Drugged, poisoned, depressed: what is America doing to itself?

Free markets & societies need people who can think freely and clearly Imagine if a foreign power or terrorist group executed a long-term plan to get large numbers of Americans addicted to powerful drugs without knowing their dangers, killing over 50,000 of them a year and making millions unable to function at their best.Imagine they also poisoned our water supply, but did it through government officials, like the governor of Michigan, letting the water become toxic in a way that seems more like incompetence than malice.If that entity had allies inside the government who systematically turned neighborhoods and small towns into places where it's easy to get guns and drugs and cable TV, but hard to get a good education or fresh vegetables in stores or school lunches. You'd breed a generation of children with some level of PTSD and malnutrition.Those kids would struggle to make decisions about life, work, money, or who to vote for. They would grow up obese and tired from a sugary, nutrition-less diet. Most would be too unhealthy to serve in the military.America would become weak. Angry at itself, tired, unable to think straight, and feeling helpless to do better. It would elect officials who prey on that anger and frustration. Am I overstating this doomsday scenario? I don't think so. If a terrorist did to us what we do to ourselves, it would be an act of war.Even those of us in more pleasant bubbles within this economy are feeling the effects. The opioid epidemic hits millionaires, too. So does malnutrition. These problems combine to pose a serious threat to our democracy.Threat to democracy? I know that sounds like hyperbole, but think about it. A free market and free society can only be made up of free people. If our brains are not able to work properly, are we free to think logically? Are we free to think nobly? Are we free to think compassionately or creatively? Or are we ripe for manipulation? Are we more likely as a nation to do stupid things?If you're not sure this is a pervasive problem, ask yourself if you know or at least know of someone who is all or most of these:Afraid they can't pay their bills and constantly stressed about moneyTaking Oxycontin or another drug for painDrinking possibly unsafe tap (or bottled) waterEating too much sugar and processed foods and pushing their bodies towards obesity and type 2 diabetesIn an abusive, violent relationship or recently escaped from oneThat's not outlandish. That's pretty normal. We don't need a foreign power or terrorist organization to do this to us. We're terrorizing ourselves.My hope in studying the idea of a happiness economy is that we can change our profit motive from being focused on money to being focused on creating happiness. And in doing so, we can create systems that work together to solve these problems. And generate money along the way, too. Noah Smith is one of my favorite economists, in part because he is [...]

By | 2017-07-24T16:01:18+00:00 July 24th, 2017|Happiness|0 Comments

Work, for many, is more like dictatorship than democracy

When you see it laid out plainly as in this piece from Vox, you realize why people are so dissatisfied. Most of us spend our work day, which is most of our day, under oppressive, even humiliating conditions that are more like dictatorship than life in a free country.

By | 2017-07-17T19:19:27+00:00 July 17th, 2017|Happiness, Profit|0 Comments

iPhone co-designer: “What did we bring to the world?”

For my friends who work in design, a powerful question posed by Tony Fadell, Nest founder and co-designer of the iPod and iPhone. His question is powerful not just because design affects us deeply and we ought to think deeply about it, but also because it shows that great designers are so often people with strong consciences, who are guided as much by their moral compasses as aesthetics. “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?” he says. “Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can–like we see with fake news–blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?” The answer is clearly both. Former Google product manager and Design Ethicist (Google has those—although surprisingly Chrome just told me "ethicist" isn't in Google's dictionary) Tristan Harris wrote a widely-read Medium post about how apps are designed to be addictive and play our brains to keep us hooked to our phones to an unhealthy degree. He was later interviewed on 60 Minutes about it. But it's not just phones and newer tech. Former Fox News contributor Tobin Smith wrote a long essay in May, "FEAR & UNbalanced: Confessions of a 14-Year Fox News Hitman" about how Fox's programming was designed, right down to the length and structure of each segment, to affect the dopamine levels of its older target audience. It was never designed to report news or even to make logical sense, but to stimulate the brain and keep people watching. Now that is sophisticated design. Any design innovation will unleash new power and capability and often that capability will be amoral. How people use it, of course, will depend on their motives. That suggests that anyone designing anything, whether it's a political message or a new app or device, should think about more than the "user experience" of the people using it, while they are using it. We should think about what happens in their lives when they're not using the new thing we've so brilliantly designed and gotten them to buy: how their lives are going after they've finished voting for your candidate and agenda, when they are trying to turn off the device and get some sleep, when they are trying to focus on a conversation instead of a notification. UX could stand for more than the user's experience of the product. We could decide that UX means their overall experience of life now that the product is part of it. Source: Nest Founder: “I Wake Up In Cold Sweats Thinking, What Did We Bring To The World?”

By | 2017-07-22T14:45:43+00:00 July 11th, 2017|Happiness|0 Comments

Jefferson’s powerful last public letter reminds us what Independence Day is all about – The Washington Post

For me, it's about remembering that we weren't born "with saddles on our backs," we weren't born to be exploited but rather, we were born "to assume the blessings & security of self government" and enjoy "the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion." And that by doing so, Americans give the rest of the world permission and courage to do the same.

By | 2017-07-16T12:12:09+00:00 July 4th, 2017|Happiness|0 Comments

Accidents of grace

Several people have asked me, including my taxi driver, Moses just now, why Africa, why Kilimanjaro? Since they asked in a way that suggests they want a deeper answer, I tried to come up with one. I wasn’t sure myself at first, but now I can find a few reasons. Among them are another mountain half a lifetime ago, my great-grandmother’s passport, and a desire to be uncomfortable. I was a few weeks shy of 22 when I arrived in Japan for my first job after college. Plagued by depression and low self-confidence, I had barely managed to graduate and get a job. I had begun to see myself as always destined to screw up and fall short. I clung to the few bright spots.When a few teachers put kind comments on a few essays, it was enough to make me want to get better at writing and eventually, teaching, not necessarily because I felt called, but just that it was the one subject I didn’t screw up in. I changed my major from astrophysics to English, which led to auditioning for The Merchant of Venice and somehow landing the role of Shylock. It was a rare success and my first experience throwing myself that intensely into something. By the end, I was speaking in iambic pentameter half the time without knowing it. The applause, the good reviews, and an offer from a professional company were a balm for my fragile ego. Other bright spots had been not just unplanned but completely accidental. One took place 11 stories up. After a trip to the beach, about 19 of my college friends and I crammed in the elevator to return to our rooms. We were sweaty and tired and packed into an elevator car with a maximum capacity of 10. It ground to a halt between the 11th and 12th floors. The stronger guys pried open the inner door and because I was skinny I was able to squeeze through the gap and onto the roof. From there I climbed up the ladder on the shaft wall and somehow got the latch open. While I was up there, alone and looking down 100 feet, I remember feeling relaxed and free of anxiety for the first time in years. It was a lovely sensation, one I wasn’t expecting to feel while dangling from the side of an elevator shaft by one hand while reaching for the latch. I also remember that the instant I opened it and people saw me, I started acting scared, as though I was obliged to. I think many of the times we are afraid, we might be half-pretending. Why? To play a role that is convenient for ourselves and others. I just realized now that I never had stage fright while playing Shylock, either. As long as I was acting, I could give myself permission to act like a guy who doesn’t get stage fright. I got yet another accidental encounter with self-confidence at 2:30 AM [...]

By | 2016-10-30T21:26:10+00:00 August 6th, 2016|Happiness|0 Comments

Creatures of habits

I got passed by an ambulance while riding my electric bike to Edward Hospital yesterday. I knew they were headed there, too, and I knew the person inside was probably about to meet my sister, whose 5am shift as ER physician was not quite up. It was one of those moments we all get daily: a chance to be grateful for the health we have, to reflect that “time and chance happeneth” to us all but today, anyway, we get to be the one cycling on a sunny afternoon (with an electric motor doing the work) instead of the one in the ambulance. I was going for my first ever routine physical, to get a final go-ahead to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in six weeks. As the son of a doctor, I got free healthcare at home and as an adult, I never saw the need. Fortunately I was healthy until depression and a series of stupid excuses led me to make destroying my health a habit. It took just a few years to find myself in that same ER, too weak to climb a flight of stairs, never mind a mountain in Africa. It was a lesson for me in the power of habits to destroy and to save, to break us and, if we’re grateful and patient, to remake us. One of the most common reasons Americans find themselves in ambulances is chest pain and other symptoms of a heart attack. Heart attacks usually result in part from years of habits. Undoing heart disease means adopting new habits, but by some miracle, undoing the damage often takes less time. That’s because we’re helping, rather than opposing the body’s will to heal. Other reasons people end up in ambulances come from poverty: tooth abscesses in people who can’t afford a dentist, minor infections that got worse because the person couldn’t take off work to see a doctor or doesn’t have health insurance, or both. Obamacare has reduced the number of people with the last problem by over 10 million. The other problem is harder to change. The fact that most of us, not just Walmart workers, can’t take family and sick leave freely, is the result of a bad habit we’ve adopted as a society: a screwed-up version of capitalism that forces companies to value short-term shareholder profits and productivity above the long-term health of the company and its employees. The places where we work are rarely designed to make us healthy, even those like mine which give you a free gym membership. Yet somehow, we vote for people who tell us it's right and patriotic to overwork so shareholders can profit; and only lazy people—millenials, liberals, mothers—want to undermine productivity. We vote to have our tax dollars selectively benefit those already wealthier than us. We make a lifestyle of waiting in drive-thrus for coffee we’ll barely taste as we commute, of sending our kids to school in the dark instead of letting them learn to love mornings, and of [...]

By | 2016-10-30T21:26:12+00:00 July 2nd, 2016|Happiness|0 Comments

Hello, World! (Again.) Why I’m climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

I was dismayed last year to realize my passport, which I hadn’t used in 9 years, was about to expire. I hadn’t left the country since the Bush administration. I speak six or seven languages well enough to make small talk and find my way around; I hadn’t used but one in almost a decade. Recently my mother showed me my great-grandmother’s passport. She circled the world in the late fifties—unheard of for an Indian woman in her sixties. Her passport has stamps from Kabul, Moscow, Bangkok...it’s almost full. I held my own expired passport, saw the old photo of myself, and flipped through the unfilled visa pages, blank after blank. Insert metaphor here. What was my excuse? Sure, those nine years were financially difficult (speaking of the Bush administration…) and I had had a major health scare and almost died. In 2016 I found myself back in good health, with a nice middle-class job in a Chicago skyscraper, and no valid passport. I was told I should get one because our parent company is in London and I might have to visit. That doesn’t look likely to happen soon (what do communication directors have to meet about?). Even if it did, who wants to travel to London to sit in an office and talk about derivatives trading? Some live Shakespeare, some curry, a trip to the countryside, looking up distant cousins—those things would be fun. A punk rock concert, Harrod’s, a random local pub, and how far is Stonehenge? But a few days of “And this is our head of blah-blah.” “Oh yes, we’ve met on email! Nice to finally meet you in person.” That’s not travel. No offense to the Head of Blah-blah. She’s a lovely person. I took one short business trip to a conference in Denver. Beautiful downtown and perfect weather in September. The hotel and conference couldn’t have been nicer. As those things go. They go like conferences, don’t they? I got a great Eddie Bauer jacket in my swag bag, though. The best part of the trip was the extra day I stayed to hike and rock climb in Red Rocks and drive into the Rockies. At last I was somewhere, watching the sunrise from atop a huge boulder, dangling off a cliff to get a selfie. Eating second breakfast at a small-town cafe that I suspect put weed in the coffee. Since when does coffee have a grassy smell? On the Amtrak ride home—yes, Amtrak. I’d never tried it. Everyone should do it once. The seat is better than a first-class plane seat for sleeping and Denver’s Union Station is in the middle of its picture-perfect downtown. You have to not be in a hurry. Bring something to read or write or binge-watch. The shinkansen in Japan is over 50 years old, fast, and a pleasure to ride and it makes you wonder why Americans are forced by their government to endure slow trains. It’s not really more expensive, in the big [...]

By | 2016-10-30T21:26:12+00:00 June 27th, 2016|Happiness|0 Comments