Health Check: Inner calm? Worry makes the world go round
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Thursday 01 July 1999
"Trees help to reconnect us with the earth," it says. "By experiencing a contact with nature we can become aware of how our way of thinking affects our reality, and use this to move towards a new understanding."
My way of thinking is to worry, so this book sounds like one for me. Indeed, my teenage sons say that my inclination to worry is my chief characteristic. They sang a song at my wedding 18 months ago, the punchline of which was: "He's got too much on his plate."
The press release, from Gaia Books, offered all the answers that will be familiar to followers of alternative health. "What state are you in when you think about the problem?" it asked. "Anxious, despairing, exhausted, in a hurry, angry, fearful. What state would you like to be in? Confident, serene, full of energy, open, optimistic... "
This is a technique familiar to leaders of religious cults and double glazing salesmen. Ask a question in a way that allows only one possible answer - and the deal is as good as done.
You would like to achieve a state of serene confidence? Simple. Find a "friendly" tree, one that appears "strong" or "welcoming". Sit under it, let this quality soak into you and, while holding on to this quality, bring your problem to mind again. Ping! Serenity will descend on you like a halo.
Its easy to scoff at this sort of thing. But it has certain obvious virtues. If we could locate the inner tranquillity evident in nature (Where exactly? But we'll let that pass) and transmit it to ourselves, we might be nicer people. Sitting under a tree to contemplate a problem is like counting to 10 before hitting someone - it allows time to change your mind.
My difficulty with this and similar books (like the hugely successful Little Book of Calm) is not with the solution but with the problem - the underlying assumption that worry, anger, fear and despair are universally bad and reprehensible, feelings that must be eradicated from the human psyche.
I have two problems with this. The first is that the capacity for negative feelings seems to be an essential constituent of human drive. Indeed, it seems unlikely that we would have evolved foul tempers and high anxiety if these emotions served no purpose. If mankind enjoyed a universal state of calm contentment it is doubtful whether we would ever have emerged from the caves. So there is something positive in these negatives.
The second is more important. It is that concentrating on the undesirability of negative feelings is likely to accentuate negativity rather than alleviate it. To take a slightly different example, the best advice you can give to someone who cannot sleep is to remind them that they will be able to cope perfectly well next day without it. The greatest enemy of sleep is worry about not getting enough.
Similarly, the worst thing you can tell someone who is worrying too much is that they should worry less. They need reassurance, not something else to worry about. Worry is good, worry keeps the world turning, worry gets things done.
Perhaps there is the germ of a new book there. The Little Book of Worry might just ride in on a tide of millennial anxiety.
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