By all accounts, Michael Mosley should be a very happy man. He’s made an awful lot of people happy recently with his Fast Diet, which promises to strip the weight off you and make you an awful lot healthier via the outwardly simple route of eating hardly anything for two days out of seven every week. People keep coming up to him in the street and thanking him for changing their lives, in a good way, he tells me. “Although I only hear from people who like the diet,” he admits. You could easily see how this might make him happy.
Unfortunately, the Fast Diet had the reverse effect on me. He listens patiently as I tell him how much I hated it. Not eating all day, getting in a furious mood and only having 100g of chickpeas in a bit of tomato sauce was torture. I gave up after ten days. This is normal, apparently. For the weak-willed among us. “If you’re going to give up, most people give up within the first two weeks,” he says. “But if you progress, you find you quite enjoy the hunger pangs.” Really? Well, maybe. Mosley, at least, clearly enjoys them.
But then what’s not to like? He’s invented a bestselling diet, along with a bestselling diet book, still in the Top Ten. He’s got a lovely wife and four lively children. He’s got a prestigious, interesting and varied job at the BBC, presenting and producing Horizon. Some editions, like the Fast Diet one, have made him quite famous.
Long before that, he knew his work made a difference, probably even more so than if he had followed his original desire to become a doctor. (He trained at the Royal Free Hospital in London and planned to be a psychiatrist.) He was thanked by Nobel laureate Barry Marshall, for making a Horizon that revealed the proposed link between Helicobacter pylori and gastric ulcers. The discovery won Marshall the Nobel Prize and helped millions of sufferers. All in all, I imagine he’s pretty fulfilled.
He’s certainly very slim, and looks extremely healthy. He doesn’t even look his age (56). And yet Mosley says he is not content. He’s been an insomniac for 20 years. He wakes up at 3am and worries about things. He’s a pessimist. He thinks he’s a depressive. “I have a tendency to catastrophise,” he tells me. “So when I look into the future, I see all the things that are going to go wrong, rather than things that will probably go right.”
What sort of things worry him? Things that intermittently cause everyone vague anxiety, such as interest rates going up? Yes, things like that. He’s been grim about the whole property lark from the start. “I sold up and moved out of London because I was convinced house prices were going to crash.” Whoops. When I ask if he made zillions out of his diet bestseller, he says, “No,” in the sort of way that indicates the cheque is in the post. I bet he’s not banking on it yet. Everything in his life, it seems, is touched by a morose sense of imminent failure.
“When my programmes go out, I always think nobody is going to watch. In a traffic jam, I always think I’ll be stuck for hours.” So a right old doom merchant. Not remotely glass half full. He doesn’t know why he’s like this. At least, he didn’t know, before making his latest Horizon. “Nobody is truly a pessimist all the time, but I didn’t understand why I tended to revert to pessimism.”
In The Truth about Personality, Mosley tries to discover exactly why he (and others) are so negative, and also whether the situation can be changed. Because he’d much rather look on thebright side of life, frankly. In the show – not finished at the time of this interview – he meets neuroscientist Professor Elaine Fox. She considers that not only are optimism and pessimism fundamental traits of personality, but that they can be scientifically measured, and to a certain extent, altered by thought patterns.
Positivity and negativity essentially come from the amygdala, a tiny portion deep in the limbic system of our brain, says Mosley. And they dictate how full, or empty, your personal glass may be. The amygdala is responsible for “flight or fight” instincts, emotional learning, and more. “Stress, anxiety and negative thoughts are generated by some pretty deep feelings which go on in what I would characterise as our reptile brain.”
I know all about the reptile part of our brain. It’s what kicks in when I start shouting at the Junior Millards. “Mummy’s gone into Reptile Mode,” they murmur as I stamp round the house, throwing things and yelling about piano practice. Mosley nods sagely and agrees that when this irrational, emotional, instinctive part of our brain gets going, all sensible behaviour is overriden.
“It’s been around for 100,000 years or so,” he says. “The neomammalian, human part of our brain has developed on top of it. The reptile brain is a bit like a bungalow, onto which huge extensions have been added,” he continues helpfully. It may be small, and ancient, but it’s a powerful tool, according to Mosley. “When we have a choice between thinking emotionally or sensibly, we tend to go for the emotional. Some people say that our rational consciousness is little more than an accountant, making records of decisions that are actually taken somewhere else.”
Very little goes from the rational side down to the amygdala. Quite a lot goes from the amygdala up to the rational, however. And according to Mosley, dealing with messages from the amygdala is a bit like riding an elephant. “You can only influence its direction a little bit.”
However, in the programme he does try to shift the elephant, as it were. He doesn’t much like being a pessimist. “If your brain is skewed towards unhappiness and anxiety, it’s not a good thing. Most people would prefer to be an opti- mist, wouldn’t they? You get out of bed in the morning and think everything is going to be brilliant, don’t you, Rosie?” I confess this to be by and large the case. However, optimists do sometimes get woefully disappointed, I tell him.
“But then if it isn’t brilliant, you’re able to bounce back, aren’t you? It doesn’t stop you leaping out of bed the next morning.” He has a point. I am a born optimist. Micawberish, even. I have firm faith in the power of positive thinking.
Whereas Mosley is not – and he can prove it. Professor Fox wired up his brain to find out. Depressive types have more signals going on in the amygdala in the right hemisphere than in the left, and her experiment showed that Mosley was profoundly more active in that area. “It’s the same with fretful, discontented babies,” he says. “Doctors measured brain activity, and found they had significant cerebral asymmetry.”
So how did Mosley try to reverse the trend? He used two methods to combat his natural pessimism. The first is Cognitive Bias Modification. He looked at a screen for ten minutes a day, over several weeks. The screen showed a series of 15 snarly faces and one happy one. Each time his task was to identify the happy one. “Research shows if you look for happy faces in a setting, you’ll also look for happy events in your life.” So, this was about training the brain to look for the good stuff? Absolutely. “My brain tends to identify negativity. So I’m retraining it to look for positivity, without consciously thinking about it.”
The second is Mindfulness Meditation. Reconnect with the world. Look at the beauty around you. I tell him that yesterday I ran along a towpath in central London and suddenly, a beautiful, black, glossy cormorant popped out of the water (yes, in central London). “That’s exactly it! It’s about paying attention… to the cormorant or to the cup of coffee you’re drinking. Not allowing yourself to dwell on the past or worry about the future. Enjoying the experience of the present.”
He admits that to alter the way the brain functions is a long, slow job. “Even though you know what you have to do in order to be cheerful, and optimistic, it’s incredibly difficult to do it consistently, because we’re such creatures of habit, and very easily slip back into negative thought spirals.”
Science, though, he feels is on our side. “If you can measure optimism, if you have data about how the brain is working, then it reinforces these findings and people will be more convinced they work. And if you can find ways of making yourself happier, and more optimistic, that’s great.”
So is he happier now? Did the experiment work on him? “I’ll leave you to watch Horizon to see what actually happens,” he says. And smiles.
Horizon: The Truth about Personality is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2.