Why Can't We Look on the Bright Side of Life? ANOTHER SUNNY DAY, ANOTHER AGONISING RISK ASSESSMENT

Article excerpt

Byline: ANTHONY DANIELS

ANOTHER day, another reason to fret. There are so many problems waiting to ambush us that our lives - which in many respects are better than ever before - seem to be nothing but a succession of petty anxieties and preoccupations.

Will the traffic be bad today? There are reports on the radio to inform us of jams not only nearby but far away as well, so that we begin to think the whole country is one large bottleneck.

If the traffic flows smoothly near us, we can worry about the problems somewhere else, and what will happen later in the day.

Shall we be able to breathe easily? Even though we don't yet suffer from asthma, it is best to familiarise ourselves with the pollen count just in case we develop this common disease later. And we can certainly worry on behalf of all the asthmatics we know.

Dioxin, which is already present in some Belgian chickens, eggs and chocolates, has made its way into human breast milk according to the latest reports, at any rate.

Our babies are bound to suffer: perhaps the

human race itself will die out.

With so much to worry about, it is difficult to enjoy yourself; indeed, it would be downright irresponsible to do so. No wonder pessimism is so widespread.

Moreover, the simplest pleasures are allegedly fraught with danger. For a long time sunbathing has been associated with cancer of the skin. Sunshine has been treated as if it were the fallout from a nuclear explosion or poison gas.

Now researchers have suggested that sunbathing might be good for you, but even this is not as good news as it sounds at first. After all, if sunbathing is good for you, not sunbathing is bad for you.

Therefore we should worry when the sun fails to come out, and anyone who doesn't sunbathe is as foolish as someone who continues to smoke.

What was once a simple pleasure has been turned into a medical treatment, complete with dosage, frequency and side-effects.

Sunshine becomes a kind of chemotherapy, not to be indulged in for its own sake but because it's health-giving.

Once you ask of a pleasure whether it is good for you, it ceases to be a pleasure whatever the answer. Take sunbathing as an example. Suppose it causes skin cancer. Suppose also that it is good for you in some other respect. (These suppositions are not at all incompatible.) How are you to decide whether or not to sunbathe? If you do, you'll worry about cancer. If you don't, you'll worry about failing to enjoy its beneficial effects.

Whatever you decide to do, you won't enjoy it.

In fact, it is always much easier to prove a harm than a benefit, so most research is directed towards finding the causes of disease rather than of wellbeing.

Disease is definite, wellbeing is nebulous and difficult to quantify.

The result is always to suggest a prohibition, for everything is a risk factor for something: swimming pools for drowning, cars for crashes, cricket balls for bruises, rose bushes for scratches, skydiving for broken legs.

If we think constantly about risk factors, we come to view the world as a giant mechanism for producing fatal accidents, cancer and heart attacks. Such pessimism clouds the way we look at everything else. …