Oliver James: How to have a sane New Year

The psychologist wants British people to earn less and spend more time at home. He explains to Katy Guest why money can't buy happiness
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The Independent Culture

Oliver James does not suffer badly from indecision. Certain words that he uses a lot give this away. Wealth and fame are "bollocks". Much about New Labour is also bollocks. So is evolutionary psychology. Therefore, "Desmond Morris is absurd" and Richard Dawkins "ridiculous". Historians Niall Fergusson and Andrew Roberts are "establishment arseholes" and the Prime Minister is a "depressive... emotional cripple... if Gordon Brown isn't on antidepressants I'm a Dutchman."

James is a curious amalgam. As a clinical psychologist he worked in hospitals and universities, specialising in the psychology of families. In his Channel 4 programme, Room 113, he won a Bafta with his piercing, emotional interviews with celebrities. Yet he writes off celebrity as empty, a "personality disorder". As a journalist, he writes columns illuminating the psychological flaws of our leaders and the disorders of modern Britain; but he thinks that life in the media is often "desperate".

Now, he has published The Selfish Capitalist (Vermilion, 14.99) a follow-up to last year's Affluenza. Both explore his belief that the English-speaking world has become more dysfunctional the richer we get and the harder we work. The measures he proposed to create a saner and more well-balanced society included parents spending less time at work and more time raising their children. The problem was, he had to spend months away from his family in order to write the books (and earn the relatively hefty advances).

We meet just before Christmas, in the tea-room of a venerable Oxford hotel filled with clapped-out shoppers, ladies who lunch and the odd nervous student being dined by a wealthy grandparent at the end of Michaelmas term. The government has just announced plans to get 300,000 single parents back into work, and Ed Balls's Children's Plan has been unveiled, complete with initiatives to put more two-year-olds in nursery care. Shoppers outside are sharpening their elbows in the scrum. "I don't hate Christmas," he says. "And as an author, I'm aware that 40 per cent of books are sold in December... But the only point, apart from children, is economic growth." Still, he advocates "unilateral non present giving". It is not "bah humbug", he argues, but all about ensuring a sane Christmas and a well-balanced New Year.

For James, this is a crucial mission. In his 1997 book Britain on the Couch he pointed out that a 25-year-old American is between three and 10 times more likely to be depressed today than in 1950. Affluenza was his attempt to explain why this has got worse. He travelled around the world looking at the levels of emotional distress (depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorders) and discovered a direct correlation between this and "Selfish Capitalism" the system in most English-speaking countries.

His new book offers the scientific evidence behind his theory. In societies where citizens are encouraged to gain the best exam results, earn the most money and be thinner and more beautiful than everyone around them, people are more miserable. In Oxford's poshest hotel and in its shopping centre, the empirical evidence is all around.

One anomaly was Denmark, whose citizens seemed well-balanced and healthy by contrast with other developed countries. It also has greater gender equality, a much smaller gap between the highest and lowest paid, and parents spend more time with their children. He almost sounds like a Danish propaganda tool, I tell him. He laughs. "If I were a young woman I'd be very tempted to move there," he agrees. "The men look fantastic, too."

It is not surprising, then, that James is disappointed with British politicians. He has talked to both main parties about how to create a more sane society (he disapproves of the concept of "happiness", preferring instead to foster "vivacity, authenticity and playfulness", the foundations of "sanity") but they don't seem to have been listening. The Selfish Capitalist is, in some ways, a more depressing book than Affluenza. In it, he examines the social trends that have led to the proliferation of the "affluenza virus", citing studies into, for example, schizophrenia (living an urban life is four times more likely to trigger it than having an afflicted parent) or eating disorders (in Fiji, the introduction of TV coincided with a rise in bulimia from zero to 11 per cent of young women, within three years). He blames a culture fostered by Thatcher and Blair, but warns: "If you think Brown is going to be any different, think again."

Psychologically, he says, the new Prime Minister is very different. "He's a much less smooth operator. He's a depressive who I should think has some very bad days indeed and deals with it as many depressives do by becoming irritable and angry. But in terms of the argument of 'selfish capitalism' there's really nothing to divide them. They don't have any commitment to changing the shape of our society. They are... committed to the idea that the vast majority of us should be wage slaves who are making the very rich richer."

One thing that really incenses James is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: "It's a form of hypnotism. It hypnotises you back into a state of mind when you say, 'I'm all right, I'm OK, I'll go back to the workplace with a smile on my face and I'll continue to do this low paid job, I'll change nothing about my life, I'm fine, society's fine, there's nothing wrong. When in fact it's shit."

However, the Government is committed to providing more CBT as part of the initiatives led by its "happiness czar", Richard Layard. "Richard I know very well... I was part of the Happiness Commission. I totally understand that he's well-meaning. But unfortunately his father was a Jungian analyst and so he's allergic to psychoanalysis. And I don't think Richard realises how sinister what he's proposed is, in the hands of these people, the Browns and the Goulds. I dread to think what their psychopathology is as individuals. And they are, as all politicians do, imposing their psychopathology on us. [They're saying:] 'Don't look after your children as [we] have not looked after our children. Do as we do. Repress completely all your problems'... Brown will have been on anti-depressants for 10 years at least."

It is pronouncements like this that have led to James being criticised by some of his contemporaries. He has never met Gordon Brown nor most of the celebrities whose psychology he has publicly diagnosed. (Edwina Currie has a "personality disorder". Alex Ferguson and Arsne Wenger were involved in a "class war".) But he doesn't try to be controversial, he says. "People who would see themselves slightly as competitors with me would like to diminish what I do by writing me off as an attention seeker... I try to set up a scientific debate. I read a lot of sociology and empirical evidence and I understand the clinical stuff. But I'm also a bit of a bigoted taxi driver."

So how does he really see his role? Is he a social commentator, like an opinionated newspaper columnist pronouncing on the latest misbehaviour of celebrities and politicians? Is he a social anthropologist? A philosopher? Sadly, he says, the arguments he is trying to provoke have largely stopped happening in recent history. "There hasn't been a single significant new book, theory or set of ideas since the early 1970s," he says. He cites "Freud, Marx, Darwin, Winnicott... Bowie... and then history really did end, in a sense. And then we moved into the new era of genetic bollocks." As for himself, he deliberately remains independent of political parties, universities, the British Psychological Society so that he can "say what I think is the truth. I would see that as the point of me if I have any sort of point at all as a writer or a thinker, if you think in those grand terms."

He might be willing, if asked, to be a peer in the House of Lords and "make the odd speech. But in a sense there's no need as long as the Today programme will still have me." For now, he is trying to work less, spend more time with his family follow his own advice. He won't make any new year's resolutions, having finally given up smoking the promise he used to make every year. "I now manage to look after my son every Tuesday... morning," he insists. "The next book has got to be done by the end of March. Now after that, my new life begins, I think. Yes, definitely. And no, I haven't made that resolution before."

Biography: Oliver James

Oliver James was born in 1953 to psychoanalyst parents, and went on to follow in their footsteps despite writing the bestselling book They Fuck You Up (2002), about the effect of upbringing on mental health. After studying social anthropology at Cambridge and clinical psychology at Nottingham he began making TV programmes about psychology. The one of which he remains the most proud is Channel 4's Bafta-winning Room 113, in which he interviewed celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Tony Blackburn about their psychological backgrounds. His books include Britain on the Couch (1997) and Affluenza (2007), which tried to explain why wealth does not make us happier. His follow-up book The Selfish Capitalist is published by Vermilion.

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