The lyrics, as I suspect you’re aware, are from a Radiohead song. If you know it, you’ll know how it continues.
Comfortable, not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym 3 days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries”
You’ll probably also be aware that it is far from a comforting listen, intoned as it is by a computerised voice (although not, as some have assumed, by Stephen Hawking). Compiled as a litany of phrases that author Thom Yorke saw as epitomising the time – the 1990s – he has also described the recording as being conducted in a feeling of hysterical anxiety. One commentator described it as “penetrating surgery on pseudo-meaningful corporations lifestyles”, but I can’t help but wonder if one of the words in a quote by Yorke about the song is more telling.
When Yorke commented that “I see it as the ultimate dissociation with the lyrics and your responsibilty for it. See it as something between a statement and an experiment”, it was the word responsibility that leapt out at me. Essentially a song about wellbeing in its broadest sense, its unsettling chill comes from its cataloguing of the bland ways in which the notion was not so much promoted as sold to us. To me, part of the lyrical cold front comes from the way that the lyric posits wellbeing not just as something that is a personal responsibility but also as something that a failure to achieve is entirely a personal fault:
Concerned (but powerless)
An empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)”
It was a song that I immediately thought of when a colleague sent me a copy of a Gallup Business Journal article about a recent Gallup poll that showed not just that wellbeing levels among work team members are strongly inter-connected, but that the wellbeing of supervisors impacts increasingly on their reports over time. Misery, it seems, might like company, but company might do better without its unsolicited affections.
I’m not entirely sure why this should come as a surprise: how did the fact that dissatisfied, unengaged, disgruntled people might make the most inspiring backdrop to your day become something labelled as news? And we might ask the same question about the impact of working for a cheerless, anti-social or ill-tempered manager. Perhaps our instant associations for the word ‘wellbeing’ are partly to blame? When the government announced it was going to survey national happiness back in 2010, I was both suspicious and cynical. My first thought was the remade version of The Rise and Fall of Reggie Perrin:
… the critics may have bestowed only mixed blessings, but I’ve loved the updating of hopeless, incompetent Doc Morrissey in the original series to ‘The Wellness Person’ – a character so wet that even the most absorbent kitchen towel would surely struggle.”
Jollier than Radiohead it may have been, but wellbeing was still the stuff of platitudes delivered by someone remote from the reality of those in dire need of it. We weren’t entirely in the realm of scented candles and essential oils – in relation to which I always have to remind myself that the adjective ‘essential’ has two meanings. But we were in a fantasy kingdom where strangers dispense a flimsy leaflet with the satisfied flourish of a fairy waiving a wand: laughing at the wand and the tutu might, under the circumstances, be the greater part of any therapeutic effect.