Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The pursuit of pleasure

It will come as no great shock to anyone who knows me that my patronus is a border collie.

Relaxation is not easy for me.  I'm kind of in perpetual motion from the moment I wake up.  Part of it is pure physical nervousness; even when I'm sitting still I'm not sitting still, and usually I'm bouncing one leg or swinging a foot back and forth or something.  In the last couple of months, driven by the fact that the pandemic closed the gym we belong to, my wife and I have been doing an online yoga program (we really like the one on YouTube with the ever-cheerful Adriene Mishler).  The problem is, for me at least, yoga isn't just about trying to twist your body into a Möbius strip, it's equally about focusing on your breath and finding inner stillness.  It usually begins, and always ends, with some sort of quiet meditative posture.

This is harder for me than trying to force myself into the Inverted Pretzel Asana, or whatever incomprehensible position she is encouraging us to bend ourselves into during the session itself.  As soon as my body stops moving, my mind starts to race, and it's a struggle not to start thinking of the list of things I need to accomplish next (or, if it's in the evening, all the things I didn't accomplish during the day that I need to see to tomorrow).

So retirement has had its challenges.  I know the idea is, "You worked hard during your entire career, you deserve some time off just to chill."  For me it's more like, "Now there are even more hours in the day during which I will feel tremendously guilty for not being as productive as I for some reason think I should be."

Q: How many border collies does it take to change a light bulb?  A: Only one.  He will do it quickly and efficiently, and afterward he will check to make sure all the wiring in your house is up to code.  [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Thomas Vaclavek from Woodstock, USA, Border Collie panting, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Add to this the fact that I have an insanely competitive streak, and it's a wonder I haven't stressed myself into a heart attack yet.  As an example, I can't just enjoy running; I had to join the OneNYChallenge, a "virtual" race where you run each day and log your miles online (the whole thing is a fundraiser for COVID research).  We had from May 15 to August 31 to log 500 kilometers -- I finished the race a month and a half early, and now am looking around like, "Okay, c'mon, what next?"

Anyhow, all this neurotic stuff comes up because of a paper last week in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, describing research from the University of Zürich that found that being hedonistic makes you happier than being goal-oriented -- that the old conventional wisdom that true happiness comes from self-control and delayed gratification leading to accomplishment might not be all that accurate.

The authors write:
Self-control helps to align behavior with long-term goals (e.g., exercising to stay fit) and shield it from conflicting hedonic goals (e.g., relaxing).  Decades of research have shown that self-control is associated with numerous positive outcomes, such as well-being.  In the present article, we argue that hedonic goal pursuit is equally important for well-being, and that conflicting long-term goals can undermine it in the form of intrusive thoughts.
"It's time for a rethink," said study lead author, social psychologist Katharina Bernecker, in an interview with Science Daily.  "Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure...  It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option...  The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn't be in conflict with one another.  Our research shows that both are important and can complement each other in achieving well-being and good health. It is important to find the right balance in everyday life."

My question is whether this may be a correlation/causation error; that happier, more well-adjusted people gravitate toward occasional hedonism because they're confident enough to be a little self-righteous about their own needs and desires, not that increasing hedonistic behavior in people who are already wound a little too tight would make them happier.  To be fair, Bernecker did address that point: "But really enjoying one's hedonic choice isn't actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts...  Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest."

So it makes me wonder what I can do about my own situation, since I doubt that merely eating a slice of chocolate cake for lunch and then taking a nap is going to fix my rabid goal-orientation.  And there is a good side of being as driven as I am; I have thirteen novels and a collection of short stories in print, I entertain the masses by writing here at Skeptophilia six days a week, and given that I ran five hundred kilometers in 65 days, I'm in pretty good physical condition for a 59-year-old.  But I would like to find a way to cycle down the nervous energy, and especially, get rid of the guilt, a relic of a childhood where there were two classes of activity: "accomplishing something worthwhile" and "wasting time."  (Sadly, in my parents' view, reading, writing, and playing music were all in the latter category.)

So it's time for the border collie to give it a rest.  I don't want to switch my patronus to a hound dog sleeping all day on the porch (which honestly is probably outside the realm of possibility in any case).  But it seems like I need to take the Bernecker et al. study to heart.

Maybe starting with the chocolate cake.  That actually sounded pretty good.


Being in the middle of a pandemic, we're constantly being urged to wash our hands and/or use hand sanitizer.  It's not a bad idea, of course; multiple studies have shown that communicable diseases spread far less readily if people take the simple precaution of a thirty-second hand-washing with soap.

But as a culture, we're pretty obsessed with cleanliness.  Consider how many commercial products -- soaps, shampoos, body washes, and so on -- are dedicated solely to cleaning our skin.  Then there are all the products intended to return back to our skin and hair what the first set of products removed; the whole range of conditioners, softeners, lotions, and oils.

How much of this is necessary, or even beneficial?  That's the topic of the new book Clean: The New Science of Skin by doctor and journalist James Hamblin, who considers all of this and more -- the role of hyper-cleanliness in allergies, asthma, and eczema, and fascinating and recently-discovered information about our skin microbiome, the bacteria that colonize our skin and which are actually beneficial to our overall health.  Along the way, he questions things a lot of us take for granted... such as whether we should be showering daily.

It's a fascinating read, and looks at the question from a data-based, scientific standpoint.  Hamblin has put together the most recent evidence on how we should treat the surfaces of our own bodies -- and asks questions that are sure to generate a wealth of discussion.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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