Views And Reviews

He's a pain in the attribute

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 21 May 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:1376
  1. I Robertson

    You all know someone like this. When something good happens he takes the credit, but anything bad is someone else's fault; like Bertie Wooster, for instance, who blamed his golf miss-hit on “the uproar of the butterflies in a neighbouring meadow.” And whatever it is he's taking the credit for, it's because of some permanent quality with which he has been gifted: superior intelligence, leonine good looks, ineffable charisma. …You'll never hear “I just had a good day” from this guy. And he's not circumspect: I mean, that squash victory is further evidence of a general supermensch biological makeup, and is not just due to fast reaction times and a low talent for hitting balls - in his eyes at least.

    Now for the bad news. This pain in the bum not only is going to decline less physically after the age of 45 than you and me, but he's also going to remain revoltingly cheerful and will not succumb to the depression which any reasonable human being should feel from time to time in this day and age. If he's an American presidential candidate he will probably win the nomination of his party, and if he's a sportsman he will win more medals and score more goals.

    According to the research of Martin Seligman, a distinguished American psychologist and infuriating optimist, the very qualities which we in this self deprecating country distrust as showy immodesty are the things which fire up our immune systems, power our efforts to succeed in the world, and allow us to tramp all over our fellow human beings in a blithe march to a healthier than average old age. He claims that optimists stay healthy and succeed more than pessimists. Optimists regard good things that happen to them as being due to internal, stable, and permanent attributes of themselves, and interpret bad things as due to external, unstable, and transient attributes of other people or events. Get the picture? Even more bad news: he has some data to support this irritating hypothesis.

    The trouble is, deep down in your guts you realise that he's on to something: after all, it's always the crusty old baskets who blame every one else for what's gone wrong who end up plaguing the life out of harrassed nurses for year upon immortal year. Seligman is prone to making sweeping generalisations about the pessimistic national state of mind in our little corner of the world. Yet a cursory skim through today's papers or half an ear to the chat across the bar in your local will confirm a rather negative state of mind about our future and our place in the world. But then I suppose that after you've had an empire, there's nowhere much else to go but down, so maybe that's why more than half the population of Britain say they would rather live in a different country given half a chance.

    OK, OK, Marty, so we have to think positive, but please spare us the “I'd like to share with you my excitement with this wonderful research which my high calibre super intelligent team of subordinates has been pursuing” type of thing. We can't cope with it, you know. Daley Thompson's the best optimist you're going to get out of good ol' UK; like when asked how he felt after having won the gold at the Los Angeles Olympics, he told Harry Carpenter: “Haven't had as much fun since me granny got her tit caught in the mangle.” Harry Carpenter didn't like it, but everyone else did.

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