Perspective is a powerful thing. I’m currently reading a book called The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker, in which he proposes that over the course of human history, people have become less violent. It’s compelling and highly informative, covering a wide range of periods and civilisations since the dawn of humanity. It’s an education itself in the various wars, conflicts and practices of humankind over the years, and goes some way to addressing questions many ponder: where does violence come from? Aside from the need to survive and thrive, what explains the seemingly uniquely human propensity to commit cruel and brutal acts for their own sake? And something I’ve wondered – whatever the cause of this behaviour, is one of the purposes of our existence to elevate ourselves as a species and, over time, rise above it?
Besides fascinating and entertaining me, I’ve noticed one other effect this book has had; cheering me up. I’m prone to gloominess during the wet, grey winter months (today happens to be ‘Blue Monday‘, considered to be the most depressing day of the year). At first consideration, the mood-lifting effect of the book might seem obvious – it gives some serious perspective. It’s one thing to feel grateful for all the things you have, and might well not have in other circumstances (time, place and various other factors), but it’s quite another to consider that in another time or place you might, right now, be being broken on a wheel, roasted inside a ‘brazen bull‘ – your screams emitting from the nostril holes, designed for that purpose, for the amusement of your tormentors – or dismembered, disembowelled or tortured in any one of the thousands of highly inventive ways humans have devised to inflict pain and death upon each other.
And of course, you wouldn’t have to be a criminal, or indeed guilty of anything. You might simply be defending your tribe against another, be a young man of fighting age, be of a certain religious denomination, race, or (as a fair number of women were) be accused of something unproveable like witchcraft. At various points in history, people just like us inflicted, and had inflicted upon them, levels of cruelty that by modern civilised standards are very hard to understand. They weren’t short and sporadic outbursts either – practices such as slavery and witch burning went on, variously and across different parts of the world, for centuries.
Being quite introspective, I thought deeply about this ‘cheering’ effect. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that hearing about acts of foul cruelty should lift my mood. How does that make me better than a baying spectator in a Roman amphitheatre, getting off on the sight of people being pulled apart by horses, yelping with delight and amusement at a cat burning, or making a day trip of a good hanging, drawing and quartering? Is it really ‘perspective’ begetting gratitude or something darker, some kind of schadenfreude? A friend once proposed a theory that took me back at the time – that we feel better when bad things happen to our friends. Not just ‘other people’, but our friends. He described it as a transfer of energy, arguing the converse was also true – that we feel worse in ourselves when our friends do well. The argument was that it wasn’t possible for two people to feel the same level of happiness, because the happiness of one will always negatively impact the mood of the other (married readers might disagree!) and vice versa – a sort of zero-sum game.
My first reaction was to think this very twisted. Why would anyone feel good about the pain of those close to them, or unhappy about their successes? I thought about it a lot and resolved to monitor my inner feelings as honestly as possible in these situations – in effect, looking for the worse angels of our nature. I found that there was indeed some truth to it – but rather than attributing this to any see-saw transfer of polarised, psychic energy, I decided it does in the end simply come down to perspective. There’s no shame in feeling you should be doing better if someone else has raised the bar, just as there’s no shame in feeling glad that, by comparison, you don’t have quite the level of problems that someone else does, be they close to you or not. This is entirely normal, and separate from compassion, which can be felt at the same time.
I should stress that I don’t recommend ‘misery porn’ as a remedy for low mood. Without the positive context, delving into the worst humanity has to offer isn’t going to make anyone feel better (just try watching the news every day). Happily, Pinker’s book does provide this context.