Monday, September 29, 2014

Power of Perspective

Here comes a report of another “new study” that tells us what most of us already know, that happiness depends on expectations.  It was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.”  The researchers wondered what influenced happiness and how a person’s happiness was influenced by life events.  In a similar way many people wondered how Robin Williams could have been depressed enough to commit suicide given that he was rich and famous and seemed to have everything anyone could want.

In a brief summary NBC reported:  “In a new study, researchers found that it didn't matter so much whether things were going well. It mattered whether they were going better than expected.”  The conclusion is very defensible, with excellent experimental design, based on MRI scans of 26 people and replicated in a smartphone survey of over 18,000 subjects.  The primary focus of the research was a better understanding and treatment of mood disorders rather than assessing happiness, but the implications of these findings are very interesting.

Although most of us already know this, it’s more on a subconscious level.  We seem to be obsessed with building high expectations for ourselves and being disappointed when we are let down by reality.  The two most overused words today are awesome and amazing.  Everything is described as awesome or amazing.  We hear it in advertising, news reports and casual conversation.  As one linguist pointed out in a discussion of changes to the English language, “Awesome used to describe the Taj Mahal; now it’s free parking downtown on Thursday nights.”  Do you see how we kid each other and ourselves by overbuilding expectations? 

Hype keeps growing in our society to the point that you don’t have to wait for a politician or adman to come along.  Just look to your friends, your kids, your Facebook contacts.  We act like brides before the big day – everything has to be perfect.  We act like kids at Christmas, tearing open presents and soon setting them aside to tear open the next.  Our world of toys, games, gadgets, special effects, gets more and more sophisticated, technical and intricate, but we can’t wait for the next iPhone or other product that will be even better.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that high expectations are always bad, but they must be realistic.  (And don't confuse high expectations with high standards.)  Sometimes what we already have is OK, often it’s better than OK but we are too busy looking ahead to the next big thing to appreciate it.  Every experience for our whole life is not guaranteed to be awesome or amazing.  When we unconsciously make such demands, we are bound to be less happy than we could be.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Couple of Quick Reminders

First is one more example of how failure to take personal responsibility leads to a loss of freedom.  When we can’t be trusted to act responsibly, the government or some advocacy group decides that it’s time to limit our options.

In the latest example, a group of “anti-addiction activists are calling for the Food and Drug Administration's top official to step down, saying the agency's policies have contributed to a national epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.”  What they object to is the recent approval of a powerful pain reliever called Zohydro. 

Their concern, which corresponds with that of some legislators, attorneys general and the FDA’s own medical advisors is that “deaths linked to the addictive medications, including OxyContin and Vicodin, have more than tripled over the last 20 years to an estimated 17,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports figures” and that approval of more powerful drugs will only exacerbate the issue.  The problem of prescription drug abuse is surpassing the problem of illegal drug use.  Continued approval of even more powerful drugs will, in their opinion lead to even more abuse and more deaths.

The other side of the coin is that even more powerful drugs when properly administered will lead to a better quality of life for those in severe pain.  The dual objectives of easing pain and reducing drug abuse are in conflict only because of the lack of personal responsibility among a large number of citizens – apparently well over 17,000.  Whenever we don’t behave responsibly, freedom is diminished.

Another reminder is my on-going theme that correlation is not causation and that certain news stories are often sloppily written and edited to ignore this fact.

In this HealthDay story about a study to determine a possible link between exposure to two common chemicals, a comment near the beginning states that “the study wasn’t designed to prove whether or not these phthalates actually caused the increased risk of asthma; it was only meant to see if there was an association between phthalates and asthma.”  Yet further on it says that “exposure in the womb to butylbenzyl phthalate caused a 72 percent increased risk of developing childhood asthma, while exposure to di-n-butyl phthalate caused a 78 percent increased risk.” [Emphasis added.]  A least one newspaper cut off a reprint of this article shortly after this point without including the further clarification about the limited sample size and that the environment where it was conducted, near New York City, is different in that it already has a higher incidence of asthma, which “opens the possibility that something other than phthalates may have contributed.”

In a shorter explanation the Boston Globe gets it right by more accurately wording the take-away as:  “Children born to mothers who were exposed to high levels of phthalates, chemicals found in common household products, may have a high risk of developing asthma.”  The difference is subtle, but significant.

These examples serve as another warning about how careful Americans must be in their behavior if they expect the country to get back on the right track, careful to accept responsibility, not blaming addiction or outside forces for problems, and careful to be skeptical of scientific research, especially when reading articles that contain contradictory information.  Much of our current behavior can be excused as human nature or mere carelessness, but as the world gets more complex, we must advance with it or become victims of that complexity, losing more freedom and making more ill-advised decisions when it comes to our health and wellbeing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Special Offers

A couple of personal experiences the other day reminded me that some so-called special offers are not so special when seen under the harsh light of critical thinking.

As I filled my car with gasoline, I noticed on the pump a special deal from the gasoline credit card company.  If I used their card to buy my gas, I would get 5 cents off per gallon.  That sounded like a good deal until I remembered that the credit card I used, like several other cards in circulation, gives me 1% back every time I use it.  At a little over $3 per gallon, one percent is a little more than 3 cents per gallon, so now the gas-pump deal is down to less than 2 cents per gallon.  BUT like many other credit cards, mine gives me a special 5% bonus on gasoline purchases for one quarter of the year.  I was really getting over 15 cents per gallon back, which doesn’t make me feel good about the total I pay to fill the tank, but it does kind of blow away the gas-pump deal, doesn’t it?

If the pump could talk it might say, “Oh yeah, but what about the rest of the year.”  Well, Mr. Pump, let me tell you.  If I save 5% for a quarter of the year and 1% for the other three quarters, the annual average is 2%, that is (5+1+1+1)/4.  So, at over $3 per gallon, I still save an average of over 6 cents.  My card is free and I know of others with the same features, because they send me their promotions almost once a week in the mail.  Critical thinking certainly takes away the lure of the special offer.

As I drive away from the pump and turn on the radio, I hear a guy telling me that the stock market is bound to go down (sooner or later) and that it’s safer and wiser to send him my money to invest in precious metals.  The special deal here is that just for calling in, they will send you a gram of pure silver!  Wow, pure silver!  The problem is a gram is a very little bit.  The value of a gram of pure silver is easy to research and, though it sounds impressive, it is worth slightly more than a postage stamp.  Saved again by critical thinking!

So if these special offers are so easy to deflate with a little critical thinking and a little math that most people should be able to do in their heads, why do they persist?  The answer is clear.  There is not enough of it going on.  People don’t listen particularly closely and then they don’t do the simple math or simple research required to ensure that what is presented as a good deal really is.  When these tempting offers lure them in, they blame the advertisers or big banks or big whatever for taking advantage of them, calling for more government oversight and consumer protection instead of taking responsibility and admitting their error.  

Think of how much better off America would be if many more people thought like this, and we all taught our children to think like this.  Skeptical children picking apart their sales pitches instead of buying in and nagging their parents would be the sugary cereal, toy, and fast food companies biggest nightmare.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Shame on Us!

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, critical thinking provides a balanced view of pride, how it can be effective as a motivator but makes no sense when applied to something you can’t control.  It’s healthy to be proud of accomplishments, but foolish and delusional to be proud of characteristics you were born with such as eye color, left-handedness, sexual orientation, height, race, or nationality.  As a left handed person, you can be proud of the accomplishments of other left handed people, but that seems like a waste of time since it has no bearing on your own accomplishments.  As we pick someone to model ourselves after, why do they have to have similar physical characteristics to us?  Wouldn’t it be wiser to model ourselves after good role models regardless of appearance?

On the other side of the coin is shame.  In today’s society, there is no place for shame, embarrassment or failure.  Kids are told they are special and unique, which is true, but they are told this to the point where it overrides the learning available from missteps and failures.  They are praised for everything they do.  They grow up to be disappointed when professors, employers and their social networks don’t pick up where their parents left off with praise and awards just for participating, regardless of results or effort.  Some parents are afraid or too involved in other activities to properly discipline their kids.  It makes a cute news story, recognized in Time magazine and other places, when a convicted drunk driver uses his creativity in a mug shot.

Here is an excerpt from Quiet:  The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain.  “Consider the mechanism by which kids acquire their sense of right and wrong.  Many psychologists believe that children develop conscience when they do something inappropriate and are rebuked by their caregivers.  Disapproval makes them feel anxious; and since anxiety is unpleasant, they learn to steer clear of antisocial behavior.  This is known as internalizing their parents’ standards of conduct, and its core is anxiety.  But what if some kids are less prone to anxiety than others?  … Often the best way to teach these children values is to give them positive role models.”

Now look at how society functions as we are overwhelmed with messages about self-esteem, compassion, humanitarianism, respect, avoiding offending anyone and the plight of victims.  Whenever some one or some group is perceived as being disadvantaged, instead of asking what behavior led to those consequences and what lessons they need to learn to avoid them in the future, we choose to rescue them, negating the opportunity for learning and enticing others to follow the same path.

Except for smokers, who for some reason have been singled out for a kind of public shunning, we hop on board when others look for an excuse.  We try to blame our problems on the big institutions that talked us into the bad behavior instead of admitting that the final decision was ours.  We blame fast food, big banks, Wall Street, the rich one-percent, drug companies, insurance companies, religious extremists, and more – yes, even big tobacco, because the smokers shouldn’t really be blamed – just isolated.  Then we look to Congress and the President expecting that they will punish the evildoers and bail us, but in reality, the government can’t fix the problems because they can’t legislate good decision-making.  They don’t tell us it’s our fault, because first, they don’t get it, second, they get the same good feelings by playing the rescuer, and third, they fear offending the voters.

Like the drug abuse problem in America, we concentrate on the supply side, pursuing and convicting the pushers while supporting the users with free needles and police trained to treat overdoses.  American society shames the wrong behavior.  We instead shame and condemn the constructive feedback or even gentle criticism aimed at people who deserve that criticism for poor judgment and erroneous behavior.  To do so is labeled offensive, uncompassionate, mean-spirited, disrespectful, uncaring – but it is very much needed!  This censure of disapproval and “caring” support of bad behavior leads inevitably to more of the same.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Perspective and Entertainment

Last week the controversy about Ray Rice, the NFL and domestic abuse got new legs when the video of the battery on the elevator was released.  Many people felt renewed shock and began calling for the resignations of the league commissioner, the coach and the team owner.  They wanted to punish everyone involved and demanded new attention on the issue of domestic violence.  Now the FBI along with the US Senate may be organizing investigations of the actions of the league – what did they know and when did they know it?

Outrage at domestic violence is understandable and efforts should be made to reduce the incidents, to educate and to punish the offenders; but using perspective calls up another question, a question ignored by media and pundits, a question that may be the most important one:  Why is Ray Rice, or any other athlete for that matter, considered a role model?

If any other ordinary individual had committed this act, it would have been equally appalling, but it would not have been front page, national news.  It would have been covered by the local news and (unfortunately) forgotten much sooner.  Because it involves a person who carries a football for 16 weekends a year it’s deemed important.  He is being a bad example to our kids who want to grow up to be like him.  The main reason they do is that he is famous and made a lot of money, tens of millions of dollars, for carrying a football.

Step back and think about it for a minute.  Our society values and honors and idolizes people who play games and who entertain us in movies, on the stage and on television.  We think they are so great that we tune in to watch them congratulate each other at awards shows.  This is upside down!  We pay lip service to teachers, firefighters, police, veterans, innovators, hard-working Americans, even parents and grandparents; but when it’s time to put down our money, we over pay and look up to baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, television and movie stars.  We buy jerseys and souvenirs, pester them for autographs, pay large amounts of money for tickets, spend inordinate amounts of our free time watching games, building fantasy teams while following the latest news about them and support the paparazzi by buying the magazines and watching TV shows that feature celebrity gossip.  (Sometimes it seems like we pay more attention to their marriages than we do to our own!)

We have so much free time and disposable income that we can afford to squander it on continual entertainment.  Whereas a few hundred years ago the main concern in life for all but a privileged few was survival, today our lives are filled with distractions and entertainment to the point where we have to carry it all with us on our phones!  People rarely stop to think how lucky we are to have such easy lives.  Entertainment has become a new subsistence, almost as important as food and air.  We feel empty and deprived without it.  We raise the best, or at least the best-hyped, entertainers to high levels of fame and fortune.  We give them power over our lives that borders on worship and continue to be shocked when some act like they translate this adoration into permission to act above the law.

In an ideal world where everyone (or even most) had perspective we would tell our kids, “This inconsequential man hit his girlfriend.  It’s wrong; don’t act that way.”  That would be the end of it.  Until then it’s important to ask why it takes a celebrity to call attention to unacceptable behavior, and why we seem disproportionately surprised and outraged when they do.