“These are hard times for hedonists”

2 Jul|Michael Palin

Picture copyright John Swannell

Studies and surveys conspire to condemn us to a life less interesting, writes Michael Palin

These are difficult times for those who like a bit of pleasure in their lives. Hardly a day goes by without some study telling us that whatever we’re doing is bad for us. Of course, all true idlers know that the only statistic worth knowing is that quoted by RD Laing: “Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100 per cent fatality rate.”

And yet we continue to be browbeaten by statistics which force us to live longer but more guiltily; statistics which contradict each other by the day, as different university research groups working with grants from different manufacturers seek to increase their funding with a scoop. One day a glass of red wine will prolong your life, the next it will send you to an early grave. The Early Grave is actually rather a good name for a pub. “Going down the Grave, darling, see you later!” The Mitigating Factor and The Pathetic Fallacy are more pub signs I’d like to see. But that’s by the by. Whatever happens, a cheerless world awaits us. A world where a glass is a unit just isn’t the same. “Let’s get some units in lads!” or “I’ve had a terrible day, I could slaughter 2.3 units!”

What distinguishes a great many of these apparently helpful health warnings is not just the presumption of them – why shouldn’t someone choose to drink themselves to death at 60 rather than live to 112 and never enjoy a Calvados? – but their statements of the bleeding obvious.

“Smiling makes you happy. Researchers have discovered that people who smile are almost 53 per cent happier than people who look miserable.”

“Breathing is good for you – studies show that 100 per cent of people who breathed both in and out survived longer than those who only breathed out.”

Whatever next. Lighting fires and sticking them down your trousers is a health risk?

There are people working day and night to come up with totally specious conclusions in the hope that someone will notice them and take them from their draughty laboratories in Wrexham to some well-endowed Institute in Bahia, California. And there seems to be an insatiable market for their dotty research – a market which newspapers, who can no longer afford to employ journalists, and social media, desperate to lead you to their cookies, gratefully sustain. You know the sort of thing. “Donkeys are good at crosswords”, “World’s top basketball players all born in July” and “Serbians are the world’s most left-handed people – it’s official!”

Many of these pseudo-scientific breakthroughs come with a great deal of pseudo-scientific back up. The results may be less than astonishing, but it’s the trouble they take to get there that becomes the story. So, for instance, research that proves the majority of people were happier when given sums of money, comes as a result of a representative sample involving 400 one-legged Spanish zither players. You can imagine the report. “All subjects were given envelopes. Some had nothing inside, others had sums of tax-free cash ranging from £5.50 to £8.20, or equivalent in their local currency. Eighty-two per cent of those with money in their envelopes showed increased personal satisfaction levels (PSLs). These PSLs rose to 87 per cent among those offered another £10, but dropped off considerably when the offer was increased to £26,000, when several of those surveyed experienced mild heart attacks (MHAs).”

News comes in of another groundbreaking experiment, which proved conclusively that lying on a glacier in underwear was injurious to health. It was equally thorough, but even more expensive. Lol and Dik Sig of the University of the North Pole, took 50 Kazakh chess-players, all with stamp collections and one Scottish relative, by helicopter to the Ayeuenoff Glacier on Baffin Island. Twenty-five of them were given only briefs to wear and the other 25 were given eight layers of weather-resistant clothing. The surprising result was that the ones who wore only briefs all voted Liberal Democrat.

Sorry, a bit of a balls-up in the laboratory there. That last bit should have read “died”.

This piece appears in Idler 67. Buy a copy online, on newsstands or subscribe digitally to read it immediately on your phone or tablet.