Author Archives: Maren

Eat the Right Carbs

All green plants produce carbohydrates – sugar and starch. Through cooking, chewing, and enzymatic action during digestion, these substances transform into glucose molecules that the body uses for energy. When consumed in their whole, unrefined states, carbohydrate-rich foods contribute life-sustaining vitamins, minerals, enzymes, protein, fat, and fiber. They also moderate the speed at which glucose enters the bloodstream.

Like any finely tuned machine, our bodies want a steady supply of fuel to function at peak efficiency. They don’t want to be inundated with more than they can handle any more than they want to run dry. When we eat sugars and starches in their natural states alongside healthy protein and fat, they’re digested slowly, and the resulting sugars enter the bloodstream at a measured pace over a period of hours. The body gets exactly what it needs, when it needs it.

When we eat processed foods, sugars enter the bloodstream in a rush. The body kicks insulin and related hormone production into high gear to get rid of the excess. Excess insulin may work a little too well, plunging blood sugar lower than its desired state. The resulting hunger pangs may trigger further consumption of processed foods, which starts that negative spiral all over again. Eventually, the body stops responding to insulin and accumulates an unhealthy levels of sugar in the bloodstream, a condition known as diabetes. And because processed foods lack the vitamins, minerals, fiber, et al associated with whole foods, the body must deplete its nutrient reserves to sustain life and/or suffer the ill effects of nutrient deficiencies.

We exacerbate our processed foods sugar rush with direct consumption of sugars and syrups. Sugar used to be a luxury item whose delights were experienced sparingly. In 1700, inhabitants of the developed world consumed a mere 4 pounds of sugar per person per annum. By 1800, this figure rose to 18 pounds and topped 60 pounds by 1900. According to the USDA, 123.2 pounds per person of caloric sweeteners were available for consumption by U.S. consumers in 2019, down from a high of 151.5 pounds in 1999. Excessive consumption of sugar has been associated with a gaggle of adverse health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, obesity, bone loss, and dental decay.

Unfortunately, carbohydrates have been tarred with the ill-effects of processed foods and sugars to the extent that so-called dietary gurus started promoting high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal plans as the way forward. This approach fails to acknowledge the crucial metabolic functions that carbohydrates provide. They deliver the fuel necessary to maintain our metabolism and keep us moving. They prevent ketosis, a physiological state in which there is an excess of ketones in the blood or urine (caused when fat is not burned appropriately). And, by attending to the body’s energy needs, they free protein to perform its life-sustaining functions. (Read last week’s post.)

carbohydratesIn a well-balanced diet, at least 50% of one’s daily calories should come from carbohydrates, according to nutritionist Roberta Anding. These carbs ought to take the form of whole foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds (sparingly due to high fat content).

Aim for carbs that have a low glycemic index. The glycemic index measures how quickly your blood sugar rises after consumption of food. A high number indicates rapid conversion to sugar; a low number suggests a slow rise in blood sugar. Carbohydrates with a high glycemic index present the greatest risk of chronic disease when consumed in quantity.

Foods with a low glycemic index include:

  • Fruits: apples, berries, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit
  • Non-starchy vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, spinach, tomatoes
  • Whole grains: quinoa, couscous, barley, buckwheat, oats
  • Legumes: lentils, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans

Food with a high glycemic index include:

  • Bread: white bread, bagels, pita pockets
  • Rice: white rice, jasmine rice, arborio rice (i.e., the rice used in risotto)
  • Cereals: instant oats, breakfast cereals
  • Pasta and noodles: lasagna, spaghetti, ravioli, macaroni, fettuccine
  • Starchy vegetables: mashed potatoes, potatoes, french fries
  • Baked goods: cake, doughnuts, cookies, croissants, muffins
  • Snacks: crackers, microwave popcorn, chips, pretzels
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages: soda, fruit juice, sports drinks

Protein: The Body’s Build and Repair Squad

Americans give a great deal of thought to protein. Grocers and health food stores serve up a wide variety of protein drinks, protein powders, and protein bars. Several weight loss “experts” tout the benefits of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. Elite athletes credit protein for their impressive musculature. But is protein really worth all that fuss?

proteinWithout a doubt, we could not survive without protein. Our bodies build a wide variety of proteins using amino acids per instructions encoded in our DNA. There are nine essential amino acids which must be included daily in the foods we eat. Our bodies can manufacture the remaining eleven nonessential amino acids should they be absent from our diets.

Protein’s primary function is to build and repair tissue. This role takes on elevated importance during periods of rapid growth, intense exercise, and recovery from injury or surgery. Protein also supports immune function, synthesizes enzymes, acts as a chemical messenger, serves as a transport mechanism, and maintains fluid balance by preventing leakage in the space between cells. In a pinch, protein can provide a source of energy if the body lacks sufficient carbohydrates for the tasks at hand. However, nutrition expert Roberta Anding likens this usage to burning $100 bills in a fireplace to heat a room. It’ll take care of business but reflects a really poor use of resource.

Our bodies need daily deposits of amino acids; we don’t store them. Beef, poultry, fish, dairy products, and soy have been deemed “complete proteins” as they serve up adequate quantities of all nine essential amino acids. Folks who pursue a whole foods plant based diet get the requisite quantity of essential amino acids eating a variety of complementary – e.g., rice and beans, peanut and whole wheat bread. Such foods need to be eaten over the course of a day; they don’t have to be combined at every meal.

So, how much protein do we need?

The Daily Reference Intake (DRI) for a normal adult’s daily protein intake is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or .36 grams per pound. That figure translates into 54 grams of protein for the average 150-pound adult. According to Anding, endurance athletes need 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per day, and strength-training athletes need 1.6-1.6 grams of protein per day. Infants and adolescents also need elevated protein intake: 2g/Kg daily for infants, and 1 g/Kg daily for adolescents.

How much protein are we getting?

According to a survey by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, our average daily protein intake came to 56+14 grams in young children, 91+22 grams in adults, and 66+7 grams in the elderly. Unfortunately, excess protein does not translate into elevated function. If eaten in lieu of carbohydrates, it creates inefficiency in the production of energy. If it simply amounts to  excess daily calories, it contributes to weight gain.

If you are a “normal” adult and follow a balanced whole foods plant based diet, you will get the right amount of protein in a form that is least disruptive to the body’s controlled alkaline blood serum. If, on the other hand, you like being an omnivore, take a lesson from the world’s longest-lived human beings. Consider limiting your intake of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy to 10% or less of daily calories.

Drink Water!

When we think about nourishing our bodies, most of us fixate on the foods we eat. Which diet should I follow? Which will give me the right balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat? Should I take supplements and, if so, which ones? Amidst all this musing, we give little thought to an incredibly important element of our daily intake: WATER.

As adults, we are all roughly 50-70% water by weight. Water is the primary component of all body parts and plays a major role in numerous life-sustaining functions. According to the “rule of threes,” we can survive only 3 minutes without breathable air, 3 days without drinkable water, and 3 weeks without food.

So, what does water do for us?

glass of waterWater produces saliva that begins the breakdown of foods in our mouths. Drinking water before, during, and after a meal supports healthy digestion. It also gives the stomach a means to register fullness, thereby moderating the impulse to overeat.

Water helps dissolve vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from our food. It uses the bloodstream to transport these nutrients to every cell in our bodies. It keeps our cell membranes moist and provides the means for them to grow, reproduce, and thrive. It also helps our skin look its best.

Water helps excrete waste from our systems through sweat, urination, and bowel movements. Appropriate water intake is protective against urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and hemorrhoids. And when we consume the recommended daily dose of fiber to feed our good gut bacteria, adequate water ensures that all this roughage doesn’t turn to “concrete” on its way out of our systems!

Water lubricates our joints and cushions sensitive tissues in our spinal cords and brains. It’s the body’s built-in shock absorber. The brain also uses water to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters.

Water regulates our internal body temperature through sweat and respiration. And since breath is naturally humidified, we expel water even when our bodies chug along at the optimal temperature.

How much water do we need?

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine deems an adequate daily fluid intake to be 15.5 cups for men and 11.5 cups for women. These recommendations account for water from all sources – water, other beverages, and food. As such, the “rule of thumb” of consuming eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day should generally do the trick.

Water intake needs to increase if living in a hot, humid climate or exercising strenuously to account for the body’s water loss via sweat to lower body temperature. Airplane travel can lead to dehydration due to the dry cabin air. You also need to drink more water if feverish or subject to fluid loss through vomit or diarrhea.

Note: For each pound of body weight lost in exercise, you need to rehydrate with 16-24 ounces of fluid. A high quality sports drink helps replenish fluid and electrolytes while providing a source of calories for fuel.

How do I know if I’m getting the right amount of water?

Check out the color of your urine first thing in the morning. If you are adequately hydrated, it will look like pale lemonade. If there’s very little discharge or it looks like apple juice, it’s time to pour yourself a tall glass of water! Other signs of dehydration include unexpected weight loss, confusion, dry skin that’s hot to the touch, and elevated core body temperature.

Note: There’s a lag time between the onset of dehydration and thirst. If you are thirsty, you are already running low on fluids.

Is it possible to drink too much fluid?

The gastrointestinal track can only handle 1-2 liters of water at a time. Flood your system with fluids and your kidneys can’t keep up with the deluge. The resulting overhydration dilutes sodium in the blood – a condition called hyponatremia – which could lead to a life-threatening medical emergency, such as cerebral edema.

Renewed Focus on Nutrition

For me, the start of a new year always tees up the opportunity to launch self-improvement initiatives. Diet and nutrition head this year’s list. Though I’ve read and have written quite a bit about the subject, there’s always more to learn. My guide for the next several posts will be Roberta H. Anding, MS, RD/LD, CSSD, CDE, Assistant Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and a clinical dietician with over 30 years’ experience. She teaches an outstanding course entitled Nutrition Made Clear on Great Courses Plus.

What is this topic so important?

As a nation, we’re becoming increasingly unhealthy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the majority of Americans are either overweight (i.e., their Body Mass Index or BMI ranges between 25 and 3) or obese (i.e., their BMI exceeds 30)… and the trend data are not heading in a favorable direction.

us trend data on body mass index

Excess body fat has been linked to elevated risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and clinical depression. Beyond the deleterious effects on the individual, these conditions result in staggeringly high medical costs.

So how did we get here?

The simple answer: We eat too much food and too much of the wrong kinds of foods.

average daily per capita calories

We’ve gotten the message. According to Pew Research, 54% of us believe that we’re paying closer attention to healthy eating that we did 20 years ago; however, 58% of us think we should eat healthier most days. Mintel’s research tells us why:

  • 43% of Americans believe that it’s difficult to be healthy given our modern lifestyle
  • 80% believe healthy living demands sacrifice
  • 40% find the health information landscape confusing

That last point bears closer examination. There is SO MUCH information about diet and nutrition out there. BusinessWire reports that the U.S. weight loss market is now worth $72 billion. That’s a whole lot of financial incentive to promulgate dietary information that may or may not reflect hard science. Anding raises warning flags for:

  • Promises of quick and effective cure-alls
  • Claims miraculous breakthroughs, secret formulas, and treatments
  • Bamboozling medical terminology
  • Attempts to equate “all natural” with safety and efficacy
  • Aggressive use of personal testimonials
  • An artifice of scarcity – e.g., “limited supply,” “act now”
  • Money-back guarantees

In short, if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

There’s no substitute for going back to basics – i.e., eating a balanced diet of whole, unprocessed foods in the right amounts consistently. While it takes a bit more investment in time, I’ve learned to multi-task while preparing meals – e.g., watching TV while doing food prep, or listening to an audiobook or podcast while cooking. I’ve found ways to make healthy meals taste really good. (Just ask my husband!) And I watch portion size.

If you’d like high quality information, Anding recommends the following resources:

To that list, I would add www.NutritionFacts.org. I’ve been watching Dr. Michael Greger’s short videos for years and consistently find them well-constructed, newsworthy, and evidence-based.

How to Beat the Do-Nothing Blues

today's plan

As COVID continues to threaten our health physically, the call for quarantining and social distancing may prove equally detrimental to our mental health. Even perennial optimists may find it difficult to put on a happy face day-after-day, week-after-week, and month-after-month in this altered reality.

For good measure, I decided to read David Burns’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and see what he had to say about warding off the blues. (And he has a lot to say!) The book is chalk full of content about the nature of depression, the tools that can be used to combat it, and the clinical research that demonstrates the effectiveness of Burns’ methodologies. My Achilles Heels are “do-nothing-ism” and its twin, procrastination.

I’ll confess that I’ve done a whole lot more binge-watching on television that I can ever remember in my entire lifetime. Of course, I’ve never logged so many hours in Home Sweet Home as I have over the past 9+ months. Yet even with a full complement of high quality viewing options, I find that I feel rather low when I’ve spent too much time in front of the tube… even when pursuing other activities concurrently. It makes me feel like I’m stagnating, and that’s not a concession to COVID that I’m willing to make.

Burns suggest that I create a Daily Activity Schedule with the following elements:

  • A prospective hour-by-hour plan for how I’m going to spend my day
  • A notation as to whether each activity relates to mastery (M) or pleasure (P)
  • A rating (1-5) of the difficulty of the activity
  • A retrospective look at what I actually did

A journal kept faithfully will help me become aware of how I spend my time (which may prove startling!) It provides the opportunity to balance work, personal development, play, and connection. It creates structure to motivate action in the present and provide opportunities for continuous improvement in the future. And Burns claims that laying out and adhering to plan lifts mood.

To address procrastination, Burns asks that I list all of the tasks that I’ve been putting off. He suggests that I give them ratings of how difficult I think it will be to complete each one, and how satisfying it will feel to cross them off the list. Once they’ve been added to my Daily Activity Schedule and completed, he then recommends returning to those predictions to see how the actual experience compared to the predicted one. I may find that I’ve overestimated the level of difficulty and underestimated the reward (or relief!) Again, his research shows that productivity and self-confidence tend to go up when following this simple program.

For larger “to dos,” Burns advocates the tried-and-true method of breaking larger projects into manageable tasks. This strategy combats the tendency to feel overwhelmed and provides milestones at which one can celebrate victories and note progress toward goals. For peace of mind, it may even make sense to simply say, “I’m going to work on this task for X hours today and then put it away.” It alleviates the pressure to make sweeping progress and lets the mind and body know when it’s time for a break. (My husband used this approach to good effect when we moved a dump truck full of fresh fir bark from the driveway to the back yard. He never despaired of how much was left to do; he simply focused on ending each day’s activity with a “cold one” and a good meal.)

While I’m generally not big on using these types of tools, I’m willing to give them a go as I start the new year. I’m quite likely to spend several more months in quarantine, and I’d really like to have something to show for it other than heightened familiarity with Netflix and Amazon Prime series. I’ve got a pretty good start on my “procrastination list,” and several burgeoning file folders with paperwork that requires review and/or action. Let’s see how much momentum I can build for plowing through it all. Of course, I may decide that some things just aren’t worth my time and attention… and that’s OK!

Farewell to 2020

farewell to 2020
It has been a year like no other.

It started out well. My soul was filled with great music and strong friendships in two choral groups. I had the opportunity to perform with a collective of good actors/singers in a Broadway musical. My work and home lives were harmonious. The only dark spot on the horizon was Mom’s failing health.

Fortune favored the prepared. Mom had been a superb manager of household finances and salted away sufficient funds to spend her final days in one of the best care facilities in Washington County. As Alzheimer’s disease took the last of her cognitive capacity, she had all the supports necessary to keep her safe and comfortable. I spent time with her daily toward the end, and BrightOn Hospice made both of our lives easier. She passed in her sleep on February 6, 2020 at age 96. Mercifully, she transitioned before COVID-19 reared its ugly head.

A short five weeks later, Spike and I went into quarantine as news of the dreadful virus took root in our community. Having taken the Community Emergency Response Team training, our household was in good shape to weather the coming storm. Nonetheless, we took the opportunity to shore up our estate plans – a long-standing item on our “to do” list – and communicate with our next-of-kin to make sure that he could assume the mantle of responsibility smoothly. (Remember: Fortune favors the prepared!) We also built up our household food supplies to allow for longer time intervals between grocery store visits. (Read Meal Planning During the Pandemic.)

September brought devastating fires to the State of Oregon. Over 1,000,000 acres burned, hundreds of structures were lost, 40,000 residents were evacuated, and at least 7 people lost their lives. Our neighborhood was never under threat, but the air quality proved so harmful that we were unable to go outdoors or open windows. The fires leveled hardship-upon-hardship for so many.

In the midst of all this chaos, we’ve had the most acrimonious national election cycle in my memory… and the tension-laden political atmosphere is far from behind us. It has added an extra measure of stress and hostility to a year that that has cried out for relief to its suffering.

Meanwhile, I remain attentive to what scientists have to say about COVID-19, the potential remedies for those afflicted, and the vaccines that are making the way into the market. We’re blessed to live in a state with sufficient controls to keep our infection and death rates relatively low. Unfortunately, the boon to public health also carries the loss of livelihood for so many Oregonians. Businesses have closed; others teeter on the brink of ruin. My heart is heavy for all those who suffer.

Like it or not, we’ve got many more months of quarantine before life can return to some semblance of normal. For those who feel restless and would like to throw caution to the wind, I encourage to read the following excerpt from a holiday letter that a dear friend’s brother shared with his friends and family:

somber holiday message

Finding Happiness

According to adherents of Buddhism and stoicism, pursuing external goods or trying to make the world conform to your wishes amounts to striving after wind. Happiness can be found only by breaking such attachments and cultivating an attitude of acceptance. Dr. Jonathan Haidt begs to differ. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Haidt builds a compelling case for a different psychological equation:

formula for happiness

The set point refers to one’s genetic predisposition toward optimism or pessimism. Optimists have ready access to positive emotional states (comfort, warmth, contentment, pleasure) and find silver linings in dark clouds. Pessimists expect poor outcomes and experience a higher incidence of anxiety and depression. Though you may not have come out on the winning side of the cortical lottery, studies have shown that said genes only confer a modest (and controllable) influence on one’s mental state. You can counteract your set point! (Read Dr. David D. Burns’ book Feeling Good for more information.)

Our external conditions have a profound impact on our happiness. A noisy and/or unsafe neighborhood can make us feel chronically irritable or anxious. A nasty daily commute can start and end our workdays in an agitated state. Unhealthy relationships can engender chronic stress. And we don’t do well in environments where we lack control or feel shame. By contrast, we generally experience contentment when our surroundings are peaceful, our daily routines are devoid of chronic stress, and our lives are filled with strong personal and professional relationships. Conditions are real, and these externals matter!

Voluntary activities provide opportunities to bolster happiness. Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, PhD argues that people are happiest when they experience a state of “flow.” This state is characterized by total immersion in a task that piques our interest, provides challenges that align with our abilities, fully engages our attention, and provides benchmarks to measure progress. Such endeavors prove captivating in the moment and gratifying in the aftermath. Likewise, we find pleasure when we forge friendships or build community with companionable folks. Strong social relationships make for strong immune systems, faster recovery from illness or surgery, reduced risk of depression, and longer, healthier lives.

NOTE: Haidt makes the point that activities connect us with people while objects often separate us. Spend money on group festivities and you feel enriched by the experience. Spend money on expensive possessions to impress others and you feel impoverished. Word to the wise: Stop conspicuous consumption!

Research also suggests that cultivating virtues through daily practice and repetition leads to happier lives. Benjamin Franklin took this advice to heart and created a weekly checklist to provide focus for his endeavors and hold himself accountable. (Click here to download his list.) According to Haidt, virtues that top most lists today include:

  • WISDOM: curiosity, love of learning, judgment, ingenuity, emotional intelligence, perspective
  • COURAGE: valor, perseverance, integrity
  • HUMANITY: kindness, compassion, love
  • JUSTICE: good citizenship, fairness, leadership
  • TEMPERENCE: self-control, prudence, humility
  • TRANSCENDENCE: appreciation for beauty and excellence, gratitude, spirituality, forgiveness, humor, zest

Haidt conceives the virtues as “excellences that build character strengths.” When practiced faithfully, they become engrained habits that lead us to right speech, right action, and right livelihood. We become persons who are more effective in our personal and professional lives and more appealing to others.

At the end of the day, Haidt argues that happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. It is clearly within our purview to control many of the conditions, activities, and habits that give rise to happiness. While attachments may bring pain, they can also be the source of great joy. As he says: “Through passionate attachment to people, goals, and pleasures, life can be lived to its fullest.”

Is Happiness All in Your Mind?

“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and, on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.” ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

happy facePersonal development coaches often tell us that we are in the driver’s seat when architecting lives full of purpose, fulfillment, and pleasure. If we control our perceptions of reality, we control the world in which we live. Armed with a rosy outlook and confidence in our ability to co-create the future, we can point our ships toward fruitful destinations and take full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves along the way. At best, we find this perspective empowering and use it to enrich our lives and those around us. At worst, we berate ourselves when we’re unable to find or capitalize on our personal mojo.

In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Dr. Jonathan Haidt sheds light on this mind-over-matter psychology with the benefit of scientific research.

Our brain structure reflects millions of years of evolutionary development. While we have an oversized neocortex relative to other mammals, we retain ancient structures – i.e., the limbic system or “lizard brain” – geared toward ensuring our survival. It responds to stimuli in ways that that call for feeding, fornication, fight, flight, and freezing. It also sets off a gaggle of other bodily responses with the intent of protecting our lives and/or propagating our species. When the limbic system runs the show, it takes a good deal of effort for the neocortex to bring our behaviors into awareness and exercise control.

As I discussed in Our Guts Have Minds of Their Own, the human body also comes equipped with a “second brain” (dubbed the enteric nervous system) with 100 million nerve cells to manage our gut’s biochemical activities. Haidt suggests that this lower body intelligence may do more than simply digest food and manage immune function. It may respond to sensory input in a way that drives insights, decision-making, and behavior beyond our conscious control. One might say that there’s thought behind our gut feel.

As with the enteric nervous system, our brains attend to most of its daily functions without the benefit of conscious thought. The autonomic nervous system regulates bodily functions, such as the heart rate, respiratory rate, pupillary response, skeletal muscular activity, and sexual arousal. We’re also creatures of habit. When learning a new routine, our brain activity remains high from start to finish. Once a routine has been mastered, brain activity elevates only when encountering the initial cue and when reaping a reward for a completed task. We’re on autopilot between points A and B. (That’s why it’s so hard to break engrained habits!)

Finally, our brains are highly adept at rationalization. As Dr. Baba Shiv and others have demonstrated, we make decisions emotionally and then filter all subsequent facts through a lens that supports our previously rendered judgment. Feelings come first; reasons are invented on the fly. Again, it’s how we evolved to survive. Per Haidt, this internal “wiring” explains why it is so difficult to win an argument. Morality is like beauty; it lives within the eye of the beholder. Once entrenched, it’s hard to dislodge and even harder to persuade others of its merits.

So, what does all this have to do with happiness? It tells us that our consciousness is not as powerful as we might have thought. Haidt likens it a rider atop an elephant, where the elephant represents all the parts of the brain over which we have little or no control. The rider has the ability to influence the elephant’s path, but only if the elephant is motivated to move in that direction.

If life is indeed shaped by how we perceive it, Haidt reminds us that such perceptions happen quickly and (largely) unconsciously. Furthermore, our survivalist nature causes us to give far greater weight to perceived threats, setbacks, and violations than it does to opportunities and possibilities. It takes effort and training to overcome this negative bias. We need to work with our “elephant brain” to move it in forwarding directions. Haidt advocates three methodologies:

  • Meditation to focus attention non-analytically and break attachments, thereby taming and calming the elephant
  • Cognitive therapy to catch negative thoughts, name the distortions, find alternate patterns of thinking, and change behaviors accordingly
  • Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to ease symptoms of moderate to severe depression, as needed

In my next post, I’ll dive into Haidt’s formula for happiness and explore evolutionary responses to achieve it.

When Adversity is Your Friend

My last post took a brief look at three untruths that authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff claim diminish young people’s ability to prepare effectively for the real world. I’ve had occasion to think about one such untruth this week in an on-line class – i.e., what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

sadnessMy instructor asked the group to reflect upon their relationship to failure. He asked: In what ways have you failed in the past? How did you experience it? To what lengths did you go to avoid it? I had no trouble coming up with examples:

  • Romantic relationships that had their moments but then went south (some due to a serious lack of judgment on my part!)
  • Friendships that hit bumps in the road and did not recover
  • Group affiliations that either lost cohesion or left me feeling like the odd-woman-out
  • Promising career trajectories that never reached their potential
  • Would-be avocations for which I simply lacked the talent, drive, or interest

I could go on and on… I’ve had some heart-breaking doozies in there, but I’ve never felt undone by any of them. Quite the contrary – I think they’ve made me a better person. Dr. Jonathan Haidt refers to this phenomenon as the “adversity hypothesis.” It says that people need adversity, setbacks, and even a modest amount of trauma to reach their highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development. Of course, he’s not talking about experiences that would induce Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) or chronic stress. Rather, challenges, failures, and dashed expectations can have healthy outcomes. Here’s why…

Adversity reveals hidden abilities that change one’s self-concept. We find that we are stronger than we might have realized and have access to coping mechanisms that can help us move forward. We can handle the upheaval and are less likely to become anxious the next time a challenge presents itself.

Adversity strengthens relationships and helps us “separate the wheat from the chaff” in our social circles. We feel love and gratitude toward those who were there for us during the crisis. We recognize that these relationships are the real treasures in our lives. We give less emotional weight to the relatively insignificant matters that temporarily disrupt our lives.

Adversity helps us put on the brakes and take stock of what we’re doing with our lives. We get to ask ourselves: Is this really how I want to spend my time? Am I working toward the right set of goals? Are my values aligned with the people and organizations that currently play central roles in my life? Should I throttle back on my activities and spend more time “being” instead of “doing”?

Adversity can be a great teacher if we take the opportunity to draw lessons from it. I can’t think of any past challenge from which I didn’t learn something about myself, my values, my choices, my environment, and my relationships that proved instrumental for making positive change. Admittedly, some of the insights took time to manifest, and some of the adjustments were painful to put into effect. But I’ve learned to identify and appreciate the upsides of a downer experience.

Haidt serves up a four-part recipe for surviving adversity: (i) Be an optimist. Train yourself to find the positive side of life. (ii) Build a strong support network. Sympathetic friends can be healing balms for life’s wounds. (iii) Have faith. Let it be a source of strength and a guidepost for your response to adversity. (iv) Write about the trauma with the intent of making sense of it. Lessons learned can take the sting out of unfortunate circumstances, ward off future episodes, and provide the impetus for course corrections on life’s journey.

Three Great Untruths

Starting in 2013, Professor Jonathan Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff took note of disturbing trends among college students. They witnessed tendencies to exaggerate danger, use binary thinking (e.g., right vs. wrong, us vs. them), and amplify emotional responses. These cognitive patterns manifested in:

  • A rise in political polarization and cross-party animosity, leading students to retreat into self-confirming bubbles
  • Elevated anxiety and depression while fixating on negative feedback, catastrophizing, and experiencing a sense of threat to their well-being
  • A belief that challenge of any nature inculcates weakness, not strength
  • Loss of risk taking in which there is a possibility of failure
  • Excessive parental supervision alongside a growth in campus bureaucracy

These patterns create an environment that Haidt and Lukianoff believe render young adults less able to deal with the world that they’ll enter upon graduation. They present their analysis and remedies in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. They take aim three great untruths with which this generation has been raised.

Untruth #1: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. This distortion imparts a sense of fragility to its adherents. They fail to view challenges as a means to gain strength, competency, and confidence. In the extreme, they consider ideas that do not align with their worldview threatening and render them easily hurt. When this dynamic overtakes a university setting, the authors argue that it fails to teach students the essential skills of critical thinking and civil disagreement.

This untruth flies in the face of human biology. We build strength by challenging our skeletomuscular frame to lift increasingly heavy loads. Our immune systems elevate their ability to stave off disease by responding to viral loads and developing antibodies to address them. We expand our neural networks by learning new things that stretch our capacity to think critically. And we develop emotional intelligence by exercising mastery over our emotions, believing ourselves capable of meeting challenges, and managing relationships effectively. In short, when we shrink from trials and tribulations, we atrophy… and that’s not healthy.

Untruth #2: Always trust your feelings. This belief deems feelings reliable barometers of truth. While compelling, thoughts and feelings can distort reality when deprived of reliable evidence. Common distortions include mind reading, fortune telling, catastrophizing, labeling (prejudging), discounting positives and overemphasizing negatives, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, personalizing, blaming, comparing unfairly, should-ing, etc.

Ancient wisdom tells us that nothing brings misery unless you think it; nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) leverages this tradition by helping patients break the disempowering feedback loop between negative beliefs and negative emotions. It teaches folks to examine their beliefs and focus on contra evidence. It distinguishes between intent and impact, and promotes polite and respectful interactions.

Untruth #3: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. This tenet establishes “us” and “them,” and invites us to ignore, disrespect, and/or dehumanize “them.” It preys upon an innate wiring for tribalism that “binds and blinds.” It draws upon a deep well of fear and protectionism that leads us to believe that our very survival is at stake. It invites us to display some of our worst behaviors and feel righteous about doing them.

This untruth plays out in sharp relief in our daily headlines; it is tearing us apart as a nation. We need to recognize the underpinnings of these sensibilities and the forces that enflame them. We need to resist their influence. The remedy is simple: Lift up our common humanity and shared interests. Engage in civil dialog with an open mind. Learn to be tolerant of different worldviews and find ways to coexist peaceably.

I will leave it to interested readers to explore the full exposé and note the extent to which the collegiate experience resonates with society at large. At the end of the day, I found Haidt and Lukianoff’s core thesis compelling:

“Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your goals if you… seek out challenges, free yourself from cognitive distortions, and take a generous view of other people.”