Last week, I bumped into an acquaintance who has a big job at a media company in London and I asked him how he was. The last time I’d seen him – about three months earlier – he’d told me he was in despair as he was having to make a large chunk of his workforce redundant.
But this time he said that things were really rather good and that he was in excellent spirits, thanks very much.
So is business picking up, I inquired. He said no, not particularly; he just felt better for no reason he could put his finger on.
At first I thought such cheer unseemly. With all the people he fired presumably still out of work, there seemed something indecent in his feeling quite so I’m-all-right-Jack. Yet on second thoughts, I see that this man is suffering from the new cheerfulness syndrome that is affecting people who are still in work and, far from being unseemly, it’s a jolly good thing.
The reason for the new upbeat mood is simply that the human spirit does not find it agreeable to stay down for too long. Our expectations have adjusted to the new, depressed normality and – as long as there isn’t another giddy drop in the economy – we’ve decided that life isn’t too bad after all. The green shoots are sprouting vigorously in our minds, even if they are not sprouting in the economy. As Sir Stuart Rose, executive chairman of Marks and Spencer, put it last week: we are simply fed up with being fed up.
Even the president of the US has had it with feeling grim. He told The New York Times last week that he was tried of reading dismal papers in the evening, and instead was settling down at home to read Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a novel about playing cricket in New York.
These mental green shoots are not only good in themselves but they also may even encourage green shoots in the economy to sprout soon.
A few days ago, I was talking to a woman who runs a consultancy firm. She told me how in December she had issued an edict to staff saying that all travel must be economy class, but confessed that last week she had cracked and booked herself a business class flight. Even though it cost an additional £400 ($597), she just couldn’t face the grimness of another flight cooped up in steerage. Three months ago, she had felt terrible because her business was down by more than 10 per cent. Now she felt she deserved to stretch out on the aircraft on the basis that 90 per cent of her business was still coming good.
The mental green shoots are making us tell ourselves stories to justify a little spending. Another wealthy acquaintance tells me that she recently bought a Chanel dress. This, she solemnly explained, wasn’t expenditure, it was investment: the dress was a classic.
Even bankers are taking off the sackcloth and ashes. Last week, I met one who was looking distinctly healthy behind a deep tan from his skiing holiday. I asked him if he felt it was becoming safe to go to dinner parties again. Oh yes, he said happily. He was going to lots of dinner parties. But there were no problems: all the other guests were bankers too.
The new cheer is the latest phase in the emotional cycle of recession. The first phase was denial, which started almost two years ago with Northern Rock and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Then, last autumn, denial gave way to shock and fear. We worried that the world would never be the same again and we were deeply afraid. After fear, came rage. It was all the bankers’ fault and we wanted to skin them alive. And after rage came acceptance. We accept that the economy is in recession. But now, hot on the heels of acceptance, comes cheer.
Not everyone has participated in all the emotional stages. Having joined in enthusiastically during the denial and panic phases, I skipped anger as I save my rage for more tangible things– like when I put my BlackBerry through the washing machine by mistake. But on this latest phase, I am back with the trend.
My new cheer is affecting how I look at the world. During the earlier phases, I interpreted everything as further evidence of gloom and doom, whereas now I take things more positively. Last week, I was on a train travelling back from Cardiff and was sitting in front of a young man who was talking loudly into his mobile phone about how he had just sold 5,000 cocktails to the organisers of a Take That concert. A couple of months ago, I would have seen this as a sinister act of denial. Now I take cocktails and boy bands as a definite sign that things must be getting better.
Just now, as I have been at my computer writing this, I’ve received an e-mail from a reader who works at Lloyds TSB. He wanted me to know that last Monday his bank confiscated 750 individual rubbish bins and has insisted that staff carry their litter to recycling bins at the other end of the office. The most annoying thing about this, he moaned, was that you can’t screw up pieces of paper any more and lob them in a bin, but have to slide them into a slot instead.
This message was the brightest green shoot that I have yet seen. When bankers are exercised about their paper recycling systems rather than redundancies and bail-outs, it is hard not to conclude that things are beginning to get back to normal.
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