Fat lot of good that will do you

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably alive, and therefore chronically depressed. But there is a reason to be cheerful.

So Martyn Lewis was right; the news that he and his colleagues present on television is deeply depressing. So depressing, in fact, that it puts the mental health of millions at risk.

That, at any rate, is the claim of Professor Graham Davey, a psychologist who goes about his business at the University of Sussex. He found that gloomy news bulletins can lock viewers into catastrophic chains of worries, though he stopped short of explaining the shape that such catastrophes might take.

I think the professor is being too gloomy by far. All TV viewing, not just the news, is deeply depressing, but there are occasional moments of lightness. I have mentioned in the past the joy that fat people can bring into our lives, and whenever TV news bulletins report the epidemic of obesity, which is quite often, they never fail to bring us pictures of fat people. There is much reassurance and sometimes sheer exhilaration to be derived from seeing these huge shapes drift across our screens like bathyspheres, bellies bathed in sunlight, tethered bosoms yearning to be free, and vast buttocks undulating to a slow rhythm that evokes a calmer, unhurried age.

There is another way in which TV news takes us back – to the nursery. Have you noticed the device whereby people who are about to be interviewed for a recorded item in the street, or somewhere else outside the studio, are first made to walk slowly towards the camera and then past it? The unspoken sub-text is pure Janet and John. Here is a man. Look at the man walk. He can talk too. Listen and you will hear him speak. Given such evidence of the essential infantilism of television, who can be depressed? Infuriated maybe, but not depressed.

The mental health of the nation is no more determined by TV than by the air we breathe. To judge from the papers delivered at the recent annual conference of the British Psychological Society, the greatest single cause of human misery is living.

One after the other, distinguished psychologists took to the rostrum to explain how various aspects of being alive cause woe and pain.

Teenage dieters, for example, get trapped in a vicious circle of depression and anxiety, which sounds very like the catastrophic chain experienced by people who watch Martyn Lewis. Hero worship, too, is bad for your health. Dr Anthony (“Call me Tony”) Cassidy, of Nene College, Northampton says teenagers whose bedroom walls are covered with pictures of pop, film, fashion, or sports stars could be heading for a dangerous obsession that might cause eating disorders and mental problems in later life.

Should they avoid such a fate, they may still fall victim to middle-age angst, according to Professor John Groeger, of Surrey University, who has made a study of road rage. Those involved, he discovered, are typically in their mid-30s and come from a wide spread of occupation and class.

In a particularly shocking example of ecumenical road rage a Jewish church elder attacked a Buddhist monk at traffic lights. Everyday stress, says the professor, is made worse by traffic congestion. “People start tooting their horns, making gestures, it’s an escalating process, and you get locked into a cycle.”

Is this cycle the same as the circle or chain detected by other psychologists? If so, whatever we do – watch TV, subsist on grapefruit, worship pop stars, or drive cars – we embark on a spiralling, inescapable course of self-destruction and madness.

The picture is confused by evidence from the other side of the Atlantic, which suggests that, although living is undoubtedly the cause of every known malaise, living well helps. Experiments on mice at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, California, show that an “enriched” environment may increase the number of brain cells. Mice placed in large cages equipped with tunnels, toys, exercise wheels and food treats such as apples, popcorn and wholegrain nibble bars grew more brain cells than mice in standard laboratory conditions. This led the authors of the experiment, Dr Gerd Kempermann and Dr Georg Kuhn, to conclude that intellectual stimulation throughout life is beneficial.

Mistakenly, or foolishly, they extrapolated their findings to embrace humankind – always a dodgy thing to do when speaking of mice and men. Hence the bold claim that “a life rich with opportunity, good food and fun might make you more intelligent”. Had Dr Gerd and Dr Georg lifted their eyes from the rodents and looked out of the windows of the Salk Institute to the people beyond, they would have seen living refutation of their theory.

For nowhere on Earth are people better fed, more fun-loving, and more stupid than in California.

On the West Coast of America, neurosis is a way of life, and no one knows why. It could be that the inhabitants are fun-loving, which is ultimately thoroughly dispiriting; it might be the constant sunshine, which is known to be bad for you; it could well be the belief that popcorn and wholegrain nibble bars are treats. The most likely explanation, however, is television. Americans see more TV on more channels than is good for anyone. And unlike us, they derive no joy, only sadness, from watching fat people.


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