It Ain’t What You Do, It’s That You Do

By Peter Latchford

Some of the biggest problems of our time are standing in plain view. We don’t deal with them because they are, to use a Douglas Adams coinage, surrounded by a Someone Else’s Problem field. For example, there is now little doubt that global warming is both (a) an existential problem and (b) our fault; but we as individuals don’t stop our polluting practices because somehow we think it’s the government’s problem. But what is a democratic government other than a reflection of the collective? Take another example, happiness. We listen dutifully to the news and worry when there’s a slowdown in economic growth, though we know that (1) a growing economy relies on each of us to buy more; and (2) having more stuff makes those of us with all that we need (i.e. most of us in the developed world) more sad. But we don’t ask ourselves, what’s so great about this new religion called economic growth? We expect our government agencies to be rational, fully-resourced and prescient at all times, though nothing in our own lives ever points to this being a possible, or even sane, approach to making progress. And we don’t stop and think about whether there are better models for getting things done.

How many social conversations have you found yourself in, where you find yourself listening to perfectly sensible folk as they blame politicians of every stripe for the woes of the present? They declare the politicians to be corrupt, self-serving, incompetent. If you try asking, “Have you thought about standing for public office?” the answer will almost always negative. But we cannot expect our democracy – that fragile gift our predecessors fought and died creating – to survive if each generation does not take responsibility for keeping it strong.

I’ve given up trying to defend the political classes. I have met a fair few politicians and, with a small number of exceptions, have found elected representatives at a national level to be committed to public service, to be unusually intelligent, and to be exactly the kind of person you would trust with your door key, or to pick up your child from school. They usually have what I don’t have, which is why I know I would not fit in their ranks: most of them have the emotional resilience to get on with the job despite the brickbats. So they don’t need me to defend them and anyway I suspect that the widespread cynicism may be a necessary part of the checks and balances that keep democracy vital. But I do think, as a society, we need to look closely at what it is to take action.

Many of Britain’s big cities, in recent years have seen gang-related violence problems, riots (both locally initiated and London-inspired), issues arising from extremism, and tensions between people of different backgrounds. In my work on these and related themes, I saw clear patterns. If you asked someone in the most diverse parts of a city whether people from different backgrounds get on well together, he or she would probably say yes. People who lived in the least ethnically diverse areas were also fairly positive in their responses. The people who were the most sceptical on this issue tend to live in the areas next to the most diverse areas. It seems that, if you see lots of people who don’t look like you, but if don’t have cause to interact with them closely and regularly, you are most likely to think that different people don’t – and can’t – get on. The data on this issue also revealed another pattern. People who categorise themselves as in some sense disadvantaged – through disability or long term sickness, for instance – were also more likely to feel negative about how well different people got on.

We are seeing a deep-rooted human truth here. It may not be particularly startling to observe that people who feel less able to shape their world are also more likely to feel troubled by the unfamiliar, by the unknown, by the Other. But there’s a more nuanced explanation also fits the facts. It’s possible that having a passive outlook – feeling that you are acted upon by the world, rather than an active agent in it – may increase a person’s risk of being unwell, disengaged, and prejudiced. If we are interested in reducing sickness, and in improving well-being, we might be better to invest in helping people to break this passive norm; to be active in their lives - rather than in redesigning our health systems (i.e. sickness support mechanisms), or increasing enforcement mechanisms, or hectoring people to change their negative behaviours, or encouraging people to spend more to keep the economy growing.

The key point is that, for people to flourish, the taking of action is as important as the nature of the action itself. Sneering at politicians may or may not be a necessary part of keeping government in check; but it is an essentially passive activity and, as such, corrosive to the sneerer. Also, helping others is almost always good for the helper, but is only good for the helped if, as much as is possible, they are active partners in the helping.

Here’s another fairly obvious and related point that is hiding in plain sight. Humans are social animals. We are not like grisly bears or snow leopards, designed for a solitary existence. Like any animal, when humans are not able to do what is natural we become destructive or damaged. The evidence suggests that people are designed to live in groups of a few hundred, to gossip about each other in such groupings, to invent and impose social norms on each other as a form of shared identity. In contemporary life, the groupings are simultaneously much greater and much smaller than this “natural state”. Urban dwellers in particular regularly see – but ignore – many more people than this, though they will have meaningful interactions with a much smaller number, usually of a very similar profile to themselves. They may be exposed to many thousands of others through TV, film and social media; and find themselves trying and failing to accommodate the competing norms they come across. They may suffer from an intense sense of loneliness, even while they live uncomfortably close to millions of others.

Is it any surprise that there is a swelling mental health crisis? We are designed to live in villages; to follow local customs; to marry the boy from the next door village; and to laugh at the people who live down the valley. We are at our happiest when we can love and be loved, when we know what is expected of us, when we can help. But Facebook “likes” become commodities, the superficial becomes the objective, and film and music strip all the protein and vitamins out of the concept of love to leave us with no more than the equivalent of empty calories and tooth decay. Many people are in a situation where the number of social interactions they experience is simultaneously much higher and much lower than the human psyche is designed for. Through “media” they experience thousands of normalising imperatives every day (“wear this!” - “pout like that!” - “have this many lovers!”), whilst having very few nuanced and on-going interpersonal interactions.

If we want a harmonious society comprising contented individuals, we need people to feel able to act, and to be able to do so with and through meaningful relationships with others. Again, the nature of the action and the interaction is less important than that it is happening. It might well be better simply to join a choir, or meet your neighbour, than to try to engineer social housing allocations, or to develop policies about or against multiculturalism.

When we find ourselves casually knocking the political classes, we are reinforcing our own passivity. We are confirming to ourselves that we cannot take action. And we are declaring a lack of faith in trust and mutual dependence; the very concepts that make democracy – with all its necessary compromises and horse-trading – possible. When we call for services to support the least fortunate in society, we should also be calling for those services to be implemented in ways that don’t reinforce a lack of agency amongst those receiving them. When we criticise the way services are delivered, we should be looking for opportunities to step forward and play our part, recognising that to do so will mean not only that we are doing the moral thing – but that we will ourselves have longer and happier lives as a result. And we should be making sure our young people have the opportunity safely to meet and get to know a wide variety of other folk, so that their exposure to insistent electronic normalising images is balanced by a deeper sense of what it is to be uniquely themselves.

This observation should be written into the way we shape our society and the way we look out for each other – that humans are happiest when they are doing something, and when they are doing something together.