Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Affirming your way to your own goals, not mine

In my last post I wrote about how I dropped 70 lbs. to achieve a long-term healthy lifestyle. Last month I wrote about—and defended—those who choose to follow less healthy lifestyles. On the surface these two posts may seem at odds with each other. Let's see if I can square that circle.

Let's start by looking past the surface of my last post. A quick read might make that article look like a vain self congratulatory promo for health consciousness. In reality, I was writing about ways to achieve goals that are important to you by highlighting my successes in accomplishing objectives that have been important to me.

The principles I outlined can be applied to your own ambitions, whatever they may be. The beautiful thing is that your aspirations don't have to look anything like mine.

I know and love a couple of people who like to show their care for others by introducing them to things that they like themselves. The underlying belief is that if they like something, everyone else must like it too. It seems to blow their minds when someone is less enthusiastic about something than they are.

Like Dr. Seuss's Sam-I-Am from Green Eggs and Ham, when these folks encounter someone who doesn't care for something they savor, they are certain that dogged (often annoying) persistence is the appropriate response. Those with authoritarian leanings have no problem also considering coercive measures.

But unlike Seuss's Joey who ultimately discovers his enjoyment of green eggs and ham, people in real life often do not come to love things that they are pestered about trying. People have diverse preferences, and with the exception of the political realm and sports fandom, that's usually just fine.

So it is in this case. You do not have to be fanatically invested in the worship of carnal fitness to find some benefit in positively changing something about yourself by positively changing your internal picture of yourself. I fully agree that physical fitness isn't the be all and end all of human happiness. Nor is longevity, as I reminded each time I visit my mom's elder care facility.

What is something you want to change about yourself? Go back and read my March 14 post to see if there are any principles there that might be beneficial to you.

Now, it's entirely possible that the affirmation approach I mentioned in that blog post is nothing more than self delusion. It might include confirmation bias that gets adherents to ignore system failures while paying outsize attention to coincidental successes, much as gambling works for habitual gamblers. Naysayers note that there are no studies that back up the claims of affirmationists; just testimonials, as is often the case with herbal supplements.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams once agreed that his brand of affirmation is probably just a form of self hypnosis. But he then noted that the happiness and satisfaction his affirmations have brought him are real enough to keep him doing it. Why should he care if the results might not be scientifically validated when his life is happier?

#1 New York Times best-selling author Pam Grout has also successfully employed affirmations. In this July 2016 blog post she writes about Adams' approach to affirmations. She notes that Adams started out being skeptical about affirmations but figured the cost was low enough that he would try it out, only to encounter success after success. A date with a dream girl, investment success with no experience, scoring exceptionally high on the GMAT with no preparation, etc.

In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Adams explains how he recovered from the rare (and thought to be incurable) disease of spasmodic dysphonia by using an affirmation. It's worth reading the book to get this story. In fact, Adams cleverly scatters the story throughout the book, leaving a tantalizing trail that requires you to read the whole book to get the full tale.

In the end, Adams confesses that a dispassionate observer might conclude that his affirmation played little discernible role in discovering the expensive and unusual treatment that led to his recovery. But in Adams' mind the series of events that led to this result would not have happened without his affirmation.

I have likewise used affirmations to good effect and I'm far from the only one. This cold thinking atheist says that affirmations helped him triple his income over a four-month period. Writing about the "astonishing" coincidences, he says, "I think that when you write a goal every day 15 times, your brain starts paying attention to the opportunities around you."

Can affirmations work to help you achieve your goals? There's only one way to find out. Give it a shot. The cost of doing affirmations is pretty meager. You have very little to lose and much to gain. Try it out. Post your results.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

As a man thinketh in his heart...

As I type this I am wearing jeans with a 31-inch waist. They fit comfortably and feel good. Why is this significant? Because when I was 27 years old I was wearing jeans with a 43-inch waist. And they were way too tight. That's right, the pants I wear today are a full foot smaller around the waist than the pants I wore back then.

Growing up chunky
I grew up somewhat chubby. I was never much interested in athletics or fitness. As a result I was relentlessly teased by peers and loved ones. Mind you, I wasn't obese, just a bit overweight and not very confident. Every day my family members and friends sent me countless overt and subvert messages impugning my corpulence. Even attempts to be nice about the matter often came across as back-handed compliments.

Incessant messages implying my inferiority due to being somewhat overweight deeply impacted my psyche. I subconsciously assumed that others would like me better, and that I would like myself better, if only I were skinnier. This is a faulty basis for self esteem. Those who love you love you. If they would love a trimmer you better, maybe their brand of love is just a shallow imitation of the real thing.

Fat shaming kids
Besides, studies show that fat shaming succeeds in making people feel bad but fails at improving their physical health. In fact, it reinforces the self image of being overweight which results in increased obesity. So fat shaming literally works to harm both the mental and physical health of the victim. What really works is addressing each individual's psychological needs.

My first serious weight loss regimen occurred when I was 16 years old, the summer I spent planting pineapples in Hawaii. Thanks to the careful coaching of my crew supervisor, Trace Sweeten, and day after day of hard manual labor, I slimmed down five inches around the waist that summer. I came home tan and trim with a mop of sun-bleached hair.

It didn't last. My next weight loss effort came during my mission to Norway. This was successful thanks to regular encouragement from Elder Jerry Humphreys and Elder Todd Hatch. My next weight loss program began about three years after I returned from my mission when some ladies in my local congregation started an aerobics class. This worked to maintain fitness but it didn't cut much fat.

Well shy of my largest
Getting heavy
After getting married my weight grew steadily along with my waistline. One Christmas my parents took me to a men's clothing store to buy me a new suit coat, given that none of my suits fit any longer. When the clothier measured me he said that I would need a size 51 jacket. The jackets hanging in my closet back home were size 41.

I stood in the clothing store thinking about my expanding corpus. The problem was that my girth gain trajectory wasn't slowing down. If I got a size 51 jacket, how long would it be before that coat no longer fit? Something had to change to improve the situation. I worried that if this continued I'd ruin my health and be dead by age 35.

Not long after that I was watching an infomercial on TV late on a Saturday morning. (Yeah, that's pathetic.) They were hawking a weight loss program billed as The Neuropsychology of Weight Control. It had a 60-day money back guarantee. So for the first — and last — time in my life I bought something from an infomercial.

Changing my mind → changing my body
I dove into the program full bore. Within 60 days I had lost more than 20 lbs., so I wasn't going to send it back. Within a year I had lost a total of about 60 lbs. One of the features of this program was self imaging to change one's self perception. It taught that becoming permanently trim in body required that you first had to trim that body in your mind.

This worked for me. It required fanatical devotion to the program, but it worked. Eventually I was able to fit into my old suits and the same clothing I had worn at age 21. With a lot of effort over the years, I dropped another 10 lbs. Then my clothes were too large. But I didn't get new trim fitting clothes because I guess I still envisioned myself just a bit overweight, as I had been through most of my formative years.

One day last year, my wife and I were wandering around downtown Salt Lake City with my brother and sister-in-law looking for something to do between my nephew's wedding and the wedding luncheon. My brother suggested that we drop into a clothing shop that had a track record of selling nice stuff that was likely out of my price range.

We were just looking for a diversion. But soon one of the salesmen had me trying on the nicest fitting, best feeling dress shirt I have ever encountered. It was $260—for one shirt! He had me trying on a suit jacket that fit and felt amazing, promising that he could get me into a suit for "just $1,200." He noted that everything I was trying on was "slim fit," made for trim guys. Noting my physique, the man asked, "Why are you wearing full cut clothing?"

Although we left the shop without buying anything, the experience left me with a new perception of my body shape. I had been a slim fit guy for years; I just hadn't known it in my head. My wife and I have been retooling my wardrobe since then. It turns out that decent slim fit clothing can be had at frugal prices. Maybe these duds aren't as nice as the $260 dress shirt I tried on, but they're good enough at a fraction of the price.

To be honest, I'm still fighting the battle against fat gain after all of these years. It requires continuous effort. I frequently deny myself fare that tempts me and I work out daily, even when I don't feel like it. But that effort has become part of who I am. It's what I do because that's how I see myself in my mind.

Affirming mind change
Dilbert creator Scott Adams has written about affirmations in several of his books and in blog posts like this one. Although he doesn't believe in magic, Adams writes, "The idea behind affirmations is that you simply write down your goals 15 times a day and somehow, as if by magic, coincidences start to build until you achieve your objective against all odds." He offers several rational potential explanations for how affirmations might work.

In other places Adams has said that writing the affirmation isn't completely necessary. It can be verbal or even nonverbal. I have tried written, verbal, and nonverbal affirmations. Like Adams, I have for the most part realized the goals I have repeatedly affirmed to myself. This approach has failed when I have not been fully committed to the goal for one reason or another. One of my affirmations has been, "I will be vibrant, trim, and athletic." And now I am.

Adams seems to be more a fan of goal oriented affirmations than of simple positive affirmations, such as, "I am amazing!" I too have found that affirmations that are specific and measurable work better for me than ethereal concepts. How do you know when you have achieved amazing? Here is an example how affirmations have worked for me.

Healing my elbow
Several years ago I injured my right elbow. I never knew how it happened; it just started hurting one day. Nothing I did seemed to help. I even went to a sports medicine doctor without getting much help. After more than a year of pain I started repeating to myself multiple times daily, "My elbow will be healthy, strong, and pain free." I scoured the internet for help and found lots of conflicting advice, even among professionals.

A few weeks into my elbow affirmation, my wife briefly described my symptoms to a physical therapist while visiting him for a different issue. He sent home a sheet with simple instructions for a couple of exercises I could do. The therapist also told my wife that I needed to avoid picking up anything with my palm facing down until the symptoms cleared up. This included doing anything that mimicked lifting palm down, including cycling. This turned out to be a critical factor for me.

After implementing the physical therapist's counsel, it still took months for the elbow to heal well, and even longer for it to reach 100%. But after just a couple of weeks I started to see real improvement in my elbow for the first time in more than a year.

How closely was this related to my affirmation? No clue. But I choose to believe that it played an important role. Perhaps my repeated affirmation caused my brain to notice things, accept information, or create conditions in ways that otherwise would not have occurred.

Change yourself by changing your mind
What am I trying to say here?
  • The human mind is very powerful, sometimes more powerful than we imagine, sometimes less.
    • No, you can't really do anything you decide to do. Some things are outside the realm of possibilities. In one VeggieTales episode, Larry the Cucumber is told that he can't actually become a chicken, no matter how much he desires it. And no matter how much you might want it, your chances of becoming president of the US are pretty low. (Of course, I used to say the same thing about the current occupant of the White House.)
  • Each of us has a picture in our head of who we are, what we look like, how we behave, etc.
  • That picture is influenced by both nature and nurture.
  • The messages we unthinkingly pass to those closest to us (including ourselves) can have far reaching impact on self image, both positive and negative.
  • Thus, we need to take care about the messages we send to ourselves and to others.
  • Sometimes the picture in your head can be inaccurate.
  • Outside influence can improve this picture when the message seems close enough.
  • The opposite is also true. Simple messages can damage your self image when the message resonates enough.
  • You can deliberately send yourself messages to change the picture of you in your mind in positive and healthy ways.
  • Our mind causes us to work to become the picture of us it believes.
As mentioned earlier, I feel pretty good about my current physique. It is actually quite difficult to even picture myself as the heavy guy I once was. That person is just too far away from the me I see in my head. But it took years of real effort to adjust that picture. As mentioned above, some of that picture wasn't adjusted until after my body had already changed.

Today I am enjoying slim fit clothes that fit me better than the clothes I was wearing just a few months ago. This is possible because I have finally adjusted the picture in my head accordingly. I feel pretty great for an old guy with Multiple Sclerosis who used to be quite overweight. And it all started with changing my mind.

To me this is all a great miracle in which I see the hand of God. I feel immensely blessed, even while grappling with a variety of challenges that I am sure will ultimately be for the best.

Want to change something about yourself? Change the picture of yourself in your head. There are ways to do that. The rest will follow. Give it a shot. What have you got to lose?

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Four lost words from my patriarchal blessing

Ever since receiving my patriarchal blessing as a teenager, I have felt that the blessing was a gift to me from God. For the first few years after receiving my blessing I would occasionally get out a printed copy and study it, so I always had an idea of what the blessing contained, even if months went by without me reading it.

At one point I determined that I needed to take my patriarchal blessing more seriously. Since it was personal scripture, I typed it up in the same format as my scriptures, divided columns and all. Each paragraph became a verse. I wrote a header that looked very much like section headers from the Doctrine and Covenants. I put this page in my scriptures where I could easily refer to it. This helped me study my patriarchal blessing more often.

I have been granted a gift for memorization. I don't have perfect memory; I have to work at it. And if I go too long without reviewing something I have memorized I tend to lose some or all of it. But one day I realized that I likely had the ability to memorize my patriarchal blessing. Since making that initial effort years ago I have tried to review my blessing about once each week. This usually occurs during showering, since that's a routine task that requires little active thought.

It should be noted here that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints topics website says, "Patriarchal blessings are sacred and personal. They may be shared with immediate family members, but should not be read aloud in public or read or interpreted by others." It is personal scripture that should be kept sacred and shared only under appropriate circumstances. So I'm not going to give many details of mine here.

Recently I felt prompted to review a printed copy of my patriarchal blessing. The wording includes a brief reference to our premortal life. As I read these familiar words I was stunned to see four words that had somehow over time dropped out of my weekly recitation of the blessing.

Those four words that I had been missing were, "The Lord loved you." As I pondered this I thought to myself, "The Lord loved everyone in the premortal world, even Lucifer and his followers." So maybe I had allowed this phrase to lapse because it is true for everyone. It goes without saying.

Deeper pondering helped me understand that the Lord wanted me to know that he loved me individually in the premortal life. Then I realized that the prompting to go look at my blessing so that I could refamiliarize myself with these four words was the Lord's personal message telling me, "I still love you." He knows me personally and his love for me is intensely personal.

The same is true for you. The Lord knows you individually on a deeply personal level. He knows you much better than you know yourself. And he loves you intensely. He likely sends love messages customized specifically for you. But they are subtle enough that they might easily be missed without close attention. That kind of subtlety is another marker of his love. He wouldn't want to infringe on your ability to freely choose.

So look around. Maybe you will notice a divine love message just for you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Why the typical person doesn't live a healthy lifestyle

I recently taught the cooking merit badge to a group of young Scouts. Today's requirements are far more health conscious than they were when I earned that badge decades ago. When I showed the Scouts that one 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew contains as much sugar as seven large bags of romaine lettuce, most of the boys bragged about how quickly they could gulp down that bottle of Dew.

Our culture idolizes health and fitness. We admire famous and beautiful people (mostly in the entertainment industry) who appear fit and healthy. We pay money and spend time to watch movies that are filled with amazingly fit actors who benefit from professional trainers and chefs, and maybe from a little CG enhancement on screen.

Fit Marvel actors
Typical Americans
But as a society we don't typically DO health and fitness. The typical American doesn't look, eat, or exercise like their movie idols.

Why not? Well, judging by the content of a wide variety of broadcasts and publications, that's something that seems to regularly baffle health and fitness gurus. (Or maybe they're just using this as a foil to demonstrate their superiority to their average counterparts.) A couple of days ago I saw one healthy diet maven whine that while Americans have more healthy eating options than ever before, they seem to increasingly opt for unhealthy dietary choices.

There is really little mystery to this conundrum. Let's see if I can clarify matters for the clueless health and fitness scolds. Here is a quick list of reasons the typical American doesn't follow the experts' health guidelines.
  • Lack of real role models.
  • Social pressure to be more typical.
  • Changeover costs.
  • Sustaining costs.
I'm sure the list could be laid out differently, but this suffices for my purposes. Let's take a quick look at each of these factors, which are all interrelated.

Real life role models
Most Americans don't have many role models of healthy living in their own lives among their own peers and family members. The occasional nutritious eater and/or gym rat they encounter is an outlier. They seem to suffer from an odd fetish. Who has time to prepare gourmet health food or to spend hours at the gym anyway? Most Americans would rather spend their time doing something else, as evidenced by the fact that they actually do spend their time doing something else. They don't see themselves as health geeks.

Social pressure
This means that most of us are surrounded by people who eat the typical American diet and live the typical sedentary American lifestyle. We are inundated with incentives for us to be like those around us. Peer pressure is often mentioned negatively, but it is commonly applied to good, bad, and benign ends. It just is. Would we have to divorce our friends and find a new group of friends to look fit?

The price of change
Which brings us to changeover costs. Any kind of change imposes costs on us. Sometimes those costs are financial, such as the higher price of healthy food or a gym membership bill. The costs that present the greatest challenge, however, involve time and effort, as well as emotional, psychological, and social factors.

I can tell you from personal experience that undertaking a major dietary change is horrendously challenging. It takes a lot of time and effort to learn to plan for, buy, and prepare food for an entirely different eating pattern. Changing your eating regimen changes the way you socialize and interact with people, so it changes your relationships, sometimes in challenging ways.

Although healthy food choices have become much more available during the decades I have pursued nutritious eating, they still generally cost more, are less convenient, and taste ... well, you know. One factor that makes changeover challenging is the astronomical amount of conflicting information constantly hurled at us regarding nutrition. Sorting through all of that stuff is no mean feat. The tangible and intangible costs of changing your lifestyle are enormous.

Curiously, these higher costs seem favorable to those who seek to boost their self esteem by developing a sense of superiority to others. "Sure this lifestyle is expensive," they reason, "but, after all, I am worth it! By the way, do you want to see my new Apple Watch?" That's not to say that all who seek a healthy lifestyle think this way. But more than a few do.

The cost keeps going
Most Americans who attempt to switch to a healthier lifestyle end up reverting to their old patterns before long. It's one thing to get a little fitter and to drop five or ten pounds, if you even get that far. Most who try fail. It's quite another matter to make a permanent lifestyle change. Many of the same factors that affect changeover costs persist long after the change has been made, even when decent results are achieved.

Benefits of better health
The health conscious part of our culture does a great job of touting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, including feeling better, being more energetic, thinking better, sleeping better, better sex, better mobility, needing less medical care and having less disease, and of course, progress along the endless pursuit of the great idol of greater longevity. And they've got valid scientific evidence to back up these claims.

The costs of (the attempt to achieve) better health
But these folks constantly undersell the costs involved in achieving these worthy goals. These costs, however, are not lost on the typical American who can't envision becoming a healthy iron chef or a gym rat. They have lives to live and they want to be happy. It's a simple application of cost-benefit ratio.

Cost-benefit analysis: It's personal
So maybe they won't live as long as the health nut down the street. So what? We all have to die sometime. And most would rather live shorter but happier lives eating pizza and a few cookies now and then over living long while eating roasted Brussels sprouts over warm Bulgar or a cold lentil salad.

And maybe the typical American will end up with a variety of obesity related health conditions. But so will all their friends and family. And then they will have something in common to commiserate about in their later years.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't give up on healthy living. After more than three decades it has become part of who I am. And I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from pursuing a healthier lifestyle. I'm just saying that there are costs to such a lifestyle and that each individual has to weigh whether those costs are worth the potential benefits that may or may not actually be achieved.

While each will ultimately reap the consequences of the health choices they make throughout their lives, the whole point of the human exercise to to pursue happiness. And it would seem, much to the chagrin of health obsessionists, that for many people this goal can be achieved outside of the parameters they prescribe.

The choice to pursue healthy living is not simply a choice between being healthy or not being healthy. It represents a trade off between expending one's limited resources in the (often elusive) quest for better health or using those same resources to seek after other goals. Economists call this opportunity cost. This life is a continual series of trade offs. Each of us makes countless such choices daily (under the specter of necessarily imperfect information) with the goal of maximizing our happiness.

I have often chosen the health fetish path in the belief that this improves my life overall. I have sacrificed other choices I could have made, assuming that these would have proven inferior to me. My choices have made me a different person than I would otherwise have been. And I'm OK with that. But many who have eschewed a fixation on health could likely say the same thing: that they are happy overall with the results of their choices, regardless of what health elitists think is best for them.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Why are Americans more lonely than ever?

Is our current divisive political climate really just a symptom of widespread loneliness? (My son says that whenever an author poses a question like this the answer is always yes.) Jonah Goldberg thinks so.

Years ago I used to read Goldberg's musings with some regularity. But that stopped when I broke up with my former political self. The nation's political climate has become increasingly noxious since that time. Myself? I've never been happier.

In a recent National Review article Goldberg essentially classes himself and people like him as part of the problem. He says that "it is an occupational hazard in [his] line of work to be constantly drenched in the muck of politics." But that's not what I'm talking about. Political commentators have been around since the dawn of humans.

I'm talking about Goldberg's acknowledgement that he and his wife are among the increasing number of Americans who opt for dogs over children. He calls dogs a political safe harbor. "They don’t care about political correctness. They don’t want to Make America Great Again or join the “Resistance.” They just want to pursue doggie goodness as they see it."

Now don't get me wrong. I too love dogs and I am in favor of people having the right to keep and bear dogs—as long as they are responsible pet owners. But Goldberg cites psychologist Clay Routledge as describing increasing dog ownership as "a symptom of America’s very real loneliness crisis." Routledge says that "pets may be appealing to some because they lack the agency of humans and thus require less compromise and sacrifice." It has long been known that it's easier to raise a dog than a human, but increasing numbers of humans are forgoing the latter in favor of the former.

Goldberg goes on to cite Senator Ben Sasse's contention in his book Them that "America’s loneliness crisis" is evident in the dramatic decline in Americans' real life social contacts over the past generation. This crisis is only made worse "in the era of the smartphone," where "young people report much more anxiety and isolation."

Putting the dots together, Goldberg opines, "The increasing nastiness of our politics is a byproduct of our social isolation. We look to politics to provide the sense of meaning and belonging once found in community and religion, which is why everything is becoming politicized. The problem is that politics, particularly at the national level, is necessarily about disagreement, which is why it cannot provide the sense of unity people crave from it."

This also helps explain the politics of constant outrage. Americans who are disconnected from God and from each other try to fill the void where transcendence once resided with passion for causes. In their quest for purpose and meaning they burn with rage over mountains and molehills alike, while still finding emptiness within when the furor subsides.

It's no secret that some of the loneliest people on earth have the largest list of social media contacts. But people can even be lonely and feel isolated in crowds and at gatherings with friends. I believe that this is often due to the lack of a working relationship with Deity which is fostered by the seeming increasing irrelevance of religion to many moderns.

The Apostle John taught in 1 John 4:20-21 that love of God requires love of our fellow beings. He asserts that those who profess a love of God while failing to love their neighbors are fooling themselves. Those who delude themselves into thinking that government and/or business can satisfactorily take the place of religion ought to consider the problems the decline in religious observance is causing for disaster recovery efforts (see 1/4/19 DNews article).

It seems that love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined. Selflessness is best fostered in an environment that imbues daily living with eternally ennobling purpose. It's easier to raise a dog than to raise a child. But raising a dog is all about the owner, while raising a child involves heavy focus on the needs of another person over whom the parent has steadily decreasing control.

Interestingly, control was the main issue behind the premortal war in heaven. Lucifer wanted to force people to be 'good.' Of course, the elimination of agency would thwart the ability of God's children to progress and develop divine attributes that can only be fostered through free choice.

Some choose pet ownership over child rearing because it's easier to force their will on a pet than it would be to force their will on a child. In a recent meeting I attended, a church leader quipped that as his children get older and make choices with which he disagrees, he sometimes thinks Lucifer's plan would be a great idea.

In a similar vein, a great deal of politics is about control and coercion; forcing people to do what various political actors think is right. Each political faction is certain that it knows how best to manage the lives of others. As Goldberg notes, this is hardly a recipe for unity.

We know that humans tend to exercise unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39). But it seems that loneliness and isolation increase the tendency to seek to control others and force them to 'be good.' The less we personally interact with others, the more 'other' they seem and the more we want to force them into a mold that looks strikingly similar to ourselves.

We can expect increasing alienation and contention among Americans as we substitute politics for divine worship. Swapping this counterfeit for the real thing seems like a surefire way to decrease unity, happiness, and peace.