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 People are strange when you’re a stranger

Do you feel left out? Perhaps it’s because you refuse to succumb to the competition, envy and fear neoliberalism breeds. To be at peace with a troubled world: this is not a reasonable aim. It can be achieved only through a disavowal of what surrounds you. To be at peace with yourself within a troubled world: that, by contrast, is an honourable aspiration. This column is for those who feel at odds with life. It calls on you not to be ashamed. I was prompted to write it by a remarkable book, just published in English, by a Belgian professor of psychoanalysis, Paul Verhaeghe(1). What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society is one of those books that, by making connections between apparently distinct phenomena, permits sudden new insights into what is happening to us and why. We are social animals, Verhaeghe argues, and our identity is shaped by the norms and values we absorb from other people. Every society defines and shapes its own normality – and its own abnormality – according to dominant narratives, and seeks either to make people comply or to exclude them if they don’t.

 Synchronise your holidays

'In Sweden, the more people holidayed at the same time, the greater the rate at which antidepressant prescriptions decreased' Spend a day or more in a Swedish office and you'll probably experience the startling phenomenon of the "fika", the moment when everybody – senior or junior, female or male, stylishly dressed or stylishly dressed – gathers for coffee and cake. Hierarchies get set aside; people discuss work and non-work matters alike. The ritual isn't compulsory, but it isn't exactly optional, either: take your coffee break at a different time and eyebrows may be raised above designer spectacles. Not that "coffee break" is a translation most Swedes would accept: apparently, fika means much more. "The only thing a Swede likes more than having a fika," writes the Stockholm-based journalist Oliver Gee, "is talking about the word fika, and how you'll never find it in English." The idea of fika can be extended. A team led by Terry Hartig, a health researcher at Uppsala University, found that when Swedes take time off, antidepressant prescriptions go down. Hardly surprising… but the interesting part involved the timing of those vacations: the more people holidayed at the same time, the greater the rate at which prescriptions decreased.

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