McMansion Envy

American homes are a lot roomier than they used to be.  In 1973, the Census Bureau determined that the median size of a new house was about 1,500 square feet.  As of 2015, that number had shot up to about 2,500 square feet.  And with Americans having fewer children on average, the increase in house size translated into a lot more square footage per resident — from 507 square feet per resident for new houses in 1973 to 971 square feet per resident for a new house built in 2015.

mcmansions-real-estateSo, are Americans a lot happier with their larger, roomier homes?  A researcher tried to figure that out and determined that the answer is:  not really.  Although American homes have grown significantly in terms of their square footage, overall house satisfaction hasn’t changed.  According to the research, the apparent reason is that some Americans are trapped in an endless cycle of house one-upsmanship.

The researcher concluded that Americans whose houses are among the largest in the neighborhood tend to be most prone to house unhappiness.  These homeowners build the biggest house around and are satisfied with it, but when somebody builds an even bigger McMansion on a nearby lot, knocking them out of the “biggest house in the neighborhood” slot, suddenly their satisfaction with their home drops.  The research also indicates that there’s been a kind of nuclear arms race at the top end of the American housing market, with the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increasing 1.4 times as fast as the size of the median house.  Evidently “keeping up with the Joneses” now means adding on to your house to maintain your status as king of the block.

I’m not sure about the statistical analysis used in the research and how you can determine with certainty whether people are dissatisfied with their already big house because it now isn’t the biggest house in the ‘hood, as opposed to other reasons for house dissatisfaction.  But I do know this:  I feel sorry for people who measure their own happiness and satisfaction by comparing their possessions, whether it is houses or cars or something else, to what is owned by others.  It’s a rat race that isn’t really winnable, because there’s always going to be someone with a bigger house and fancier car.

Such people are never really going to be happy — at least not for long.  Better to find a house that you and your family like, forget about participating in the pointless big house derby, and be amused as you watch the Joneses and their McMansions endlessly duke it out for top dog status.

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The Power Of No

We’ve all got friends who seem to be absurdly stressed, all the time.  They’re constantly harried, rushing from one important commitment to another, complaining all the while about how incredibly busy they are.  They’ve got their jobs, of course, but also a number of other activities and obligations piled up on top of their work, occupying pretty much every minute of every day.

Three Signs In Male Fists Saying No, No and No Isolated on a White Background.If only they’d learned to say “no”!

Over the weekend The Guardian published an interesting article about saying no.  The article points out that people who are miserably overcommitted aren’t powerless — they can directly affect their situations by carefully considering their own interests and saying no to things that they really don’t want, or need, to do.  By declining unwanted invitations, and shedding obligations that aren’t really rewarding or essential, they free up time to do what they actually want to do with people they really like.  And, as a result, the stress level goes down and the enjoyment of life goes up.

This recommendation mirrors my own experience.  Some years ago I realized that, with work, charity involvements, and other obligations, I wasn’t enjoying much free time — on weekends, or otherwise.  I looked at what I was doing and decided I needed to lighten my load, and then I went through my commitments and decided which ones could reasonably be eliminated — and then I eliminated them.  When I did that, I felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders and my free time was multiplied, and I’ve never regretted doing it.

I do disagree with The Guardian article in this sense:  it suggests that most of the over-busy folks are people-pleasers who feel they just have to say yes.  I’m sure there are people in that category, but I think there are two other categories at play.  One is people who want to help and make a contribution, and just find out that they can’t manage all of the obligations they’ve assumed.  The other is people who perversely like projecting to others how busy they are.  The first category just needs to understand the power of saying no.  The second category doesn’t want to say no.

Meal Emotions

Burger King wants you to know that it respects your emotions and that you should feel however you want to feel.

burger-king-real-meal-hero-1To celebrate Mental Health Awareness month, Burger King has rolled out a new promotion in certain cities in which it is offering “real meals” in different colored boxes that are supposed to promote the “overall mental health of all Americans.”  Pointedly, there is no “happy meal.”  Instead, you can get one of five boxes with mood-matching colors — red for “pissed,” blue for “sad,” teal for “salty,” purple for “YAAAS,” and black for “DGAF.”  (If, like me, you don’t know what the last two moods are, “YAAAS” reflects extreme excitement and the first three words of DGAF are “don’t give a” and you can figure out the rest.)

Burger King explained:  “With the pervasive nature of social media, there is so much pressure to appear happy and perfect.  With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel.”  A commercial running in one of the markets where the promotion is being offered — Columbus isn’t one of them — ends with the statement:  “No one is happy all the time, and that’s OK.”

I’m all for promoting overall mental health, but I wish companies like Burger King would just stick to making the best food they can at the best prices, and not act like they care about their customers as unique individuals with their own emotional lives — because they don’t.  And that’s really all right, because Burger King’s job is just to sell food, and any time they veer into other territory, like focusing on customer mood, they’re just being distracted from being the best at what they’re supposed to be doing.

At bottom, getting a different colored box at a fast food joint to celebrate your “mood” seems like a pretty weird and superficial way of promoting mental health.  If you feel sad when you’re ordering your burger, do you really want to confess it to the kid wearing the paper hat behind the counter so your order can be put into a blue box rather than a purple one? And the superficial nature of the whole concept is confirmed by the fact that everyone who orders a “real meal” gets a Whopper, french fries, and a drink, whether they’re feeling “pissed” or “YAAAS.”

So if you’re at one end of the mood spectrum or another, it all boils down to a different colored flimsy cardboard box that will get pitched into the trash and whether you get a diet soda or not.  That doesn’t seem like much of a way to “celebrate being yourself and feeling however you want to feel,” does it?

Measuring National Happiness

What’s being called the “World Happiness Report” came out today.  Produced by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the report purports to evaluate the happiness level in individual countries by looking at things like income, healthy life expectancy, “social support,” freedom, trust, and generosity, with a focus on the general well-being of immigrants.

bigraykgtFor Americans, the report is a good news/bad news kind of thing.  The good news? America comes in at number 19, far ahead of the unhappiest country on earth, which is war-torn South Sudan.  The bad news?  America’s happiness rating is falling, and the number 19 position is our lowest rating yet.  Finland tops of the list and a number of other Nordic countries, like Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, all are found in the top ten.

How do you possibly determine the “happiness” of an entire country?  According to the article linked above, the Nordic countries do well because they offer “healthy amounts of both personal freedom and social security that outweigh residents having to pay ‘some of the highest taxes in the world.'”  An individual quoted in the article explained:  “‘Briefly put, (Nordic countries) are good at converting wealth into well-being,” and the findings show that “the conditions that we live under matter greatly to our quality of life, that happiness is not only a matter of choice.”

The U.S. apparently is suffering in the rankings because, even though many incomes in America have increased, there is a perception of declining general health, increasing addiction (to a host of things, including cellphones, video gaming, and eating unhealthy foods), “declining social trust,” and “declining confidence in government.”

Is America, as a whole, unhappier now that it has been in the past?  Trying to measure an abstract concept like happiness on a country-wide basis seems like an impossible task to me, because the subjective values of the people doing the evaluations can’t help but affect the evaluation.  But I do believe this:  many Americans seem to be tapping a reservoir of anger, and seem a lot less willing to give people with opposing viewpoints the benefit of the doubt.  The kind of brooding, harsh anger that we see so often these days is not exactly a recipe for happiness.

Let The Sun Shine In?

I recently returned from a beach vacation.  One of our daily rituals was slathering on SPF 50 sunscreen to try to protect ourselves against the blazing sunshine.  We wanted to be in the warm sun rather than the gray cold Midwest, obviously, but we’d accepted the healthcare cautions about sunshine and skin cancer, and so the sunblock went on.

But what if the healthcare cautions that led to our lubing up are wrong — as in, 180-degree wrong?  What if exposure to sunshine is not only not bad for you, but in fact it helps you to be healthier in countless ways, by effectively and efficiently producing vitamin D, lowering blood pressure, making you feel happier, and having other therapeutic benefits?

6a00e5520572bb8834017d41062de7970c-320wiThat’s the intriguing conclusion of recent research that started with a look at the value of vitamin D supplements — which many people who avoid the sun are taking to try to compensate for the lack of solar-produced vitamin D.  Low vitamin D levels are associated with lots of bad stuff — cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions — and vitamin D is required for calcium absorption and good bone health.  So vitamin D supplements should help, right?  But the research showed that vitamin D supplements weren’t having any discernible impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

Scientists scratched their heads and looked into the unexpected result, and started to find evidence that it wasn’t high vitamin D levels that prevented the bad conditions.  Instead, the presence of vitamin D was just a marker, and the real cause for the positive health effects was that sunlight that was producing the vitamin D.  The people who had the high vitamin D and were avoiding the bad conditions were getting plenty of sunlight.  Exposure to sunshine also causes the skin to produce nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure — which, as the article linked above points out, helps to explain why “rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months.”

And the vitamin D/blood pressure effects may just be the start.  The article continues:  “Sunlight triggers the release of a number of other important compounds in the body, not only nitric oxide but also serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free.”

But wait — won’t getting more sunshine cause skin cancer?  Yes, there is that risk — but the article points out that skin cancer is not nearly as lethal as the other diseases and conditions that exposure to sunlight helps prevent.  And, additionally, people who regularly get sunshine, avoid sunburns, and keep their tans going — like outdoor workers — are much less likely to experience melanoma, the less-common but potentially fatal kind of skin cancer.  In fact, the evidence indicates that long-term exposure to sun is associated with lower melanoma rates.

All of this will come as a surprise to people who are scared to death of skin cancer and buy sunblock by the carload, but it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  Our half-naked distant ancestors didn’t have SPF50 to apply, and they were exposed to the sun on a much more prolonged basis than modern, largely indoor humans.  It makes sense that humans would evolve in ways that would favor those who were more efficient in using that abundant, constant sunshine in positive, healthy ways.

Think about that the next time you’re carefully applying that SPF50 sunblock and popping down vitamin D pills.

Reasonably Achievable Resolutions

Did you make a New Year’s resolution?  If so, how’s it going?  According to a social network called Strava, which somehow conducted some research into the topic, most people who make New Year’s resolutions end up breaking them by January 12.  So hang in there: you apparently only have to suffer through a few more days of compliance before you can go back to those old habits.

The Strava research seems to have focused on exercise and dietary resolutions, which are probably the most challenging resolutions of all.  People buy that health club membership and start eating leafy green vegetables for dinner with the best of intentions, but are felled by unrealistic expectations of what will happen.  When those unrealistic expectations aren’t met, they fall off the wagon.  And then, after they fall off the wagon, they figure it’s hopeless to try to change and totally give up.

I think making resolutions makes some sense, and the start of a new year is as good a time as any for some self-reflection and consideration of how a beneficial behavioral change might be in order.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to get more exercise and be more healthy, but why stake your New Year’s resolutions entirely upon goals that experience teaches are incredibly difficult to reach?  Maybe we should start small, and think about little, reasonably achievable resolutions that might just make you a better person and improve your life at the same time.  Consider, for example, this list of 58 New Year’s resolutions that don’t involve dieting or exercise.  It’s not exhaustive and right for everyone, of course, but it may give you ideas for the kind of resolutions that are suitable for you.

This year, I’m going small with my resolutions.  I’m going to clean out my closet and give the clothes that aren’t being used to a charitable organization.  I want to go through what we’ve got stored in the basement and the pantry, figure out whether we’re using it, and donate what’s unneeded to the Goodwill.  I’m going to tackle my emailboxes and iPhone photos, delete what I don’t want to store forever, be happy about the reduced clutter, and see whether that improves my phone battery life.  And while I’ve done a better job of leisure reading this past year, in 2019 I’m going to up the ante by identifying and then reading through to the end at least one really mentally challenging book.

Making goals is a good thing, but reaching those goals is even better.