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.

 

“Traveler’s Constipation”

The New York Times carries one of those “ask a doctor” columns called “Ask Well.”  The other day it responded to the question:  “Is there such a thing as traveler’s constipation?”

Parenthetically, this reminded me of when I was in college and the Ohio State Lantern carried a similar, extremely popular feature, in which one of the doctors at the University responded to student health questions.  Since the questioners were college students, the tone of the inquiries wasn’t exactly elevated.  I remember that one of the questions fielded by the doctor came from an oddly observant student who wondered why some of his toilet deposits sank to the bottom of the bowl while others floated.  No doubt the doctors who agree to write such columns wonder, from time to time, whether this is really why they went through the hell involved in getting an M.D.

e2e8df6b6cfdc669ce638b702cfcacc6Anyway, back to the pressing issue of “traveler’s constipation” — the Times doc states that there is such a thing, and it afflicts a percentage of travelers.  In fact, several medical studies of the phenomenon have been conducted.  One of the studies, of 70 Europeans who had traveled to the U.S., was quite robust in its data acquisition.  The Times described it as follows: “In addition to the usual questionnaires, all subjects maintained diaries on their bowel habits, had stool samples evaluated for consistency according to a standardized methodology, and had their colonic transit time measured after ingesting radioactive tracers. Colonic transit time is the time required for stool to move through the large intestine.”  (You’d think that ingesting radioactive tracers that the subjects would know were moving through their guts and then maintaining diaries on bowel movements and having stool samples analyzed might interfere with normal functioning and produce false results, but apparently not.)  And there are actually products out in the market that are supposed to help deal with “traveler’s constipation.”

But although the studies reported in the Times detected some evidence of “traveler’s constipation,” which apparently is primarily noticed during the first days of travel and often correlates with jet lag, whether the condition is caused by travel isn’t exactly clear.  The studies note that travel also often involves changes in diet and exercise — sitting at an airport gate eating something purchased along the concourse isn’t exactly designed to promote “regularity” — and the Times doc also notes that a significant portion of people, from 12 to 19 percent, are generally constipated whether they are traveling are not.  That may explain why it’s not unusual to meet grumpy people in the world.

It’s also not clear whether the studies also looked at another potential cause for “traveler’s constipation” — namely, a concerted effort on the part of mind and body to avoid having to use a dubious public airport bathroom — that might contribute to the condition.  The good news, though, is that the Times doc concludes that “traveler’s constipation” is not a serious health problem.  In short, it too shall pass.

App-rehension

Earlier this week I was having lunch with a younger colleague in a busy airport, talking about how tough it is to juggle the demands of young children, a work schedule that involves lots of travel, and other elements of modern professional life in America.  As she noshed on her salad, she mentioned that at times she took out her phone and used “Calm” and “Buddhify” to help her reduce stress.

IMG_1092Eh?  There are smartphone apps geared toward meditation?

Yes, she explained.  They are part of the “mindfulness” segment of smartphone apps, and then she described how you can use the apps to look at calming scenes, hear soothing sounds, and select mediation routines that are specifically targeted to helping you deal with a particular scenario, like getting to sleep or dealing with stress at work.  She then thumbed through her phone app index pages in a way that made it clear that she had a lot of apps.  My younger cousins have a lot more apps than I do, she said — dozens and dozens of index pages of them.

I thought about my smartphone, with my skimpy two pages of apps, most of which came with the phone, and I felt apprehension and, frankly, inadequacy.  And as my colleague showed me some of the other apps she has on her phone — apps like TuneIn, which allows you to listen to sports broadcasts of your favorite teams wherever you are, or Happier, which helps you think most positively (UJ must already have that one), or Pandora or Spotify, which allow you to listen to lots of good music of your choosing — I realized, again, that there’s a huge world of potentially useful or enjoyable apps out there and I am completely oblivious to them.  My poor, underutilized iPhone is like what they used to say about the human brain — it’s using only about 10 percent of its potential.

But here’s the problem for me.  How do you find the good apps?  Is it primarily word of mouth?  Do people regularly have conversations about apps, and discuss which ones, in their experience, are worth it or not?  Or do people do on-line searches for app ratings and comments?  Or do they go to the app store and just look around and try things out?

I’m feeling a bit lost here.  But if I can find an app that transforms modern business travel into more of a zen-like experience, for example, I’m willing to work to find it.

Paging Professor UJ

Back when UJ used to write for this blog, he added a tag for “happiness” because he wrote a number of posts about it.  I regret to admit that, since UJ stopped his scrivening, it’s probably the least-used tag on the blog.  In fact, this post is likely the first one with a happiness tag in months, if not years.  I consider myself a happy person, but I just don’t write much it.

Apparently, Yale students also need help with happiness.  This semester Yale is offering Psych 157, a course called “Psychology and the Good Life.”  It tries to instruct students on how to be happier — and it has quickly become the most popular undergraduate course Yale has ever offered.  1,200 students, which is about 25 percent of the entire undergraduate student population, is taking the course.  The professor posits that Yale students are flocking to take the course because “they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school” and in the process adopted “harmful life habits.”  If you read the article linked above, you’ll conclude that Yalies are a pretty sad, stressed bunch.

14344198_1067434466644984_673868475086152520_n copyWhen I was going to college, lack of happiness and “deprioritizing” personal happiness and fulfillment was not a problem.  If anything, Ohio State students of the ’70s tended to overprioritize their dedicated, incessant, deep-seated, Frodo Baggins-like quest for happiness.  The notion that fresh-faced students, still possessing the bloom of youth and newly freed from the constant supervision and irksome rules of Mom and Dad, need to take a college class to learn how to be happier would have been totally alien to the undergrads of my era.  And it’s really kind of depressing to think that, in any era, college students would need to sit in a lecture hall to get tips on how to be happier.  College must have become a grim, hellish place indeed!

But this is where UJ comes in.  He’s always got a happy grin on his face, a positive outlook, and a firm belief that “life is good.”  Sure, he’s retired, but his youthful attitude should allow him to connect with the legions of sad, beleaguered, put-upon Yalies who just don’t know where to find happiness in their soulless, barren college lives.

Hey, UJ!  Time to call that Psych 157 prof and offer a few pointers!

A Year Without Spending

Some people celebrate “Buy Nothing Day” — which aptly falls on Black Friday — as a protest against the rampant consumerism in modern culture.  The idea is to avoid buying unnecessary items and, instead, to spend more time with family and friends, and, literally, “live freely.”

Rolls of Dollar BillsA British woman took the concept more than a few steps farther, and decided to go for a year without buying anything beyond the basics.  That meant that she paid her mortgage and utilities and not much else, bought food in bulk and cooked her own meals, and rode her bike to work rather than taking the subway.  No dining out or drinks at the pub, no trips to the movies, no new clothes, no travel or vacations, and no luxury items like fancy foods.  She also turned down friends and family who wanted to buy her gifts.

To her surprise, she made it through the year, with the winter months being the toughest.  She saved a lot of money — about $27,000, all told — and found that she had come to enjoy simple things, like a picnic in the park or a walk through a museum that didn’t charge admission.  She also feels that she became closer to her family and friends.  In short, she says she learned that money didn’t buy happiness.

The most instructive part of the woman’s story of consumerist self-deprivation is this admission:  “I’d set myself budgets and spending plans in the past and they’d always fallen by the wayside on my next night out.”  People spend themselves into oblivion because they don’t have the self-discipline to control their behavior, whether it’s sticking to a budget or simply exercising good judgment on spending and refraining from making impulse purchases.  And then, at some point, they look around at a place cluttered with stuff they don’t use and clothes they don’t wear, and wonder where all the money went.

I wouldn’t want to go for a year without traveling, or enjoying a drink out with friends, or savoring a good meal on a special occasion.  Those are some of the things that make like special.  But avoiding unnecessary spending, living a more minimalist, possession-free life, and feeling a certain sense of pride that you’ve got your finances under control affords its own satisfaction, too.

Stone Story

IMG_2520We were walking around Vermilion Saturday morning.  When we got down to the Main Street beach and were looking for a place to sit, I noticed a bunch of brightly painted stones with inspirational messages on one of the benches.  I groaned and thought that some vendor had decided to use a public seating area as a display table.  Pretty bogus!

But I was wrong.  In fact, the stones weren’t for sale.  They were free to whoever wanted to take one.  There was a laminated sign that explained the back story, and a battered notebook where people who took a stone could leave a note of their own.

The sign, signed “Me” with a heart symbol, said:

“Been thinking of someone lately??  of course you have!  and don’t forget #1

YOU!!

please take a rock (or two . . . or three) they are free!!

use them to brighten your day or someone else’s!

Please Remember:

Be Kind

Love Freely

Pay It Forward”

A number of people who had taken stones and appreciated the gesture had written messages in the battered notebook; I assume that “Me” came by at night to gather the notebook and the stones and came back early in the morning to set them out again.

I didn’t take a stone because I didn’t think I needed one.  Why not leave them for people who really need a boost in their lives, and need an affirmation that a complete stranger is willing to take the time to find and paint rocks that just might brighten their day?  For all of the negativity in the world right now, there is still some simple goodness out there, too.  It’s nice to see tangible evidence of it now and then.

Happiness And Health

Studies show that happy people — or, at least, people who self-identify as happy — are likely to live longer.  So, does that mean being happy is the key to living to a ripe old age?

lrp2247Scientists now say . . . not so fast.  They found that although the happy people in the studied population of a million women were less likely to die during the ten-year study period than people who described themselves as unhappy, when researchers looked into the health of those groups they found that happy people also tended to be objectively healthier than the sad contingent — and healthier people by definition are likely to live longer.  In short, happiness might be correlated with longevity, but being happy, by itself, doesn’t cause long life. The study bluntly concluded:  “Our large prospective study shows no robust evidence that happiness itself reduces cardiac, cancer, or overall mortality.”

No surprise there, really.  Only the most ardent happiness advocate might think that the simple act of being happy could, say, prevent the formation and spread of cancerous cells in your body or allow you to escape a genetic predisposition to heart attack.  But that obvious conclusion still begs a significant question — why does the correlation exist in the first place?  Why do happy people tend to be healthier than unhappy people?

I think the answer is clear — and the key is not happiness, but the state of unhappiness.  If you are in pain or feeling sick or otherwise are suffering from poor health, it’s difficult to maintain a happy attitude.  On the flip side, if you’re down in the dumps, it’s harder to get motivated to do the things that help to keep you healthy, like getting a decent amount of exercise and watching your diet and your weight.  How many unhappy people overeat to compensate for their depression, for example, and end up dealing with obesity, the health problems associated with it, and the poor self-image issues that tend to accompany it?

Happiness therefore might not be the cause of good health, but unhappiness and poor health seem to be part of a cycle, with one reinforcing and contributing to the other.  Happiness therefore might not be the cause of a long life, strictly speaking, but if you can develop and keep a positive attitude it sure seems to help.

The Jerkiness That Spread Around The World

When I was younger, I once read a book called, I think, “The Smile That Went Around The World.”  It told the happy story of a kid who came outside with a happy grin and smiled at a stranger, who then smiled at another stranger, who smiled at another — and on and on, until the smile reached every country and world was one big happy place.  It was a nice thought to instill in small children, who could cling to the idea that they could change the world just by smiling.

Of course, when we reach adulthood we realize that often it takes more than a smile from a stranger to turn someone’s mood around.  But what about the opposite kind of behavior?   How does behaving like a colossal jerk affect others in the vicinity?

rudenessNew studies are indicating that rude behavior does, indeed, spread like a kind of disease.  The studies reveal that being the target of discourtesy, or simply witnessing ill-mannered conduct, tends to induce more rude behavior.  The psychologists posit that seeing loutishness or abusiveness activates parts of our brains that are sensitive to rudeness and triggers an increased likelihood of an impolite response on our part.  Our ungracious response, in turn, can provoke escalating rudeness in others.

Unlike the happy but unrealistic concept of the smile traveling around the world, this research matches our experience in real-life scenarios.  How many times have you been cut off by a thoughtless person who is driving like a jerk and felt a surge of anger and a sudden wild desire to retaliate?  If you’re standing in a line and some jerk tries to cut in front, it’s not unusual to see surly reactions or even a breakdown in the queue.   How often have you seen perfect strangers telling each other off because of some ill-advised conduct, or the mean actions of a supervisor then mimicked by his subordinate?

It’s sad to think that rudeness is so easy to provoke in others — but as we move into the Thanksgiving weekend, we can all be on guard.  We might not be able to send a smile around the world, but at least we can exercise some self-control and stop the spread of boorishness in its tracks.

 

Double Oven Dreams

Lately, when I go into our kitchen, I am drawn to the shiny, aluminum-clad appliance in the far corner, next to the outside wall.  I look at it, and think about possibilities.  Happy, hopeful, heated, holiday possibilities.

It’s the double oven, of course.

IMG_7516_2A double oven may not be a big deal for those who’ve always had  one, but I’m not in that category.  I’ve only had a single oven, which has been . . . sufficient.  There aren’t many times when you really need two ovens.  But the holiday season is one of those times.  And now, with Thanksgiving only two days away and the Christmas cookie season right behind it, I think of what I might be able to accomplish with deft use of the double oven.

For Thanksgiving, the benefits of a double oven are obvious.  The turkey can be cooking away in one oven, perhaps with one or two other dishes, and the other oven can be used for warming pies, candied yams, rolls, a green bean casserole, and on and on.  No more desperate attempts at oven space management, trying to jam every course into the nooks and crannies around the turkey in a doomed bid to get everything hot and ready to serve at the same time.  In short, the double oven affords the luxury of ample space.

For Christmas cookie baking, the potential benefits are different.  The double oven should allow me to maximize efficiency and eliminate the down times, when I’ve got a sheet of cookies ready to bake but I’m waiting for those in the oven to finish.  I look at the shiny aluminum facing and I think of Dutch spice cookies turning a rich golden brown in the top oven as I’m loading a tray of Cranberry hootycreeks into the bottom unit.  An efficiency expert would undoubtedly be able to calculate how much time I might save by deft use of the double oven options.  It will require careful planning and sequencing, of course, but I’m eager to tackle the challenge.

And now I wonder — do I have enough counter space for all of these cookies?

Lives (And Deaths) Of Quiet Desperation

After years of increasing longevity, studies are showing that the death rate is rising, but only for one group — white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54.  The divergence in the trend lines may be inexplicable, but it is unmistakable.  While death rates are falling in other first-world countries, and for African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, they are rising for middle-aged whites.

The circumstances of the deaths all point to mental health issues as an underlying cause for the anomaly.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, between 1999 and 2013 deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and chronic liver disease all increased for that population demographic, even as the incidence of other common causes for mortality, such as lung cancer, declined.  The studies also show that the increase in the mental health-related causes of death is particularly notable among middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education, although increases also were observed among better-educated segments of the population, too.

The experts aren’t sure why the mortality trend is affecting this particular group.  Some point to increases in mental health issues among white Americans and musculoskeletal problems that have left people in chronic pain — and therefore ripe for self-medication through alcohol or addiction to powerful painkillers — but those don’t seem like reasons that should target one demographic group to the exclusion of others, or for that matter should affect Americans but not Germans, British, or Canadians.

Other experts say that “economic stress” is the culprit, and that many Americans have reached middle age only to find that they are less well off than their parents, when the “American Dream” we heard about growing up is supposed to result in increases in wealth and happiness from generation to generation.  That rationale might explain why Americans are being affected as opposed to those in other countries — but is belief in the “American Dream” really so profoundly different among different demographic groups that it would explain the different death rates?

In Walden, Henry D. Thoreau wrote:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Many of us know people who have succumbed to that desperation, but we aren’t sure precisely why.  We don’t know why they are prone to addiction, or depression, or suicidal thoughts when others in similar circumstances manage to deal with their problems and forge ahead — but these studies indicate that their stories are sufficiently commonplace to create a clear and disturbing statistical trend.

Our grandparents and parents would scoff at the idea that the “American Dream” was a bad thing.  Could it be that its aspirational notions have created expectations that, if unrealized, produce disappointment so crushing that it cannot be borne?  I’m skeptical of that conclusion, but I nevertheless wonder why so many people apparently are so desperately unhappy about their lives, and what we can do to change that trend.

Open Windows Season

It cooled down substantially on Saturday night after a storm rolled through, and yesterday was delightful — bright and sunny yet brisk, with that first hint of the distinctive autumnal smell in the air that combines wood fires and spicy turning leaves and the blooming fragrance of late-summer flowers.

IMG_6879When those fall days come around it is open windows season.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m as much a fan of air-conditioning during summer and central heating during winter as anyone.  But when spring and fall arrive in central Ohio, I relish the open windows seasons, when you can roll up those closed panes of glass, feel the inward rush of cool air freshening and washing through the interior of the house, and hear the faint susurrus of car doors closing, dogs barking, passersby talking, and children calling from the streets below.

We spend so much of our time penned up inside buildings and houses and cars.  It is delight to let the outside world inside, now and then, and enjoy the cool of the evening.

Home

At what point do you suppose that you first grasped the idea of “home”?  I imagine it was one of the first concepts I ever understood, and probably one of the first words, too.  It was a specific, physical place, to be sure, but it was a lot more than that.  It was where the most important people in your life lived, and you developed happy feelings that you associated with the special combination of that place and those people and your things — the sense of where your life was centered, and of being where you belonged.

And as you grew up, and your family moved from one house to another, and went on vacations together, the concept of “home” became even stronger, because you realized that your home was not just one place, but could change from one city to another even as you left your friends and favorite places behind, and was more than just the temporary location of your Mom and Dad and brother and sisters.  And after such a move to new place, when the settling-in process finally ended, at some point you thought to yourself that your new house had become less strange and “finally felt like home.”

IMG_6833The home-shifting process continues, for many of us, as our lives proceed and we move through college and venture out on our own.  At some distinct point the concept of “home” morphs from the place where your parents are to the place where you and your spouse and your family have established their own lives.  The legal concept is called domicile — the location where you have established a permanent residence to which you intend to return, whatever your temporary movements might be.  Courts trying to determine domicile evaluate evidence like where you are registered to vote, where you pay your taxes, and where your kids go to school, that seek to capture, to the maximum extent that bloodless legal “factors” can, the emotional element of having found a welcome place where you have sunk down roots.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have grown up with a solid sense of “home,” with the warm, deep feelings of belonging and physical security and personal value and countless other attributes that come with it, can’t fully appreciate how having a home has shaped our lives and personalities.  And we can’t really imagine what it must be like to grow up without that essential emotional and physical center, or to someday lose it entirely and become “homeless” — a powerful and terrible word, when you think about it.

Yesterday, as Kish and I drove back from a vacation on the coastline of Maine, the pull of “home” became irresistible, and what was supposed to be a two-day drive became by mutual agreement a 17-hour, roll-in-and-unload-after-midnight rush to get back to our little center of the world.  And when we finally made it, and were greeted by a small, happily barking dog whose tail was sweeping the floor like a metronome set at maximum speed, we once again were reminded of what “home” is really all about.