On Restlessness

Dr Peter Brindley discusses restlessness, happiness, hypernormalisation and what to do?

When my spirited children- perhaps feral is a better word- believe that they have rocked my world, they offer me one of two showstoppers. Number one is the imaginary microphone drop. This terribly clever move makes it abundantly clear that nothing more need be said. The second is two hands expanding away from their head. This leaves no doubt that my brain has exploded due to their incomparable wisdom. Each is short hand for “game over, old man”; “nothing more to say”; “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya”. This pantomime was initially hilarious, then benignly charming, and is now, god bless ‘em, rather tiresome. This journey from shiny to banal seems to describe so much in life: well, MY life anyway. It is also why I fear my careers become just a job, and profound ideas becoming hackneyed. I just keep moving, even when I don’t know why. It is time to stop blaming others: happiness is an inside job.

I work as an Intensive Care Doctor and I like my job…a lot. It’s just that after 30 years of rushing it is a struggle to sit still. In quieter moments I also ponder how much is my personality and how much is the job. Regardless, I recently found myself with two weeks off and little more than first world problems to occupy my mind. The snow had melted too much to ski but not enough to bike: boo hoo, poor little rich boy, donations gratefully accepted. This time of year, otherwise known as Canadian Spring, leaves impatient buggers like me all at sea. Accordingly, I make for safe harbour: my office. Surely there is something urgent that needed my attention. After uncommon self-reflection I have realized that there really wasn’t: it was mostly busy work. I found myself with the problem most people claim they would love to have: what to do? This caused me dread. Rather than simply relax, I went searching for another microphone drop, another head explosion. After all, where do you think my kids get their hyperactivity and exaggerated self-importance.

quote2I found myself with the problem most people claim they would love to have: what to do?

The left side of my desk is my “should do pile”, the right side of my desk is my “would like to do” pile. Usually it’s all left pile and left-brain. However, with this uncommon time off, I roped up and scaled the right-sided mountain. On this paper peak was another one of those books boasting the secret to happiness. I gave it two hours. After all, happiness should be easy to summit, right. Next was a hastily scribbled note to understand an idea I heard on a podcast: “hypernormalization”. In short, one was a message of optimism and one of pessimism. Both were on point. Please now indulge me as I drop my microphone and attempt to explode your brain.

The Happiness Equation, written by Neil Pasricha, is a bloody marvelous read. He explains that, by mere possession of this book, I already had the ingredients in place. Normally I would take delight in scoffing at such pabulum. The old me might even have sent tossed this book at the wall just to illustrate my contempt. However, this is not mere hucksterism. The author is right: I can read, I can afford books, and I have sufficient time away from toil and fear. I am also lucky enough, and indulged enough, to believe that my happiness and my opinions matter. Many people- actually most people- do not have such luxuries. My problems really do not add up to a “hill of beans”. Oh, I forgot to mention, I also used this time to watch classic movies, including Casablanca.

quote2Hypernormalization … a sense that you understand the system is not right but you are so embedded that you cannot imagine an alternative

Item number two on Mount Aspiration was to understand “hypernormalization”. This idea is a far more dystopian though no less useful. It is also outlined in a BBC documentary and the writings of Adam Curtis. It refers to a sense that you understand the system is not right but you are so embedded that you cannot imagine an alternative. It originated in the Soviet era as people came to understand that the bosses were not in charge, and, in fact, even those bosses knew they were not in charge. However, everyone carries on with weary resignation. I find this image useful as I sit in meetings. I have even taken to imagining the attendees in traditional Russian clothes. If nothing else it passes the time.

In a few days I return to clinical work. If honest, I look forward to being frazzled. I will have answers, and they will be delivered with exaggerated certainty. Existential angst will be replaced with the relative simplicity of critical illness, bed shortages, and angry families. People will listen to me, I will be overpaid, and I will think that I am in charge. The days will contain comforting indignation and the pesky search for meaning will temporary leave me alone. It’s not much of a microphone drop but then life rarely is. That realization makes my head want to explode.