There must be thousands of 'self-help' books and websites, especially now that the traditional purveyors of advice to the anxious or depressed – the local minster or family doctor – are well-nigh extinct. Purely for research purposes (if you believe that) I have tried and tested a fair number, and they don't work. I'm not even convinced by personal or career counsellors: my only visit to one several years ago was taken up in the main by the counsellor telling me her
problems, which were apparently worse than mine!
But now I think I've found something that just might work, and in a surprising place. There's a TV series in which the media journalist (and sometime Conservative MP, but we all make mistakes) Giles Brandreth and actor Sheila Hancock sail a canal boat and generally comment on their surroundings.
At one point, Sheila asked Giles whether his constant 'glass half-full' attitude was genuine. For once he was serious, and described how years ago he had become depressed and anxious after losing his seat at an election. His confidence had been knocked and his mood not helped by the unexpected deaths of two close relatives. He had been interviewing the then well-known media psychiatrist, Anthony Clare, and asked his advice about curing depression. The answer was simple, said Clare, just pretend
to be happy. Fake it until you make it.
This is a deceptively clever strategy, as if you pretend convincingly to be a happy and contented person, you will have become one. As a normally glass half-empty type, I have tried this approach and whilst it will never turn a Mr Scrooge into the life and soul of the party, it does seem to have a positive effect. And just proves a lifelong socialist can learn something from a Tory!
Charity begins at home?
One of the few genuine glass half-full people I've met was a retired Salvation Army officer who was also a chartered accountant. Many years ago, he was a colleague in a small finance company where I was doing yet another temporary job to pay the bills. George (let's call him that) was an excellent role model for the 'muscular Christian' – I've always thought the Army's theology was too simplistic for me – but he combined his beliefs with a warm and genuine love for his fellow creatures and was completely tolerant of their foibles.
Because he was such a genuinely good person, the manager, who wasn't, hated George and was always making nasty comments about him and his faith. However, it was like water off a duck's back to George, who would just laugh it off. He must be long gone now and I hope he's in the Army's version of Paradise, but on account of his example I've always donated to the organisation.
Obviously, like other charities, the Salvation Army have been struggling during the pandemic but I've noticed that I now get many more communications from them asking for money. It's not just the Army, of course – many charities are either writing with graphic details of the horrors they are trying to eradicate, or using TV and social media to reach a wider audience. The question is how much is the everyday empath to support this plethora of good causes, and more pertinently, should they? Where international aid is involved, it's been pointed out, even by those whose countries of origin benefit, that ultimately charity is a sticking plaster over a wound, and can benefit the wrong people.
Doubtless many charities are completely genuine but do they need advertising that tugs at the heart strings to get a result? I think I'll stick to supporting a cause that was dear to my friend George and hope that if his theology was correct he will put in a good word for me in the Other Dimension!
Postscript: as I was writing the above, a lady rang the doorbell. She wanted me to sign up to a direct debit payment to support funding guide dogs for people with visual problems. I was tempted to engage her in a discussion about whether every dog always wanted to take on this challenging role supporting humans, but decided I'd had enough controversy for the week.
Games of chance
I wonder if George or the Salvation Army would be happy to accept a million pound donation if I had won this week's EuroMillions lottery? They needn't worry as I haven't won, but as the Army doesn't really approve of gambling, it may have caused some cognitive dissonance for them to accept my donation. However, I'm not a compulsive gambler as £2.50 a week on a lottery ticket is hardly gambling away the Brown family silver (there isn't any to gamble, anyway). I only buy one on Fridays as I don't like Tuesdays. (Interestingly, for a day dedicated to the God of war in many European languages, Tuesday was the day for the 9/11 atrocity and also the July attacks on the London tube, so it doesn't have a good reputation.)
Clearly, though, some people do have a problem with gambling and the betting shop companies have apparently felt some guilt about this as they now keep repeating the mantra: 'When the fun stops, stop'. By the way, I don't haunt betting shops, and have never entered one as I'm not sure of the etiquette there, as I'll explain. But surely that's the point of gambling – it's not about fun, but about beating chance. I know statistically my chances of winning the lottery would still be infinitesimal even if I bought 100 tickets a week instead of one. But for a gambling addict, the attraction is about winning against the odds, not having 'fun'.
Interestingly, betting shop etiquette once prevented me from winning a significant amount of money. In one of those weird situations that almost never happen, many years ago I dreamed, not only of the winner of the Grand National horse race, but also of the second and third horse. I had no idea of how you put a bet on a horse, and I had no way of knowing if the dream was genuinely prophetic, so I did nothing about it. Sadly, all the horses finished as I'd dreamed! Mr B never forgave me for ignoring my prophetic dream, and every year after would try and get me to have another one – but I never did. Maybe just as well, as I could have become a compulsive gambler…
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant