Five books to cheer you up this summer

Merryn Somerset Webb picks five books for those people who think everything is just awful these days.


Cheer up. Things really aren't that bad.

I'm going to try and cheer you up. Mostly with statistics. The first useful set comes from the Office for National Statistics and is particularly relevant to MoneyWeek readers. It turns out that being miserable or having poor "personal wellbeing" is fairly strongly correlated with age, and with middle age in particular.

About half of the number of people surveyed who had the poorest wellbeing were 40-59 years old (MoneyWeek reading age). You can see that as bad news, but you can also see it as encouraging. If you are 50-59 now, odds are you have happy times ahead: only 12.8% of those with the poorest wellbeing were in their 60s and a mere 10.79% were 70-plus.

Add this tendency towards rising contentment with age to the fact (yes, fact) that around the world, almost everything is getting better almost all of the time, and you may find yourself cheered up already. You are going to feel that things are getting better and, crucially, they will actually get better.

Bill Gates' "favourite book of all time"

For those who disagree with that last statement, I have a summer holiday reading list. It starts with a book that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has described as his "new favourite book of all time" and which is now one of mine as well: Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Amazon).

Ask most people about anything from poverty to global inequality, average human happiness, population growth and war and they will tell you everything is getting worse. To hell in a handbasket. But it simply isn't so.

Pinker's book is effectively a call for us all to stop awfulising about everything. Progress, he says, "has a way of covering its tracks". So as our moral standards rise over the years (because they can) "we become alert to harms that would have gone unnoticed in the past" (hello #metoo).

We forget to compensate for the keener powers of detection of activists who, looking for more evidence in more places for abuse and failure, "feel they must always cry crisis to keep the heat up". And we also forget much of the past: the misery of working 70 hours a week; the relentless boredom of the pre-information age; and the nastiness of a time when inequality was a given.

Yet look closely and you will see democracy succeeding rather than failing; governments growing more liberal across the board (the death penalty is very much "on death row"); homicides falling; intelligence measures mostly rising; population increases levelling off as child mortality falls (the more of your children you expect to die, the more you have); and, crucially, happiness on the up as a direct result of the rise in global wealth and leisure time.

If you skip fatalism, stick with reason and ignore all articles that reference "the End of This, the Death of That or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era", says Pinker, all this should continue.

A guide to becoming a better thinker

Enlightenment Now is a must-read. But if you find it too heavy for hand baggage (60 pages of references and index) take instead Factfulness, Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think, (Amazon) written by the late Hans Rosling and his son and daughter-in-law.

This covers much of the same ground (and is also much loved by Gates) but also acts as a guide to managing your tendency to misery and becoming a better thinker. Read it and you have a good chance of being one of the few supposedly intelligent people knocking around who isn't habitually "not only devastatingly wrong but systematically wrong" about global trends.

You can also use it around the pool in Tuscany to test and laugh at the devastating wrongness of your holiday mates (there's a quiz they are bound to mess up in the intro). It's a win-win on the cheering up front.

Proof that our government is not uniquely idiotic

Next up is an older book from 2014, but one that I find massively reassuring. The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe (Amazon) runs through some of the more ridiculous mistakes of UK governments entering and leaving the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, everything to do with IT, the poll tax, tax credits and explains how they happened.

It will irritate you, but it's also helpful to remember that huge blunders are perfectly normal for governments. Our current one is not uniquely idiotic which is something to hang onto if you find your mind wandering too much from beach to Brexit over the next month or so.

Adam Smith gets a bad rap

Once you are done with that, it is time for Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations (Amazon) is never going to be a holiday reading recommendation many of you will appreciate, but I am currently preparing to appear at the Edinburgh Fringe in an Adam Smith-themed event at Panmure House, his only surviving home (you can buy tickets here). So I am fully immersed in Jesse Norman's excellent Adam Smith: What he Thought and Why it Matters (Amazon)

Smith gets a bad rap, says Norman, a Conservative MP. He is seen by many as the "prime mover of a materialistic ideology that is sweeping the world, an apologist for wealth and inequality and human selfishness and a misogynist to boot".

He may have been the latter though imposing our values on those of the 1700s does seem a bit nuts but the rest is a bit unfair.

Modern economics has borrowed heavily from Smith but also extremely selectively, ignoring along the way the central feature of his world view: "the embedding of market activity within a normative ethical and social framework". The real Smith was very different from today's caricature, something that anyone trying to find a way to improve the economics profession (no easy task) should probably understand.

Why we're not going "back to the 1970s"

I have one final recommendation, a little David Lodge and the first novel in his campus trilogy, Changing Places (Amazon). The economic cheer-you-up reason for suggesting this is that the miserable descriptions of 1969-1970 Britain are a nice reminder that, however much people like to say that austerity and stagnant wages are taking us "back to the 1970s", they just aren't.

Morris Zapp, a US professor on an exchange programme to the UK, fast accepts that a "view of rotting sheds and dripping laundry" is a given in his new home. And he doesn't care: after a quick look around, he figures that "you were lucky if you could find a place that could be kept at a temperature appropriate to human organisms, equipped with the more rudimentary amenities of civilised life and decorated in a combination of colours and patterns that didn't make you vomit on sight".

He takes a nasty flat. He has a colour TV installed. The very idea makes his landlord "ill with excitement". Imagine having to have watched the football in black and white. Perhaps today's world is not so bad after all.

This article was first published in the Financial Times


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