Friday, November 30, 2012

Testosterone and the Midlife Crisis

Recently a number of stories further highlighted problems in the areas of discipline and responsibility.

A few days before Thanksgiving came a story on new research that suggests apes, our genetically closest relatives in the animal kingdom, experience a midlife low point in happiness just like humans.  “The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest the dip in happiness that frequently occurs during the mid-40s for today's humans may have its roots in physical or hormonal changes, rather than the stresses of modern culture.”  They imply that we shouldn’t feel so bad about feeling sadder in our 40s, that it may have biological links.  My fear is that we have given middle-aged men (and women) ammunition to rationalize their bad decisions by claiming that it’s in their DNA.  Where there is lack of discipline, any opportunity to deny personal responsibility, such as genetics or addiction, becomes a basis for rationalization.

Surprisingly, the same source, CBS News, ran a story 17 months earlier where research showed the midlife crisis is substantially a myth.  This segment on Sunday Morning says, “as it turns out, our assumptions are wrong…for most men it's more fiction than fact. Very few men - perhaps only 10 to 12 percent - have anything approaching a crisis.”

Despite this, the article goes on to report on men’s efforts to deny the effects of aging, to discover the fountain of youth.  In their words: “Sales of testosterone products have shot up as if they are on, well, steroids - from $550 million in 2006, to $1.3 billion in 2010.”  We continue to encounter those promotions today on radio and TV, in magazines and newspapers.

Advertisers promote testosterone as a new miracle cure, too good to be true.  Rarely, though, do we hear about the side effects and dangers.  Approaching it from a behavioral viewpoint we see those companies trying to prey on the general weaknesses in discipline, our tendency to look for the pill or the shot instead of doing the harder, lifestyle-oriented work.  There are, in fact, dangers and side effects as pointed out at the end of that article, plus here and here, including blood clots, infertility, liver damage, and an increased risk of arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation, heart attack, angina, or congestive heart failure.

Men who are feeling a little down about getting old shouldn’t blame it on genetics or try to find an easy way out.  The discipline and responsibility developed in facing aging by following a healthier life style will yield good consequences in many other areas, and perhaps even set a good example for the next generation.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Don't Ask Your Doctor

We’ve seen and heard so many of those drug commercials that they’ve almost become a punch line:  “Ask your doctor if [fill-in-the-blank drug] is right for you.”  This is an attempt by pharmaceutical companies to bypass doctors and increase sales by appealing directly to Americans with a demonstrated weakness in the area of discipline.

Discipline is about doing the work to achieve a desired result instead of seeking the easy way out, the path of least resistance.  In finances it’s about our tendency to spend money now on the things we want, choosing immediate satisfaction rather than delaying gratification, even if it means putting our home ownership at risk.  When it comes time to pay for college or retire, we look for some government program to ease the pain, the consequences of our inability to save.  In business it’s about emphasizing short-term results over the long-term benefits, the relentless pursuit of “doing more with less,” which results in lower morale and reduced innovation.  Business managers search for only fully qualified applicants to avoid training costs as well as the harder, but higher-value work of coaching and mentoring.  All these choices represent failures in discipline.

In healthcare it’s about the tendency to downplay risks and warnings and to look for a pill, a supplement or a simple operation to make us feel better.  If a doctor recommends more exercise, quitting smoking or other lifestyle change, we favor the pill to fix us up quickly, so we can go on living the same way, making the same choices as before.  Even a simple requirement like adding more fiber to our diet spawns a host of alternatives.  We grab a cup of coffee and a donut for breakfast, relying instead on a supplement to provide the needed fiber.  We don’t take the little extra time for a bowl of cereal, despite knowing that “fiber should come from plant foods, according to the American Dietetic Association, rather than fiber supplements.”  We take recommendations from friends and co-workers despite knowing that supplements are not regulated by the FDA, “and the formulations can vary from one manufacturer to another, so you can never be sure that what you're taking is really the same substance that others are writing or talking about.”  Instead of getting enough sleep, increasing numbers of Americans turn to energy drinks with potentially dangerous levels of caffeine.  (The annual number of emergency room visits linked to energy drinks jumped tenfold from 2005 to 2009.)  A lot of risk accompanies these failures in discipline.

When we ask our doctors, we put them on the spot.  The drug may not be the best choice.  At this point the doctor can give us the lecture about how we should take better care of ourselves, or else take the easy way out for them by writing a prescription.  They must choose between disappointing or angering a patient/customer or just giving in.  The drug companies count on this pressure, betting that some proportion of doctors will choose to avoid the often-fruitless argument.  So when we hear that “prescriptions for painkilling drugs have nearly tripled in two decades, and unintentional overdose deaths from these drugs now exceed those from heroin and cocaine combined,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise.  It’s just another symptom of America’s need to improve overall behavior in the dimension of discipline. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Real One Percent

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the US.  Although some people think it’s about watching football, over-eating or sitting outside for hours to be first to the bargains, Thanksgiving is really about perspective.  We are asked to stop for a moment to be grateful for the good things in our lives:  family, friends, health, basic necessities, and living in America.

Despite talk about a widening gap between the rich and the rest, most of us are relatively well off.  Relative to the whole world, not just our isolated corner, more than half of the top 1% by income live in the US.  Spending power for people in most other counties pales in comparison.  We should spend some time being thankful for what we have instead of envying those with more.

We should even be thankful for things we take for granted, like indoor plumbing. Last Monday was World Toilet Day, to highlight the need for basic sanitation for almost one-third of the world’s population.  It sounds to us like a joke, but it’s deadly serious.  I found this article with a good summary of the situation.

“Despite all the advances in technology and modern conveniences, over 2 billion people around the world still do not have access to toilets. More than 1 billion people defecate out in the open! Lack of adequate sanitation is not only humiliating, it is a serious health issue that causes thousands of deaths every day.

Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death for children under 5 which is attributed to the lack of accessible toilets. 1 child dies every 20 seconds.”  Without perspective, these facts are easy to ignore.  Even average Americans have a lot to be thankful for.

On a personal note, there’s not enough space to list all that I am thankful for, but I want to mention my gratitude to you, my readers.  When I started this project in June 2011, I was lucky if 4 or 5 people read my opinions each day.  By the beginning of this year I reached my first 1,000 pageviews, and by the middle of July I was up to 4,000.  As of yesterday morning I surpassed 20,000. with pageviews running at a pace of about 50,000 per year, most from the US, but also from 60 other countries.  Now that’s peanuts compared to the big websites, but still I am thrilled to be able to share my thoughts with so many.  So thank you, all!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sweet Revenge

Since the election, a drive has begun to secede from the Union.  By now residents of all 50 states have submitted petitions to the White House.  Now this is just plain silly.  But there is a way for those dissatisfied with the outcome of the election to get sweet revenge, and it very simple – live within your budget!

Recent financial news reports a 0.3 percent drop in consumer spending in October, the first decline in 4 months.  Part was blamed on Super-storm Sandy but the administration and corporations hope that the “sales slump will probably reverse as brighter job prospects, rising home prices and sturdier finances boost household confidence. At the same time, [the] report showed Americans bought fewer non-essentials, which may reflect mounting concern over possible tax changes and limited wage growth that pose risks for the biggest part of the economy.”  Since it accounts for over 70% of economic activity, a belt-tightening in the area of consumer spending is a major concern.

Now suppose nearly half of the consumers decided to cut back, to get back to their values, to spend on needs and on those things that bring real happiness, rather than on temporary satisfaction of an impulse or desire.  Suppose nearly half the nation increased their 401(k) contribution or built up a college fund for their children.  Suppose they cancelled vacation plans and spent time closer to home, buying locally and spending less.  Suppose they put off buying a new car for an extra 6 months.  Suppose they cut back on restaurant meals in favor of eating at home and ate less in general.  Suppose they took a walk around the block instead of going shopping to replace perfectly good items in their closets with whatever is newer and trendier.  Suppose people continued from the good start in September by paying down expensive credit card debt and put off new purchases until they could afford them instead of charging them based on an expectation of future increases in pay or home equity.  What would happen?

Certainly the economy would not crash.  Not enough people would go along with this plan to make a major impact.  On the other hand, those who did would be doing their share to not support an administration they oppose.  In addition they would be happier and less stressed, among those least concerned with the fiscal cliff - the latest crisis that the news media and Washington are panicking over.  They would be learning to live in closer harmony with their core values of faith, family, etc. by taking a long, hard look at how they may have been wasting money on products and services that over the long run don’t add value to their lives.  They would be exercising more discipline, saying no to their children and especially to themselves, adjusting to more realistic expectations, not chasing after material possessions or temporary entertainment that they believe will make them happy, but soon fade, overshadowed by the next wave of hype-induced yearning.

I’ve always told people that my comments here are not political, and if the election had gone the opposite way, I would be advocating this course of "revenge" to a different disgruntled group.  In fact, my hope is that enough people adopt this course of behavior, strong in perspective and discipline, so that others (of all political beliefs) see the wisdom of the decision and join in.  Let's make it cool to be financially responsible, thinner, less harried, and less intent on spending just to impress others or feel better about ourselves.  It’s the right thing to do, the road to a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life and a lot smarter than waiting for either political party to solve our problems.