Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Crappiest Day of the Year

Some people would say I'm not the most sociable person in the world. This may sound odd for someone who voluntarily does stand-up comedy and public speaking about science on a regular basis, but may sound about right for someone who prefers to communicate in text form via electronic mediums. Your interpretation is your own, enjoy it.

But I can see the point of people who would consider me unsociable, as outside of ones where I'm there to perform a specific task or duty, you won't often find me in situations where I would interact with other people in a social situation. It's not that I don't like people, although there are some people I don't like, obviously, and other people I do like. That's normal, isn't it? It's more to do with contexts and environments.

I like to think I'm my own person, I know what I like and what I don't like, and I seek out the former and avoid the latter. And one of the things I really don't like is what I term 'enforced fun'. You won't see me at the big festivals, night clubs, town centres on a Friday, raves, crazy parties or anything like that. Lots of people go to these things because they actively enjoy them, and more power to them. But I don't, so I avoid them. If I did attend these things for some reason, no doubt I'd be considered a killjoy for not enjoying myself like everyone else no doubt would be.

I'm not a killjoy though. I have no problem with other people's joy, certainly not to the extent that I'd want to kill it. I'm not one to commit homicide on an abstract concept, I never signed up for the war on terror for this reason. I just avoid things that I don't. Like most people do, if I'm not mistaken.

I'm indifferent to live music, not brave enough to experiment with narcotics and am actively repulsed by even slightly dirty toilets, so the big festivals would be a massive waste of unhygienic time for me. I don't like dancing, loud noises, overpriced drinks or inhaling the hormonal sweat of strangers, so night clubs have never done it for me. Some people might take genuine pleasure from them and that's cool, but for me there are limited returns on standing in a corner of an overcrowded dark sauna, clutching the only warm lager I'm able/willing to afford while an inebriated stranger bellows in my ear and is still unable to make himself heard (it's never a 'herself', I'm not someone who has ever known the experience of random women talking to him). As fun as that sounds, it get tiresome after 3 hours. And as unreasonable as it sounds, town centres on weekends are out, as I've always had a bizarre aversion to having my face repeatedly smashed into a paving slab by an enraged steroid abuser in a Ben Sherman shirt. I've always been picky like that, so sue me.

I'm being facetious about that last one, of course. Plenty of people go to a city centre on a weekend and never curb stomp anyone. But I was asked to meet up with a comedy mate of mine recently in Cardiff City centre on a Friday night. I never see him usually, so I agreed, and it was quite a bizarre experience for me. I've not been out in central Cardiff on a weekend for many years, and it was refreshing to discover that this wasn't an oversight on my part. I just don't get it, the appeal of getting hideously pissed as quickly as possible with similarly dressed strangers. Nobody got violent while I was there, but then I left before 10.30, so maybe they were waiting for me to go in case I told the police or something. Everyone was giving me a wide birth though, which surprised me. I'm not the most physically intimidating specimen, and with my nerd jacket, glasses and 'keep libel laws out of science' badges, I don't think people saw me as a violent lunatic waiting to lash out. I guess if I was I could be using some reverse psychology thing, but most people didn't seem sober enough to be worried about such unlikely leaps of logic.

It turns out the reason I was making people steer clear of me was how I was looking at them. Whereas most people were looking at each other in one of several familiar, acceptable ways ('potential conquest', 'potential rival', 'alcohol supplier' etc.), I was apparently looking at people as a scientist would look at a rat in a maze; with an unnerving level of calculating scrutiny. Most people, quite fairly, are put off by this. I understand, I didn't mean to do it, I just couldn't help myself from thinking 'why are you doing this? What's your motivation? What pleasure do you obtain from this environment and why?' When I get curious after a few beers, I have trouble preventing myself from adopting my 'amoral scientist' expression, which makes people think I'm on the verge of whipping out a scalpel to cut out their eyeball so I can attach it to the monstrous chimera I'm creating in my attic. Hence, I don't really belong in these places. So I avoid them.

It all boils down to the fact that I really resent being told to enjoy myself when I'm clearly not in a situation where that is likely to happen. When you're in a social gathering context, whatever it may be, there is an expectation to enjoy yourself in the same manner as everyone else, and it's hard to do that against your will, to the point where I actively resent it. Charlie Brooker has a brilliant rant about parties, and I have to agree with him to some extent. Parties are fine if they're just allowed to happen organically, but it's the 'instigators of fun' I can't abide. People who have scheduled games, party pieces, name cards and the like, just to make people talk and engage with each other to enhance the 'fun', rather than just treat people like adults and let them engage with others in a manner which suits them (or, more importantly, allow them to actively avoid engaging with the obvious dickhead that every party is seemingly legally obliged to include). It's probably a holdover from children's parties, but children are more energetic and less adapted to social norms, so games and the like helps them interact and focuses them while the parents can crack open the illicit wine without their dear offspring noticing. But these things don't always translate well to the adult world.

I went to a social once where the fun instigators had spent so long meticulously planning people's enjoyment that they had lost all sense of logic and reason. When you arrived, you were assigned a name badge. On the badge was a famous person or character that matched your gender. Mine said 'Kenickie'. Apparently the aim of this was that you had to seek out the other half of your 'famous couple' amongst the other guests. I was expected to go and find a woman wearing a badge with 'Rizzo' on it, and then… it was never established what I was meant to do then. Talk to her? Re-enact some scenes from Grease? Consummate our fictional relationship? This was never confirmed. And I don't even see how this works as an interaction catalyst. I am not a fan of Grease so my knowledge of it is limited, so exactly what conversational aides can be derived from this approach? Apart from "I see you are the opposite gender to me", or "I see you have been randomly assigned a fiction character that is associated with the one I have been assigned", what exactly is there to be said about this connection? But you could tell the organisers were so concerned with making people interact they didn't give any thought to the rationale beyond this. One guy had a badge that labelled him as 'Jim Corr'. Not sure if he's part of a famous 'couple' per se. I left when I saw a miserable looking girl with a badge that said 'Maxine Carr'. She didn't know where her counterpart was and seemed to be in no hurry to find out. I was him I'd have just turned and left as soon as they gave me my badge, and no doubt he did just that.

Overall, I don't like anyone who would look at you and decide that you aren't happy enough, and decides they must interfere until your enjoyment levels meet their personal standards. I'd wager most people feel this way.

All of this preamble is just a roundabout way of saying that's why I think the 'Happiest day of the year' doesn't get nearly as much press as the 'most depressing day of the year'. Don't get me wrong, it get's far too much (i.e. some), but the most depressing day seems to get a lot more widespread attention than the happy one. Admittedly, I base this purely on the fact that no media sources have ever asked me to comment on it. As opposed to my regular humiliations when getting involved with the most depressing day. Believe me, I've had more than my fair share of dealings with that car-crash of nonsensical pseudoscience. Nobody has ever contacted me from the media to comment on the happiest day. Except for via twitter that is, I had people nudging me (metaphorically) to point out that that yesterday was the happiest day of the year (according to the BBC even! Got no link for that though).

I immediately thought my old nemesis Cliff Arnall had been up to his old tricks (well, trick). But no. He does have another laughable equation to pinpoint the happiest day (apparently coughed up like a media-friendly hairball at the behest of Walls, makers of sausages and ice cream and other things that benefit from people being cheerful enough to have barbecues), but it's in mid-June according to him. So August 6th is the happiest day of the year not according to Cliff Arnall, but Nectar Card. It's always someone shamelessly corporate who comes up with these things, weirdly enough. When the Cochrane collaboration makes a claim like this, then maybe I'll pay attention. However, rather than a nonsensical equation pulled out of the mind-arse of a shameless quack (meaning Cliff Arnall, just to clarify) this claim is, seemingly, based on a slightly more logical principle of just asking people when they're at their happiest. 30% of people say Saturdays, 20% of people say August (I'm really hoping these figures were based on separate questions in order to suggest some sort of useable specificity, but I'm not holding my breath), so overall Saturday in August is the happiest day of the year. Although, last I checked, August had at least 4 Saturdays, so why this one in particular? That's not revealed in the article I could be bothered to read.

It's at least a somewhat logical approach. When are people happiest? Ask them. But there are still myriad problems with this approach. People may say they're happiest in August and on Saturdays, but it doesn't automatically mean that an August Saturday is the happiest day of the year. Someone's favourite foods may be cheesecake and pizza. This does not mean a cheesecake topped pizza is logically their favourite food. Happiness is not a metric measurement that can be added and multiplied in this manner. Happiness is such a nebulous, hard to quantify term (like depression) that any efforts to pin it down to specific date and time like they've done quickly become meaningless.

Also, to suggest that there are predictable regularly occurring external factors that affect people's moods to the extent where the majority of the population are in the same emotional state is, to put it mildly, bollocks. This is seriously underestimating the complexity and variability in the lives, routines and events in the lives of a typical human being. The only figures that can reliably be said to predict depression in large swathes of the population are the ones churned out my the stock markets lately. That, or the viewing figures of Top Gear, but to each their own of course.

I bring this up as, at a recent Winchester Skeptics in the Pub talk I did (and it's a great night if you're nearby, please go to it), a guy in the audience, I believe his name is Ben, suggested you could determine the most depressing day of the year (I do rant about it considerably in my talk) by surveying the self-assessed mood levels of a significantly large group of people over a year. This is probably true, but there are several issues with this that mean it would not produce any useful results.

Firstly, you'd need a subject group big enough to provide decent statistical power and a reasonable cross-section of the population in general. Anything less means you'd have to narrow the focus of your investigation, i.e. The happiest day of the year for University students/pensioners/parents/unemployed/men-who-wear-those-really-low-cut-vests-for-some-undoubtedly-alarming-reason. Then you'd need everyone to agree on and use some universal mood ranking self-assessment scheme. It's no use collating all this data if some people rank their happiness on a scale of 1-10, some use percentages of maximum happiness, others go for a 'not at all - moderately - extremely' ranking of happiness. You can't just mash all these different measurements together and derive some sort of consistent conclusion from it, you'd end up making a complete Arnall of yourself!

Also, you'd need to get your subjects to measure their daily happiness levels for a whole year, not just ask them which day was the most/least happy for them. That would be just as reliable as flat out guesswork, which is what it essentially is. So, after all that, if you have a sufficiently large group of people reporting their happiness levels (or whatever) using the same system of measurement for a whole year, you could run the numbers and, quite possibly, you'd end up with one day that scores higher than all the others (or lower, if you're measuring depression). So you could feasibly say that this particular day is the happiest/most depressing of that year. Whether this day's score would deviate significantly from the norm for the year (or month, or quarter, you'd expect some ups-and-downs during holiday periods or bad weather periods etc. so it might be valid to take them into account), I'm unable to say. But given a large enough group of people, I'd say it would be highly unlikely that enough would feel depressed at the same time to make a dent in the measurements to that extent. But I deliberately said the happiest/most depressing day of THAT year, because that's all it would be.

This method would give you a report of how people felt in response to events and circumstances that happened that year. Any other year, it would be fantastically unlikely that the same things would happen in exactly the same manner. And even if they did, people would be somewhat desensitised to them now, so the ratings would still be different. The idea of a basic equation that can effectively predict all the variables that affect the mood of THE ENTIRE POPULATION is so ridiculous and unbelievable that it was bound to end up in the Daily Mail

Overall, I think the Most Depressing day bullshit seems to have got more media traction than the happiest day bullshit because it offers a get-out clause, as it means the media are saying 'you feel depressed? It's not your fault, it's due to factors beyond your control'. Ironically, I'd wager people are cheered up by this notion as it removes responsibility for a depressing situation and possibly offers hope for improvement. Also ironically, the 'happiest day' is quite annoying, it suggests that if you aren't happy then there's something wrong with you. It's like a fun instigator for the whole population, and we know what I think of that sort.

So yeah, the media or bogus scientists can't tell you which day of the year is the happiest/saddest for you, you can only tell them. And if they ask, tell them to mind their damn business. They won't ask though, they'll just hack your phone if they want to find something out.

And to close, some important points on Cliff Arnall, the main man who seems to have initiated this whole best/worst day debacle we have to go through every pissing year.

  • Cliff Arnall is often described as a Cardiff University Psychologist. He is not. Cardiff University has a top-ranking psychology school, it's actually a world leader in the field and often ranks in the top of listings concerned with these things. To be a Cardiff University Psychologist you have to be a member of the psychology school, conduct research there and preferably get it published in reputable journals. This is something some people have done (e.g. Myself), but Cliff Arnall has not. He does apparently have a psychology qualification (a very broad term, but will give him the benefit of a doubt there), and he did teach once (for a few months) at the Cardiff Centre for Lifelong Learning, which is essentially evening classes for adults. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't mean he's a Cardiff University Psychologist. It's been alleged that the Cardiff University PR department are happy with this state of affairs as it means they get free publicity. Possibly some are, but all the members of the department I know would like to put a bounty on Cliff Arnall's head, so I'm guessing they'd rather he stopped doing this.
  • Cliff Arnall is apparently not a research psychologist or sociologist as his output would suggest, but a 'life coach'. I'm not a fan of this field. Fair enough if you are, and no doubt there are plenty of life coaches out there who have nothing but good intentions and a desire to help people, but to me it's always seemed a bit self-limiting. The very concept means people in need of a life coach (for whatever reason) are going to end up in a submissive position. They've employed a life coach to begin with, which suggests that they feel they are incapable of making their own decisions, and even if a life coach does everything to boost their confidence and get them back on track, the whole concept can be boiled down to someone vulnerable paying a stranger to tell them what to do in their own daily lives, which is about as personal and invasive as it gets outside of reality TV (not that there's much
    difference). Even if the life coached does end up feeling better, they will always know it was thanks to the interference of a 'superior', a powerful message that they should always obey others and be a good little peon in order to remain happy. Their lives are not really their own, it's external factors that make the difference. Cliff Arnall is a life coach, and he is famous for telling people when they should be happy/sad. Adds up somewhat, now.
  • Cliff Arnall has 3 children. This was mentioned in the article I read about him, apropos of nothing. I can't see how this fact has any bearing on anything to do with his work, but I'm restating it here in case there's something important I'm missing.
  • I have never met Cliff Arnall. Odds are he's a perfectly nice guy who's figured out how to make money from a relentlessly shallow and gullible mainstream media. And he's undoubtedly doing a lot better than I am. But his actions have caused me ire and humiliation on several occasions, so I shall continue to lay into him on my own blog until I see a decent reason not to.

Lastly, apologies to any regular readers wondering where this blog has gotten do. Had an insanely busy time of it in July. But now I'm fully employed as a Psychiatry tutor, so have a reliable schedule and will hopefully have a lot of interesting brain-related things to talk about in the coming months

Email: humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy

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