The doom-and-gloom boom: why can’t we just be happy for each other?

A young friend is about to be a father and everyone wants to tell him of the difficulties to come. I realise expectant mothers face constant warnings about the horrors ahead, but wasn’t aware this was now an equal opportunity sport.

“Any plans for when the baby arrives?” the young chap is asked. He plans, simply, to look after the new child, but – in the face of further questioning – offers up an additional activity. “I might plant a lemon tree in the front yard, so they can both grow up together.”

The men in the circle, all fathers, wink and guffaw. Their eyes shine with merry delight. “Oh, mate, you won’t be planting a tree. You’ll be so flat out. You don’t know what’s about to hit you. You can forget planting a tree.”

Eeyore, beacon of positivity.Credit:Disney

My friend accepts the warning. “Oh well, I might just tidy the shelves, sometime early on, so we have space for the baby’s toys.”

This brings shrieks of laughter. “Tidy the shelves! You’re kidding, aren’t you? Tidy the shelves, I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. Mate, you won’t be able to wash yourself. You won’t be able to change your undies for the first six weeks. You really don’t know what you’ve got yourself into.”

A few weeks on, I’m with another friend, somewhat older. He’s about to retire. Again, the helpful advisors have been sure to gather.

“So, what’s the plan? Have you got a plan? You must have a list of things you are going to do. Not too many, mind, or you’ll be stressed. But enough. You need just the right amount.”

My friend tried to wave them away. “Look, I just thought I’d take it easy for a while, then figure out what to do.”

At this point, there was pandemonium. “Take it easy! I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. What are you going to do? Sit around and wind your watch? Watch daytime TV? Mate, you are so desperately in need of a plan.”

They didn’t say it out loud, but the implication was clear: without a plan – not too busy, not too relaxed – he’d be dead by April. At the very least, he needed to form a new political party, sail up the Ganges, or start growing avocados in the Northern Territory. Otherwise, he’d be wearing pyjamas at lunchtime, eating food through a straw, while desperately trying to recall the name of the Prime Minister.

So, here we have two chaps, separated by four decades, but lucky enough to have both attracted a posse of consultants.

Why do we go so quickly to the apocalyptic? After all, parenting is a delight for most people. Challenging, yes, but served with such a spoonful of joy. Most of the time, people manage. Most of the time, young parents do find time to change their undies.

It’s the same with retirement. For most, it brings great pleasure. For most, there is discipline when it comes to pyjamas. Forming the plan, in those early weeks, brings its own pleasure.

In his book Enlightenment Now, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argues that human beings are hard-wired for gloom. His theory: the more optimistic tribes – the ones who didn’t expect the lion to attack and therefore failed to post sentries – had their genes regularly consumed. It was the fearmongers who survived. In those tribes, the sentries were always posted. The flight or fight response was always turned to “panic”.

Pinker’s conclusion is that we must use our considerable brains to override this evolution-based tendency to expect the worst. Most new parents, on the evidence of our eyes, are not cringing in despair; most retirees are not on death’s door. So, why not expect the best of life’s various chapters?

It’s hard, though, when the naysayers gather. They have views to share on every subject, not just parenting and retirement. It’s like living with Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii. It’s all “Woe, woe and thrice woe.”

And so it starts. “An electric car? You’re kidding me. What about when you want to drive to Melbourne, and you’re stuck halfway between Gundagai and Albury? Mate, you’ll be standing there, rain bucketing down, dreaming of a petrol engine then.”

Or: “Looking after your grandchild once a week? You know the parents come to expect it, and soon it’s two days a week, and then three, then as soon as you know it you’re knee-deep in nappies, unable to travel or to work, the bailiffs at the door.”

Or: “Make some tiny changes to the superannuation system so it’s fairer to everybody? Mate, I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. That’ll destroy life as we know it. Are you a communist?”

Human beings are skilled at advising others. Perhaps less good at running their own lives. As Pinker suggests, maybe we need to train ourselves into a new way thinking.

“A baby on the way? It’s the greatest adventure.”

“Retirement? You’ll have the time of your life”.

“An electric car with limited range? Who needs to go to Melbourne anyway.”

“Fairer super? Now there’s an idea.”

So, pip-pip and cheer up. The world ain’t so bad.

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