Paul Tritschler reflects on the brain’s ability to adjust its habits from hate to happiness, but probes its potential within an immoral system based on class exploitation.

The science of happiness, the leitmotif of the positive psychology movement, was a popular night school option in my corner of the country, and the group hit it off from the word go with lively debates and thoughtful contributions. Even after a draining day teaching I looked forward to this remarkable class, especially as there was no certainty of where the journey might lead. It wasn’t unusual for the group to detour into distant but related areas, exploring neoliberal ideas of happiness and, ironically, associated levels of depression – superfluous wealth buys superfluous things – or to attempt to demystify the more nebulous notions of normality that have optimism or positivity as their defining feature. On one occasion the discussion drifted from the question of serenity into the more sinister precincts of human obsession, and although it was not clear to me where this would end, I followed the group’s meandering trail, adding nothing, yet hanging on to every word – a trail that brought some to reveal the haunting experiences of their personal lives, and led me to explore some distant districts of memory.

Some of the Georgian and Victorian mansions around Glasgow Green were palatial slums when I was growing up – ugly, forbidding places. Two boys at my school lived in those high-ceilinged houses a few streets apart. Their families had been moved out during police investigations, and one of the boys – I didn’t know him well, but remember clearly how distraught he was to discover around a year later, aged thirteen, that he had contracted gonorrhoea – all too calmly led me to the crime scenes. His mother had been ‘bothered’ by the father of the other boy by way of gifts and sneaking about, and his father decided to settle this with an axe embedded dead centre in the sneaky man’s door. Just a warning, and a reminder through the letterbox of where it would be lodged next time – a message that echoed down the grand yet sinister spiral stair and into the memory of the children. The reply came in the form of two pistol shots delivered at eye level into the axeman’s door, and he responded by ringing the doorbell and sending a shotgun blast through the letterbox – just missed the kids. Miraculously, no one died. I couldn’t wait to get away from the place.

It is difficult to imagine the impact this experience might have made on that boy, and sadly it was not an isolated case in the neighbourhood; one involved petrol poured through a letterbox – again an attack on the family of a boy at my school – and I remember every inch of the huge Victorian stair landing was burnt black. It looked like the entrance to an evil place, and perhaps it was – I couldn’t step into it. And as if a reminder were needed of the potential consequences of this horror, sitting on the pavement a few yards along from that tenement in Trongate most days was a badly scarred beggar with empty eye sockets and no hands. He had thrown a bomb at a pub window but it had bounced back and his terrible injuries were the result. He usually had spittle on his head and clothes. People without pity spat on him because of his dark crime, but equally, perhaps, because of the abuse he doled out to passers-by who didn’t give him money – an anger that was in many ways preferable to today’s cloyingly customer focused spiel.

The psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, spoke of happiness as a state of flow, like a river. He describes this mode of existence as ‘being in the zone’, where one is singularly engrossed in their subject. His thinking, it seems to me, is in some ways close to the spiritual psychology – if I may call it that – of the medieval Augustinian monk, Thomas à Kempis, who spoke of our ability to replace habits with habits. But habits can become obsessions, and the shooting episode is my earliest memory of just such a case – it would of course today be subsumed under the rubric ‘stalking’. The latter exists on a spectrum much wider than perhaps most realise, ranging from short, frenzied bursts of brutality, to minor hassles over longer periods. Most fall into the relatively minor category, though whether life-threatening or just joy-threatening, what links them is some level of anguish. One contributor to the night school discussion – an English teacher, fellow Scot and occasional recipient of hate mail – categorised his experience not as a threat to life, but to the quality of it. “It’s not always a bunny boiler sort of thing”, he said, “but it can wear you down. I knew someone in similar circumstances who ended things by stepping off a Bridge – odd that they should report it, but police said he had left the car door open and a relaxation tape playing.”

The English teacher said that he too sometimes felt low. For over twenty years people that were in some way connected to him – friends, colleagues – received what he called his character assassination reference, and in a variety of ways: via word-of-mouth, phone calls, and malice by mailshot; these included postcards, the wish-you-were-ruined kind. The small investment of a few drops of poison in the well brought his stalker lasting returns: he could not always be certain who among his associates received tainted words and in whatever form, and in any case he could not unring the bell, nor could he shake off that bizarre phenomenon of ‘guilt by association’. When the opportunity arose it was of course tempting to loudly proclaim his innocence, but he learned from experience the wisdom of Epictetus and the futility of explanations: accusations bring stigma, and detailed denials deepen it. On the other hand, people who ask for details – usually to calculate the perceived cost of maintaining a relationship with the victim, or to satisfy their sordid curiosity – aren’t worth bothering about, and at least you learn who is there for you (few, in his case). Whilst his wave of hatemail might recede for months, even years, it always returned, advancing like an Atlantic roller – just as it had to former workplaces stretching way back. And so more than once, following Larkin, he chucked up everything and just cleared off.

Mud sticks. The crime of guilt by association reminded me of a childhood episode when my dog, Sandy, a flawed genius, was in heat. Dogs got her scent from me – all that wrestling with her on the floor, I suppose – but whilst most cleared off with a bit of carefully managed hysteria, there was one big brute of a thing that just wouldn’t move on. Keeping a safe distance, it followed me everywhere, it came to our door or waited in dark corners of the tenement stair, and one morning it followed me to school in Ropework Lane. I couldn’t shake it off, it was obsessed, but at least I left it at the right side of the school gates – or so I thought. Soon after the morning lesson began, the class burst into uproar when the dog appeared in the school corridor, made worse when he lifted his leg to relieve himself on the door opposite. The teacher was furious, and when I told her it had followed me, the situation somehow translated as my fault. I was subjected to an extraordinary public tirade then sent home so that the mindless and muddled brute might be led away. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, on leaving the classroom a sibilant slur from a vile-breathed boy started a contagion: “Your dog’s a hoor”.

Mud sticks, and some excel at slinging it. My Uncle Ferdinand was a parish priest in the former shipbuilding town of Greenock, on the River Clyde, and although born in Glasgow Cross he was often referred to as the ‘German priest’ – he remains so to this day in some online reminiscences. A chaplain during WW2, he spent much of it detained in a German POW, and like his cousin Cornelius, who volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain, he returned with remnants from the ruins of foreign regimes: worthless symbols, priceless diaries. My dad became the keeper of family things – he never went overseas, wounded days before shipping out to Dunkirk – and long after the war suffered the indignity of watching plain clothes officers hunt, gather and remove this collection of tracts and artefacts. Even his grandfather’s German bible of the 1860s was tossed in a box and taken. The police search was the result of rumours spread by a woman that had traduced the family – not all of whom survived that war – as former enemy sympathisers. (There was some irony in the fact this family of former clockmakers was put on a watch list.) Through time items were restored, but the badge of status reserved exclusively for the insidious alien remained – as did the stalker, who continued to spread her thoughts malignly to all who would listen. Kafka’s The Trial might have been written in Glasgow Cross.

Stalking styles include making approaches, following someone, maintaining surveillance, gathering information, befriending friends of the victim to gain more facts, tracking via social networking sites, looking at Facebook through another’s page, spreading scurrilous rumours via the internet or by word-of-mouth, sending unwanted texts, making persistent phone calls, leaving unwanted voicemails, sending abusive emails, or posting poison-pen letters and postcards to the victim, the victim’s family, their friends, neighbours, employers and colleagues. And the stalker is not necessarily the only one involved; it is by no means unusual for stalkers to add complexity by involving others in their obsessive harassment campaigns.

According to the psychologist Paul Mullen, stalkers have a range of motivations, from reasserting power over a partner who rejected them – a stalking average of twenty years – to the quest for a loving relationship, and whilst most, as Mullen puts it, are “lonely and socially incompetent”, all have the capacity to frighten and distress their victims. For Mullen, bringing stalking to an end requires a mixture of appropriate legal sanctions and therapeutic interventions, but look up any website and you will find agreement about the difficulties in putting a halt to the obsessed. Ranging from lack of evidence to fear of antagonising their stalker, many are reluctant to raise police awareness in case things get worse – a double-bind situation of harassment and helplessness – and not surprising when we consider the fixations they face, as reflected in Mullen’s research: stalkers hired private detectives, or became private detectives, some dangled the threat of scandalous accusations over their victims, and some claimed to be victims themselves and made reports to the police.

Stalkers exist beyond the bounds of reality, but it is the victim who experiences life as strange, mad and hopeless. Normal reactions include nightmares, stress, anxiety, vulnerability, irritability, depression and, not unusually, suicidal thoughts. It undermines our sense that life is safe – our job, our home, our sense of self – hence the tendency to uproot in search of sanctuary. But even when threats are way off in the distance and with a separation of years between them, victims lose fragments of life to past and future concerns, and in a cruel twist a relationship of sorts is forged, the kind akin to being trapped with a malevolent other on a demented carousel: the stalker is afflicted with pointless preoccupations such as the impulse to gain control, the victim becomes locked in cycles of worrying thoughts – both locked in habits of the obsessive kind.

On wandering into a discussion about malevolent obsessions – from wishing well to wishing evil – my night class had not in fact curved far from the intended path: positive psychology looks at the possibilities for post-traumatic growth arising from adversities such as PTSD, a condition increasingly identified among victims of stalking. The findings of longitudinal studies are awaited to assess whether the effects are long lasting, but some early reports seem promising enough, notably from neuroscience: on gaining the consent of the Dalai Lama to scan the brains of Tibetan monks, the psychologist Richard Davidson found high levels of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with the capacity for happiness and low negativity, and neuroplasticity as an area of research now informs programmes for psychological wellbeing and optimal performance linked to positive emotions. This might deal with one’s sense of inner desolation and help wash away the sadness of things, but the key focus is on changing one’s habits by training the brain to be more resilient and creative.

Lest it become mere opium for the masses, however, it might be wise to suggest the best recipe for happiness, if separated from wider questions of morality, should have scepticism as an essential ingredient in the mix. After all, we might train the brain of the professional killer to be more resilient and creative – even stalkers might learn how to improve their game. Equally, we should be wary of ‘quick fix’ solutions offered by government advisers who, during times of financial convulsions, promote positive psychology as a panacea and an impetus to upward mobility. To tweak Goethe’s Faust a little, none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are happy. Psychology, like yoga, can improve our fitness, but not necessarily our moral fitness – the ingredient in the recipe that, for Kant, may make us worthy of happiness.

Within the confines of a system dominated by rapacious profit-seekers, and balanced against the spectre of barbarism that stalks us all, it would be naive to think positive psychology might provide an answer to poverty, homelessness, preventable illnesses, the deliberate dearth of medicines and lack of medical care, to prisons crammed with the mentally ill, to ignorance, inequality, injustice, war, meaningless work, meaningless talk, meaningless entertainment. But neither is it irredeemably at odds with struggles to reverse those trends. If happiness is the goal of all rational beings, as Kant believed, then positive psychology – not least because it explores questions about human values and life’s purpose – embodies the potential to add to radical campaigns for the right to be happy.