Opiates of the Masses

Recently I read an article talking about how the eight hour work day is somewhat unnecessary, an artifact of outdated notions about employment. Despite various evidence that people tend not to be productive for more than three hours in a day, workplaces will settle for no less than a 40-hour week. The ensuing tiredness that your average worker feels upon returning home from one of these workdays then bolsters our consumer culture, because who wants to do anything besides sit and watch television and eat some easy-to-prepare food after such a long day?

I’ve also heard it said that our millennial generation is the generation of apathy. That the prevailing attitude about the great problems of our times is that there’s nothing you can do about it, so the best approach to take towards these topics is one of stoic acceptance. Putting these two things together, I began to wonder what else might be combining to reduce our culture’s ability to innovate, to create, to break free of its stale assumptions. I’ve written recently on my bad habits that keep me from being the creative and productive person I’d like to be, and I’m sure my experiences are not terribly unique. Recently I crested 80 hours of gameplay in the digital collectible card game Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, and I have to ask myself: if I’d spent those hours on my creative projects, how far along would I be by this point?

So many influences upon us in our daily environments are sedative in nature. We eat a diet high in carbohydrates that makes us sedentary and listless. Moreover, that diet is high in the psychoactive proteins found in modern dwarf wheat, putting us into a cycle of greater consumption and sluggishness of mind. Alcohol is cheap, widely available, and widely felt to be necessary to a good time or useful in escaping stress and other unpleasant feelings. Entertainment available at all hours spits out harsh blue light that diminishes our abilityto sleep, piling ever further on to the daily feeling of drowsiness and lack of ambition.

I’m no tinfoil hat wearer, but if there were some conspiracy to keep, say, the American public docile and compliant, it could hardly have come up with a better cocktail of influences. Sure, we can imbibe caffeine to give us back a bit of our lost energy and alertness, but it’s been my experience that this doesn’t entirely restore the cognitive faculties buried under the rest of this. Individually, one of these ingrained habits would be difficult enough to overcome, but in aggregate, they are overwhelming. Personal energy is crucial for fighting through frustrations and overcoming hurdles of motivation; our environments are all but tailored to afford us as little of that precious resource as possible.

I must marvel at the thought of what apotheosis we could attain if people the world over could break free of these things. If we weren’t narcotized by our food and our entertainment, how many more brilliant creative works would appear? How much easier would it be to enact political change, fight against kyriarchal systems, or pursue our “unrealistic” dreams? For those people who do manage to get out from under these widespread dulling factors and create something amazing, what is the secret sauce that enables them?

I can hope to make some dents in these things in my own life via the Zen Habits or other little insights I’ve picked up along the way, but it isn’t easy. When I get home from my standard eight hour shift, I feel a malaise that reminds me of the anhedonia of depression. I don’t want to so much as wash the dishes, much less write a novel or attend a rally. And so I play my computer games, and my life slowly ebbs away. Can I break free somehow, or will I be musing upon these same observations 20 years from now?


Diet Myths and the Puritan Ethic

Mijara T’ran:

One of the most insidious things about our entrenched set of diet myths is how nicely they dovetail with the other great American myth: that hard work and self-sacrifice cure all ills, raising folk up by their bootstraps from poor house to White House. The great USian traditions of moralizing and anti-intellectualism make the “gluttony and sloth” narrative hard to dislodge.

If we accept that the cycle of carbohydrate intake, insulin resistance, and hormone production in fat tissue describes the progress of obesity and diabetes, then we must accept that we overeat and stop exercising because we get fat, not vice versa. And if we accept that, then we must give up looking at overweight people and saying, “It is their fault for eating so much and sitting around all day! I’m thin, so you can see how much better a person I am than they!”

If we accept that human biology is not well adapted to a diet heavy in grain, then that would admit a victory of scientific understanding over tradition. And we do so hate to yield ground to science! We would prefer to put our faith in the majority, in the old saws of past decades, no matter how ineffectual or thoroughly debunked. (Ever notice how, rather than refute the science behind or effectiveness of e.g. Atkins, detractors dismiss his work as “not mainstream,” how “most nutritionists” don’t subscribe to it?) I’ve always been told that whole grains and fruits will grant me long life; how could that possibly be misleading?

If we accept that there is more going on behind weight gain than “calories in minus calories out,” then that would downplay the mighty power of exercise. No pain, no gain! To get better, you must punish yourself, redouble your efforts, submit to the yoke! Hard work is the American way, the only route to success. Eating more fatty meat and eggs, and cutting out breads and pastas… there is nothing virtuous in that. Even if it works!

It’s not the cause of our current misapprehensions about food and health, exactly (the McGovern Report takes most credit for that), but it does make it harder for us to change course, as a nation. It is far too popular an American hobby to pass judgment on others, to sneer at science, to thump our chests about hard work, for us to let go of it easily. And yet if we do let go of those tendencies, here, we will all be healthier as a result.