flight, I have taken a sneaky stroll through the different cabins for the purpose of comparison. My reaction on first peering into each cabin goes like this. First class: ‘Gosh, this is fabulous. It’s like a restaurant in the air.’ Business class: ‘Ooh, this is nice; they get flat beds and everything.’ Premium economy: ‘Well this is OK; the seats seem comfy and it’s all pretty civilised.’ Economy: ‘It’s the “Raft of the Medusa”.’ Now here’s the thing. In terms of comfort, the biggest gap between two adjacent flight classes is between economy and premium economy. This improvement is simply achieved with

Why modern life doesn’t make us happy

The greatest delusion ever sold to us by modern advertising is not that we need to buy water in bottles or that rocks make good pets. It’s the delusion that we should expect to be happy all the time. This idea certainly would have been news to our ancient ancestors. Over millions of years, they became the dominant hominid on the planet because their brains evolved to be survival machines, not happiness generators. The first peals of laughter around those early campfires were not because everyone was having a good time; laughter evolved as a social bonding signal to communicate to the rest of the tribe: ‘Phew, we’re safe now. Looks

The bored teenagers who can disrupt the world

Most of us live a strange double life when it comes to hacking. We read headlines saying that our toaster might spy on us, that Russia is trying to hack into our social media, and that society as a whole could be under threat. At the same time, we install smart speakers in every room of our house, post more than ever to social media, and the worst we see of hacking attempts is the occasional email from a Nigerian ‘prince’. Trying to calibrate whether we should be terrified or unconcerned is a difficult task, so it’s refreshing when Scott Shapiro – a Yale law professor who also serves as

Sports fans are rarely shamed for being overzealous

Have you ever loved someone and got nothing back? Next question: was it really so bad? We all feel things for people who don’t even know we exist, and the experience is often enriching. For me, David Bowie’s life held meaning. If the Thin White Duke did not rate as your personal companion, then our late Queen almost certainly did; or, if not her, then what about Walter White, from the TV drama Breaking Bad, since we love fictional characters too? Walt saw me through my divorce; and we enjoy these relationships in private. Sometimes we meet fellow fans, and then, as the cheery Michael Bond points out, ‘one of

Mean streets: the psychology of neighbour disputes

Eunice Day’s breaking point came when her neighbours asked if she would move her car from a communal grass verge in their cul-de-sac so that it could be mowed. After several weeks of polite hostilities, Day stormed a neighbour’s home in the Dorset town of Ferndown, a row ensued, and the resulting scuffle left the 81-year-old in court charged with assault. In Bedminster, Bristol, fed-up locals have taken a more passive-aggressive approach to ‘outsiders’ parking on their streets. Suburban vigilantes have been creeping out and sellotaping notes to windscreens urging their owners to park outside their own homes instead. Over in the village of Polstead, Suffolk, meanwhile, one couple are

What Prince Harry gets wrong about therapy

Prince Harry’s endorsement of therapy will likely turn some of us off ever seeking it out. Insisting that therapy has changed him for the better, he is urging his family to partake so that they too can ‘speak his language’ of simultaneously loaded and empty terms – such as ‘authenticity’. ‘If I didn’t know myself, how could members of my family know the real me?’ he said. This non-sequitur subverts the conventional wisdom that sometimes others can know you better than you know yourself. Yet tiring as all the Prince’s interventions are, a peremptory dismissal of psychoanalytic practice would be a mistake. In fact, psychoanalysts would probably refuse to accept the

Why rejection is the secret of success

The letter was polite but to the point. The PR firm where I’d applied for a job thanked me for my time but told me I hadn’t been successful. The position was going to someone else. Ouch. This wasn’t the first time I’d been rejected, of course – and it certainly wasn’t the last. I’ve been dumped, ditched by friends and overlooked for work more times than I can remember. Who hasn’t? Not even the most successful among us is immune, as Sir Ian Rankin, 62, who has sold more than 20 million books, admitted last month. ‘I have had all kinds of projects turned down,’ he told the Write-Off with

Lumberjacks know the secret of happiness

The results are in and nature (i.e. God) wins again. A Bureau of Labour Statistics survey in the US has found that lumberjacks and farmers are the happiest, least stressed and most fulfilled workers, further proving that everything we need to be joyful and satisfied in this life is not man-made. Nor does it have much, if anything, in common with the prevailing culture. A Washington Post analysis of the survey noted that ‘The most meaningful and happiness-inducing activities were religious and spiritual, followed by ‘the second-happiest activity – sports, exercise and recreation’. I am fond of harping about how a godless society is a miserable one. Ericka Andersen noted in USA

Matthew Parris

Good things can come from guilt

I do not know anyone in the Sackler family. I wouldn’t even have heard of them were it not for recent reports of their return to the large-scale philanthropy with which their name was once associated. These reports have led to criticism of institutions that accepted Sackler charity: the well-worn argument being that the family’s businesses made a fortune from aggressively promoting the use of opioids in America, and opioids have caused serious addiction problems for millions of Americans. Sam Leith wrote thoughtfully about the controversy on the Spectator website last week (‘We should be thankful for the Sackler family’s philanthropy’). His — to me — most arresting argument is

If buttons, balloons or premature burial terrify you, rest assured you’re not alone

Every summer, during our holiday in Orkney, there is a moment of panic. We’re standing on a dizzying cliff – looking across a sleeve of sea at the Old Man of Hoy, maybe – and I’m consumed with a longing to fling myself over. It’s not suicidal. I just yearn to feel the wild rush of air against my cheeks: I want to fly. I’ve never met anyone who shares this compulsion, but The Book of Phobias and Manias assures me it’s quite common. Indeed, it has a name: acrophobia. Kate Summerscale understands it perfectly: ‘The whirl of vertigo,’ she says, can ‘seem like the giddiness of yearning.’ A new

Where do we go when we dream?

Should we pay more attention to our dreams? Are they signs from our subconscious, guiding and pointing us in certain directions? Perhaps that would explain why we often feel the need to describe them to others: to help make sense of them. Since being pregnant my dreams have got wilder. They are vivid and often haunting. I was told that you can’t dream about a face you’ve never seen, but strangers regularly pitch up in mine. Some people say it’s boring when others talk about their dreams. I disagree. I think it’s fascinating to hear where minds go at night; our parallel lives. Whether they cover frightening or familiar territory, dreams

Has Carole the tarantula cured my arachnophobia?

I’ve been an arachnophobe my whole life. I can’t remember a time when videos of spiders, or even photos or drawings, didn’t give me palpitations. As a kid Charlotte’s Web read as sinister propaganda. Even as an adult, just hearing the word ‘tarantula’ would make me feel like one was crawling on me (kind friends and colleagues took to calling it ‘the t-word’). I wish I could blame someone for these fears, but no one else in my immediate family screamed uncontrollably when a house spider scuttled across the floor. A fear of spiders is the third most common phobia in the UK, so I know I haven’t been alone.

The cult of sensitivity

I was extra pleased to have swerved the modern curse that is Wordle when I read that ‘sensitive’ words have been removed from it. A spokesman proclaimed: ‘In an effort to make the puzzle more accessible, we are reviewing the solutions and removing obscure or potentially insensitive words over time. HARRY is an example of an obscure word.’ Other more obviously ‘insensitive’ words had already been removed, such as ‘sluts,’ ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’, and though I’m the most rad of femmes, I do wish they’d stayed. Removing ribaldry makes the language increasingly bland. ‘Sensitivity’ is one of those words that’s changed its meaning. It was once used mostly to refer

Don’t make war in Ukraine about Putin’s mental health

There was a time when supposedly serious commentators on world affairs used to at least feign historical knowledge. They might quote Bismarck or Castlereagh. Now, international relations punditry, like almost everything else, has succumbed to the language of pop psychology. Vladimir Putin is ‘gaslighting’ the Russian people, we are told, motivated by his ‘hypermasculinity’. His invasion of Ukraine is, according to one commentator on Radio 4 this morning, ‘unforgivable abuse’. I thought abuse meant kicking a dog or being cruel to a partner. Now it means starting a war. It’s almost as though we’re unable to think of Putin as anything other than a nasty contestant on reality TV. Take

The myth of the typical Brexit voter

In Jake’s Thing, Kingsley Amis gave it a name: he called it ‘the inverted pyramid of piss’: ‘One of [Geoffrey Mabbott’s] specialities was the inverted pyramid of piss, a great parcel of attitudes, rules and catchwords resting on one tiny (if you looked long and hard enough) point. Thus it was established beyond any real doubt that his settled antipathy to all things Indian, from books and films about the Raj, to Mrs Gandhi… was rooted in Alcestis’s second husband’s mild fondness for curries.’ It’s high time this phrase was revived, because piss pyramids are everywhere. We assumed more data would help humanity settle its differences: in reality it often

Why must younger generations constantly ‘work on themselves’?

If I could lift one thing from younger generations, unpeel one idea from their anxious minds, it would be the notion they have to ‘work on themselves’, and that the point of life is to do this ‘work’ until they feel able to have a relationship, at which point they must grimly set about working on that. I’m not suggesting that it’s not useful to have treatment or therapy for a particular problem, but it’s as if everyone born after 1990 thinks of themselves the way 1950s man thought of his car — as something to be worked on in every spare moment, tinkered with and polished, but rarely taken

Douglas Murray

I tempted fate – and got Covid

Well, I did warn you. As I typed my column last week on the imminent end of Covid I said I knew that I was tempting fate. The main fear I had in mind was that the moment the magazine hit the newsstands some wild new strain of the virus would break out, wipe out half of humanity and lead to quite a cross letters page the following week. Fate had a more minimalist plan. Having dodged Covid for two years, it took me writing a column predicting the end of the virus for the fates to eye me up and snicker: ‘Now we’ve got him.’ The day after I