The Meditative Quality of Art

From early childhood up until my early twenties, I was an artist. Not in any particularly prolific or professional sense; just someone who liked to sketch, doodle, and draw fairly regularly. I cannot recall when or why I stopped exactly, but I have been meaning to get back into it, and on occasion I do manage to pull of a crude sketch or two.

A recent article in the Washington Post is giving me yet another reason to get back into the habit. As so many artists throughout history have attested, there is evidence that creative activity is good for the mind, as well as the body, being utilized to great effect in therapy. Everything from depression to post traumatic stress disorder and even cancer (namely symptoms like fatigue and pain) is mitigated through the creative process.

Whatever the exact mechanics of it, there is just something about making art that helps us feel better, both emotionally and physically. Here are four evidence-backed reasons, courtesy of WaPo  and Fulfillment Daily,  why letting loose with one’s inner creativity, regardless of skill level, is well worth trying. Continue reading

Diet is More Important Than Exercise for Losing Fat

I say losing fat as opposed to losing weight because the latter is too broad: if excess weight is due to larger muscle mass for example, it is (usually) far less troubling for health reasons. When people speak of losing weight, they really mean improving the ratio of fat to muscle in their bodies (hence the phenomenon of “skinny fat“, in which someone appears slim in both appearance and scale results, but has a disproportionate amount of fat relative to muscle).

With all that cleared up, I know what many people are thinking: another study countering what so many other studies have previously established. This seems to be a perennial problem in nutritional science, which is still a young and developing field full of unknowns and rife with difficulties in conducting research (there are so many variables affecting health and weight among individuals that it takes unfeasible large and long-term studies to get solid, measurable results — hence why so many conventional wisdoms are being challenges decades later following the build-up of many studies).

Anyway, take the following report in the Washington Post as you will. From what I have read on the subject, the claims of these researchers do seem well-substantiated, but feel free to present your own arguments.  Continue reading

Chart: How The American Diet Has Changed Over Forty Years

Utilizing USDA data, Vox.com has produced acolorful graph that charts the vast changes in the average American’s diet since 1972. (Note that it shows the total supply of these items divided by the number of Americans, rather than exact consumption levels. However, this nonetheless gives a good sense of how eating patterns are changing over time, especially insofar as supply both reflects and often influences demand.)

Here is some analysis from the article:

[Y]ou might notice there are a lot of olive-green bars toward the bottom. We’re all eating a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than we used to. That’s in part a story about changing tastes, but it’s also about economics — globalization and trade deals like NAFTA have given Americans more access to a wealth of fruits such as limes and avocados. And it appears those foods have replaced preserved or processed produce — many of the foods whose availability has shrunk are those maroon bars that represent canned, frozen, or dried produce.

While we’re eating a lot more fresh fruits and veggies than before, we’re not getting healthier all around. High-fructose corn syrup consumption has skyrocketed. Back in 1972 — right around the time that it was first introduced — we had 1.2 pounds per capita of the syrup available to us. Today, it’s 46.2 pounds … and that’s in fact down substantially from a high of 63 pounds in 1999.

Of course, don’t let the numbers fool you on a few of these — some of the massive growth came because of very small numbers. For example, it’s not that we’re eating piles and piles of lima beans today; rather, it’s that we were eating only 0.0005 pounds in 1989 versus 0.007 pounds in 2012 — a huge percentage gain in growth from an initially very small number.

What are your thoughts and reactions?

The Doom of Procrastination

An article in The Atlantic points to research showing that procrastination is less about laziness and more about emotion and psychological state of being.

When scientists have studied procrastination, they’ve typically focused on how people are miserable at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, everybody recognizes, in the abstract, that it’s important to go to the dentist every few months. The pain is upfront and obvious—dental work is torture—and the rewards of cleaner teeth are often remote, so we allow the appointment to slip through our minds and off our calendars. Across several categories including dieting, saving money, and sending important emails, we constantly choose short and small rewards (whose benefits are dubious, but immediate) over longer and larger payouts (whose benefits are obvious, but distant).

In the last few years, however, scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotion. Procrastination “really has nothing to do with time-management,” Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told Psychological Science. “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

Instead, Ferrari and others think procrastination happens for two basic reasons: (1) We delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task, and (2) We assume that our mood will change in the near future.

To make matters worse, putting things off leads to a vicious cycle, in which a looming deadline and / or the sense of being lazy or unproductive makes us anxious, guilty, and moody — and thus no where near the right state of mind to get started (I can attest to feeling this when it comes to my queue of blog topics to write about, both here and at my job).

The following chart from the article captures the sentiment well.

So how do we break this cycle of “loom, gloom, and doom”?

To hack your way to productivity, you could schedule one-shot reminders as late as possible—even slightly after you were supposed to start the project. Not only will the last-second reminder and looming deadline break the doom loop and shock you into action, but also it won’t give you time to put off—and, potentially, forget about—the task.

For pathological procrastinators, recognizing that we need deadlines to bind ourselves to our responsibilities is the first step. The second step is recognizing that our own deadlines are less effective than other people’s deadlines.

In one famous experiment, Dan Ariely hired 60 students to proofread three passages. One group got a weekly deadline for each passage, a second group got one deadline for all three readings, and the third group chose their own deadlines. Readers were rewarded for the errors they found and penalized a dollar for each day they were late. Group II performed the worst. The group with external deadlines performed the best. “People strategically try to curb [procrastination] by using costly self-imposed deadlines,” Ariely and his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded, “and [they] are not always as effective as some external deadlines.”

A more theoretical approach, from Yanping Tu and Dilip Soman writing in the new Journal of Consumer Research, aims to change “the way consumers think about the future.” Tu and Soman point out that people have a habit of managing goals and tasks in specific time categories—we plan activities by the day, expenses by the month, and resolutions by the year. This way of thinking can separate us from future selves. When we say “I’ll start that project next week,” or “I’m starting my diet next month,” what we’re really saying is “I hope that after an arbitrary amount of time, I will be in a better mood to bind myself to this task.”

One study in their paper asked consumers to open a savings account within six months. One group was given a December deadline in June and a second group was given a January deadline in July. Although each group presumably contained a similar number of procrastinators, significantly more people in the first group chose to open their account immediately. When the deadline was a calendar year away, people were more likely to rationalize that they could put it off.

Finally, procrastinators are more likely to complete a piece of work if they’re persuaded that it’s not actually work. In one study reviewed by Jaffe, students were asked to complete a puzzle, but first they were given a few minutes to play Tetris. “Chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation,” he wrote. When scientists described the puzzle as a game, they were just as likely to practice as anybody else.

I will definitely try putting these into practice. What are some ways you successful overcome (or at the very least cope with) procrastination?

Writing Does a Brain and Body Good

For those who love to write, the act itself — of creating new worlds, characters, and narratives, or of simply recording thoughts, experiences, and musings — is rewarding enough on its own. But an article in Mic.com cites a growing body of research suggesting that writing of any kind has palpable benefits to physical and mental health.

James W. Pennebaker has been conducting research on writing to heal for years at the University of Texas at Austin. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker writes. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.”

Why? Pennebaker believes this act of expressive writing allows people to take a step back and evaluate their lives. Instead of obsessing unhealthily over an event, they can focus on moving forward. By doing so, stress levels go down and health correspondingly goes up.

You don’t have to be a serious novelist or constantly reflecting on your life’s most traumatic moments to get these great benefits. Even blogging or journaling is enough to see results. One study found that blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to the effect from running or listening to music.

I am sure the results vary wildly from person to person, but I can attest to writing having a calming effect on me. At the very least, it offers a nice escape. What are your thoughts?

Six People From Nepal Weigh In On World Happiness Day

Today, March 20, is the United Nations International Day of Happiness, which recognizes the importance of creating economic, social, and political paradigms that favor well-being not only in the basic sense (food, healthcare, shelter, etc.) but in psychological and mental flourishing.

Nepal, a country of 25 million located between India and China, seems to be an auspicious choice for NPR to spotlight in commemoration of this event. It is “struggling out of poverty after a decade-long civil war”, has faced chronic political paralysis by “squabbling politicians”, and suffers unemployment so high that “1,500 youth leave every day for jobs in Malaysia and the Middle East.”

But none of this means that Nepal is devoid of happy people, each of whom offer unique lessons and perspectives on how they — and others — can be happy even in the most trying individual and societal circumstances. Here are six such views:

Tara Devi thinks she is about 45 years old and has three adult children. She is a farmer in Khokana, one of the oldest Newar towns in the Kathmandu Valley. Her family has lived here for generations. Tara has never attended school and can speak only Newar, a Tibeto-Burmese language, and a smattering of Hindi she has learned from Bollywood movies. She loves to laugh.

“Working is my happiness. I go to my fields every day. We grow everything we eat: garlic, rice, vegetables. I have done this since I was a child. And I love Bollywood movies. But the government — they cut the electricity all the time and it is hard to watch the movies. Where is our constitution? Where is the development the government promises? That makes me sad. But I do not like to be sad. It is better to be happy.”

Devaki Raut, 16, says reading makes her happy.

Devaki Raut, 16, says reading makes her happy.

Devaki Raut, 16, comes from Sindhupalchowk District in central Nepal, east of Kathmandu, where her parents still reside. Devaki, who is in eighth grade, lives in Lalitpur near Kathmandu in a home where she is also employed as a domestic worker, earning her school and boarding fees. She has no Internet access at the house, nor does she own a cellphone.

“I am happy all the time. When I am not studying or working, I chat with my friends. We all love to play volleyball and badminton. Reading makes me happy. My sister and I will be the first girls in our family to go to college. I want to study computer science. Thinking of this makes me feel good.”

Keshav Shiwakoti, 52, is a former communist revolutionary from a small village in the high mountains of eastern Nepal. One of seven children, he grew up in stark poverty. Looking for employment, he moved to Kathmandu, where he learned English and became a high-end cook specializing in European cuisine. His only child, a son, is a migrant worker in Abu Dhabi.

“I fought for change for 19 years, but I have no faith in our government. On World Happiness Day, everyone should drop their guns. The small, fleeting moments make me happy — like the child I just saw on the street being breast-fed by her mother, or watching my baby goats play. It’s the joy in sunshine or rain. Sometimes I cry because I feel such great happiness.”

Kunda Dixit, 60, likes to make faces to make himself — and others — feel happy.

Kunda Dixit, 60, likes to make faces to make himself — and others — feel happy.

Kunda Dixit, 60, writer, journalist and political satirist, is editor of The Nepali Times, an avid trekker and an expert on all things related to airplanes and airports. Political satire is his version of happiness therapy.

“What makes me happy is that we Nepalis have this irreverent sense of humor and the ability to be happy about how unhappy we are. I survived absolute monarchies, military coups, Maoist prime ministers who believed editors needed to be spanked, right down to the bunch of clowns who are ruling over us today. But I may soon be out of a job [as a satirist] because the present crop of politicians are giving me stiff competition.”

Sabin Munikar, 28, is a self-taught violin and piano player and teaches at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. He is the founder of the Kathmandu Youth Orchestra, which plays traditional Nepali music. He also loves and plays jazz and classical music. Newly married, he hopes to do graduate studies in music in the U.S.

“For me, happiness means being completely myself wherever I am. It means freedom from cunning ideologies, philosophies and rules and regulations. It also means freedom from diseases. But even better than being happy all alone, my ultimate happiness is happiness for everyone in the world. It feels so good to watch people celebrate, laugh, sing and dance. But it is important to add that I will be truly happy only when I choose my own destiny.”

Woeser Choeden, 90, greets her oldest grandson. She finds great happiness in having raised four "independent and capable" daughters.

Woeser Choeden greets her oldest grandson. She finds great happiness in having raised four “independent and capable” daughters.

Woeser Choeden, 90, has no formal education. In 1960, she fled Tibet to Nepal on foot with her two oldest daughters. Two yaks carried the family food as well as her two youngest daughters. She has 20 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

“Happiness is relative. There are always worries and failures but I gather internal strength from the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. My life has been long. I find great happiness in having raised four independent and capable daughters. I am lucky. Happiness for me is about contentment not about extremes of happiness or sadness. I tell my children to embrace the suffering and hardship that come through hard work. Only then can one truly understand happiness.”

By no means does this suggest that Nepal and other countries should not do more to improve the circumstances of their people. It just shows that humans have a remarkable capacity to endure the worst that life throws at them and can instead find pleasure in the simple things — work, music, jokes, good weather, and much more we take for granted.

The Perils Of Too Much Sitting

The desk job is much vaunted in the U.S. for offering, among other alleged perks, the benefit of being able to sit all day. But while this may seem more comfortable and less draining than standing or running around, such a sedentary existence can bring significant negative health consequences in the long-term.

While there is no shortage of news articles and studies highlighting the modern problem of “over-sitting” — see here, here, and here — the following video does a good job of summarizing why our bodies are so susceptible to this comfy practice and what we can do about it.

In essence, our bodies were not evolved for so little movement over a long period of time. Everything from out skeletal and muscular system, to even our blood circulation, depends on regular doses of activity, even if it just standing, stretching, or walking.

As someone who went from seven years of working the fast-paced world of retail, to now a little over two years at a desk job, I can definitely feel the difference in my health. Were it not for regularly thirty-minute intervals of stretching and standing, as well as two to three walks around the block each day during work, I would likely be in a lot worse shape (as I had been before I learned these things and started trying to counteract them).

I owe it to my job for allowing such freedom of movement, as not enough workplaces do so despite the known risks. More employers should implement worksite wellness programs or at least allow their employees an opportunity to step out for walks, stretches, and light aerobics.

I shall reflect on these things as I go for my second walk. Feel free to weigh in as always.

 

Article of Interest: The Cost of Paying Attention

From the New York Times comes a highly relevant reflection on something that bedevils most people in the modern world: the constant bombardment of distractions and stimuli that make it harder and harder for us to focus on any one thing.

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.

Rethinking Daylight Savings Time

And by rethinking it, I mean ending it. Aside from the inconvenience of having to adjust one’s sleeping pattern — most clocks nowadays are automated so at least that part is less troublesome — daylight savings time (DST) is both unnecessary and in many measurable respects, does more harm than good.

The Atlantic outlines just some of the problems with this fairly new and unusual concept:

Daylight Saving has been an official ritual since 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson codified it into law during the waning days of World War One. Nowadays, its ostensible purpose is to save energy: One more hour of sunlight in the evening means one less hour of consumption of artificial lighting. In 2005, President George W. Bush lengthened Daylight Saving Time by a month as part of a sweeping energy bill signed that year, citing the need to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

But does Daylight Saving Time actually make much of a difference? Evidence suggests that the answer is no. After the Australian government extended Daylight Saving Time by two months in 2000 in order to accommodate the Sydney Olympic Games, a study at UC Berkeley showed that the move failed to reduce electricity demand at all. More recently, a study of homes in Indiana—a state that adopted Daylight Saving Time only in 2006—showed that the savings from electricity use were negated, and then some, by additional use of air conditioning and heat.

The simple act of adjusting to the time change, however subtle, also has measurable consequences. Many people feel the effects of the “spring forward” for longer than a day; a study showed that Americans lose around 40 minutes of sleep on the Sunday night after the shift. This means more than just additional yawns on Monday: the resulting loss in productivity costs the economy an estimated $434 million a year.

Daylight Saving Time may also hurt people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, depriving them of light in the mornings. “Our circadian rhythms were set eons ago to a rhythm that didn’t include daylight savings time, so the shift tends to throw people off a bit,” Nicholas Rummo, the director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, New York, told HealthDay News. The switchover to Daylight Saving Time is also linked to an increase in heart attacks as well as traffic accidents.

While we take it as a given, adjusting our clocks in this manner is actually a pretty novel idea, and one that is hardly universal. The article points out that millions of people in the United States — namely those living Arizona, Hawaii, and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — do not observe the practice, and have done just fine (even despite being out of step with the majority of the nation).

Indeed, most of the world does not observe DST, and those comparatively few nations that do so have no appreciable advantage.

Daylight Savings Time Around The World

In short, DST is a dated idea with little empirical evidence or efficacy backing up it up. But even if there emerges any concerted effort to end this practice, phasing it out will probably take time given its familiarity.

Sleep deprivation is killing your career

Some practical advice to consider implementing, when or if possible. I have definitely seen big benefits in many areas of my personal and professional life from adequate sleep, but I am fortunate to have a work and lifestyle schedule that accommodates most of these suggestions. What is most important is experimenting with these and other ideas, since sleeping needs vary wildly by individual.