About As Useful As A 40 Year Old Woman!

Half watching the US comedy VEEP a couple of nights ago, someone uttered the phrase ‘About as useful as a 40 year old woman!’ which quickly snapped up my attention. I looked at my husband mouth a gasp!

I don’t like that I’ve just turned 40. In fact I hate it. I do suddenly feel like I don’t have as much point in the world. Of course this is very superficial. I know that in reality I’m being ungrateful and childish, after all I’m a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, I have a career and so on and so forth – but that doesn’t make it feel alright. On frequent occasions (usually when I look in the mirror) it makes me sad, saps the hope out of me and as a result makes me much less fun to be around.

So why this fear? In today’s world I am only half way through my life. And if I’m lucky enough not to suffer from ill health, I have more of my life left to be useful than I’ve already had (given that we’re more or less dependent on our parents until we’re 18). With a lot more experience and better judgement to boot. The fear, in large part stems from the primitive brain, but not in the way we might imagine.

I, and those like me, am less concerned about death itself than living a life where we don’t belong. Our brains have evolved to encourage belonging, and ideally, belonging to the most superior group. Fifty thousand years ago when our brains stopped evolving the most superior group consisted of attractive young adults all at the peak of their reproductive health (N.B. the women’s window for this was narrower than mens). This in biological terms was the most likely route to survival of the genes. Fit, young, healthy and attractive couples produce healthy offspring and strong parents were better able to nurture and protect their babies.

Today, this is not a concern (e.g. a 72 year old has just given birth in India). The more primitive parts of our brain however still think it is, and the world around us exacerbates the feeling that we no longer belong. Not so much through comic one liners (which in context are actually quite funny) but because the majority of media outlets produce images of fit, young and attractive people, predominantly female. As a result we are continually reminded that as 40 year old women we are no longer good enough to be part of the ‘superior’ in-crowd. We have been rejected and there is no way to get back in, which can make us feel pretty desperate.

Neuroscientific evidence shows us that the brain responds in a similar way to rejection as it does to severe pain, making it something we will avoid at all costs. And when we are in pain, or under threat our brains respond by moving into an emotionally driven survival mode. Hence for people like me the thought of turning 40 doesn’t stand a chance of any rational perspective.

The irony is, that once we are able to step back from this need (or accept being 40), happiness levels increase, as we get older. We are more able to manage our primitive drivers, or in everyday language we are less worried about what other people think and more able to deal with our emotions. We are also better at working from our more advanced neocortex, seeking purpose and meaning and giving back to society which are also factors that have a massive impact on living a happier life. So life generally gets better.

What’s the moral of this story? Firstly, if we could (me as the prime candidate) learn to manage our primitive drivers more effectively we would be much more comfortable about aging. And secondly the world around us supports the wrong bits of our brain, particularly given our ageing population. We need more stories of older people succeeding in the workplace and beyond, starting new things, and looking great without plastic surgery etcetera etcetera. That way, at least when we do get older, the group that belong to looks like a good place to be.



MacDonald G, M.R Leary. Why Does Social Exclusion Hurt? The Relationship Between Social and Physical Pain. Psychological Bulletin 2005, Vol. 131, No. 2, 202–223

Novembre G, Silani G, Zanon M. Empathy for social exclusion involves the sensory-discriminative component of pain: a within-subject fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2014. 

Simring K, S. Age Brings Happiness. Scientific American Mind. May 2013

Carstensen LL, Turan B, Scheibe S, Ram N, Ersner-Hershfield H, Samanez-Larkin GR, et al. Emotional experience improves with age: Evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging. 2011;26:21–33

Carstensen, L L, Turan B, Scheibe, S, Ram, N, Ersner-Hershfield, H, Samanez-Larkin G R, Brooks K P, Nesselroade J R. Emotional experience improves with age: Evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging, Vol 26(1), Mar 2011, 21-33

Why Testing Young Children is Wrong!


The number of parents who are desperately frustrated with a broken school system in the UK is steadily rising, with over 40,000 signing a petition to boycott primary school tests, some going as far as taking children out of school in a day of protest (May 3rd 2016). Parents believe that the tests are placing too much pressure on children and teachers, and restricting the overall breadth and versatility of the curriculum.

At the other end of the spectrum sit government ministers who are looking at achieving short-term outcomes: test results that place the UK amongst the best education systems in the world.

But what are ‘the best education systems’ measured against and do these measures even fit with what success in life equates to?

As an occupational psychologist I spend a large part of my job assessing and developing people in organisations toward being more ‘successful’. Much of my time is focused on leaders specifically, which is relevant as we expect leaders to role model optimal behaviour. What I, volumes of research and thousands of years of history has found is that whilst it’s important for leaders to have a solid level of education (which unsurprisingly doesn’t rest on a detailed knowledge of grammatical rules as expected by SATs), without other essential ingredients they simply do not succeed.

What are these critical ingredients? The list beyond academic results is long but includes: curiosity, emotional intelligence, resilience, self-awareness, an intuitive as well as data driven read of the environment etcetera. None of these factors are covered by SATs tests. In fact the pressure and on-going conditions required to undertake the tests actually diminishes capability for achieving in many of these areas. Children don’t have the space to learn how to learn for themselves, it’s almost like teaching a dog how to bark to a song, it doesn’t mean they can sing, understand the music or replicate the skill in any other setting. Aside from limiting children’s own success in life this will lead to reduced innovation and citizens with a limited ability to give anything back past correcting a document or adding up the accounts.

Beyond all of this success is the core desire every parent has for their child: for them to be happy, well-balanced individuals who grow up to contribute to society. But this too is squeezed out of an education system focused on narrow academic requirements.

Ultimately, testing both directly and indirectly derails children’s future ‘success’. In the short term, while it may provide ministers with the results that they need, it places undue stress on teachers, children, parents and even the education structure itself. Why? Well in simple terms:

  1. It stresses children and parents. 

Whilst Education Minister Nick Gibb claims that he’s “been to many schools where the children don’t even know they’re taking the tests” arguing that “they don’t have an effect on the children themselves because they have no consequences for the children,” he is greatly mistaken. Research has shown that tests impact children in ways that Mr Gibb, not being a psychologist himself, is unaware. Findings reveal that in primary school children pressure from tests can lead to prolonged anxiety and other behaviours that may not seem directly linked to testing such as crying, throwing tantrums and even vomiting (Tim Urdan, assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, USA). This creates a negative cycle of stress and anxiety within the home which can escalate to cause ongoing psychological problems.

  1. It stresses teachers.

Introducing increased volumes of (unnecessary*) material into a teachers workload puts them under stress. Sue Roffey, Adjunct Professor in Psychology at the University of Western Sydney found that increased stress in teachers leads to a higher number of pupils needing intensive support for behavioural difficulties and learning needs, has a negative effect on pupils mental and social behaviour and decreases teachers ability to perform at their optimum. By proxy this all greatly diminishes what children learn.

  1. It creates a system that can only cater to a ‘one size fits all’ approach. 

Focus on testing strains an overloaded system that struggles to cope with the process and volume of material required. Such an environment doesn’t allow for individual differences in learning style due to what ends up being a ‘force fed’ method of teaching to get through all of the detailed material (such as detailed and unhelpful grammar rules). This prevents diverse types of people from flourishing, undermines children’s academic confidence and ultimately impacts self-worth.

Fundamentally every parent strives for the well-being, self-esteem and happiness of their child; really it’s what we all want from life. Ideally, a great education and passion for life long learning would go hand in hand with that and then, finally, good results. But maybe it’s simply not possible to have all of these things? 

Finnish statistics would beg to differ. Finland, according to traditional measures of education systems (and those that Minister are aspiring to) are amongst the best in the world coming 3rd in reading and 5th in maths (source: OECD PISA 2009 results). But at the same time the Finnish are ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world (source: World Happiness Report 2016). And interestingly the school system encourages focuses on problem solving skills, encouraging curiosity and applying learning to the real world. Learning styles that produce good leaders and good citizens. Unlike our system:

  1. Children rarely take exams or do homework before their teens. In fact there’s only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken when children are 16. This takes pressure off the children, parents and teachers.
  2. Teachers are nurtured rather than pressurized taking 2 hours a week out for professional development and all taking a master’s degree funded by the government. In addition, the national curriculum is only a broad guideline allowing teachers the freedom to optimize their own potential and individual style. As a consequence they have satisfied, educated and well-developed teachers which equals satisfied, educated and well-developed pupils.
  3. The difference between weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the World (source: OECD PISA report). because the system is flexible enough to allow for individual differences to be catered for.

So what’s the answer? We need to look beyond the short-term approach taken by our government. Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education expresses his panicked and knee jerk reaction saying: “We’ve got to do something, we’ve got to act early, and a health check at seven is a good idea.” This hardly sounds like a strategic perspective or that of a strong leader.

Tests are simply pushing our system to its breaking point, both physically in terms of the structure and mentally in terms of all those concerned. This does not bode well for the future of education in the UK or the prospect of healthy, happy, well-balanced children. We need our Ministers to be brave enough to slow down, stop panicking and look at the bigger, broader and longer-term picture. Leveraging learning from where things have and are working elsewhere like Finland and rapidly taking a dramatic but considered change in direction.

* I say unnecessary as I have struggled immensely pouring over fronted adverbials with my 9-year-old daughter. It’s difficult to a) help explain the nonsensical grammar rule that neither I, nor any of my very well-educated friends have come across or b) convince her of the point when I see no point in it myself.