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Monthly Archives: April 2008

The loneliness of the business traveller

Am on the road again. This time in Kiev, city of green avenues and golden domes. I’m here writing a business supplement on Ukraine – my other job, besides writing about psychology etc, is writing about emerging markets, particularly in the former Soviet Union.

Going on a business trip brings home one of the paradoxes of globalization and free market liberalism. On the one hand, it creates a global society that is more and more open, in which you meet more and more people and societies are ever more inter-connected. On the other hand, we are ever more alone and disconnected.

Businessmen are the blood cells of globalization. They travel from country to country, in an endless round of meetings, linking markets together. I remember the eastern Europe advertizing salesman at Euromoney, a magazine I used to work for: he must have been on the road 75% of his life. He lived out of a suitcase. Endless meetings. He knew every senior banker in eastern Europe – in Kiev, Moscow, Budapest, Belgrade. He was a human Rolodex of contacts.

This kind of life takes a ridiculous amount of energy. Believe me – after one day on the road, with say five meetings, I am exhausted. And he does this most days, and has perhaps nine or ten meetings in a day. He once told me: ‘You know what the secret is to living on the road? Handwash. On a normal day, I shake 10-20 hands. When it’s a big conference or business summit, I must shake 100 people’s hands in a day. That’s alot of germs and viruses. So after every meeting I wash my hands with handwash.’

People like this guy are the drivers of globalization – meeting people, linking markets, networking, connecting, schmoozing, pressing the flesh.

And yet the life they lead is curiously lonely and isolated. They are on the road most of their lives, in hotels designed to be homogeneous and standardized. They live in rooms that are cleaned by strangers. They are cooked for by strangers. They are driven around by strangers. At the end of the day, they collapse into the hotel bar and drink alone. They sleep alone. Occasionally, for comfort and a feeling of human touch, perhaps they get a massage in the hotel spa, or go to a strip club to pay another stranger to service them.

They live their life among strangers, endlessly networking, but the level of talk is always impersonal – global markets, politics, perhaps some ‘personal’ chit-chat about sports results or holiday destinations. Because they are always among strangers, their personal lives, their personal idiosyncrasies, feelings and predilections are locked away, like secret files in a corporate safe, while the persona they present to the world is bland and acceptable, like a corporate logo.

The lonely, atomized business traveller is a snap-shot of our society – at once more open and connected, and more isolated and closed. Our infantile consumer needs are pampered and indulged by our corporate lifestyle, while our deeper needs – close human relations, family, community, spiritual meaning – are sacrificed.

We know more and more people, less and less well. We are brought ever-closer, and driven ever further apart. This is the paradox of globalization.

Happy Go Lucky: an interesting failure

I went to see Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy Go Lucky, at the Tricycle in Kilburn yesterday, and saw Leigh himself get up on stage to answer the audience’s questions after the show. He told us that his film, about an incorrigibly chirpy and upbeat primary school teacher, was supposed to make us feel good, and was a ‘positivist’ film, or ‘anti-miserablist’, in Leigh’s words.

His words reminded me strongly of Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, who told me in an interview earlier this year that he wanted to see the growth not just of positive psychology, but of “positive journalism, positive economics, positive literature, positive cinema”. In fact, he’s already started developing courses in English Literature that would use inspirational novels like, say, To Kill A Mockingbird, as re-inforcements of positive character traits.

So Leigh’s film could be seen as a pioneering example of this sort of ‘positive art’ – it’s a film that sets out, as Leigh puts it, to create a ‘positive feeling’ in its audience, that tries to teach us the power of a positive, upbeat attitude to life.

The film raises interesting questions about what great art does to us and how it draws us in. If you think about it, the vast majority of great films, books and plays are about suffering, drama and conflict: Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Inferno, Paradise Lost, Bleak House, The Wasteland. These are not happy books, or books about happiness.

They draw much of their power from the trials and tribulations of their protagonists. As Tolstoy famously put it at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Suffering, it would seem, is more interesting than happiness.

Leigh’s film challenges this notion. As a member of the audience enthused to Leigh: “Why shouldn’t happiness be just as interesting and complex as sadness?”

In fact, I think the film failed, for the simple reason that the main character was not taken on any kind of journey. She started off chirpy and upbeat, and she ended the film chirpy and upbeat. You can’t make an interesting film about a character who ends the film in exactly the same place, emotionally, as she began it. It doesn’t matter if the character is the greatest optimist or the most tremendous grouch…something has to happen to them, they have to develop and change, if we are to be engaged in their journey.

Usually, we require that the hero or heroine undergoes some tough trials and tribulations. This is true even in comedies – think of the trials of Shakespeare’s comedy heroes. Comedy also comes from conflict, suffering, drama.

But the heroine of Leigh’s film, Poppy, confronts hardly any serious trials or obstacles in the two hours of the film, beyond her bike being stolen and her driving instructor being a nutter. Even the hero of your average feel-good Hollywood comedy has to deal with more than that.

So if a film or book is going to be really inspirational, really uplifting, really ‘positive’, then it needs to put its hero through more suffering. Otherwise the audience feels like it has sat on a train that has gone neither down nor up, just chugging along on an endlessly flat plain.