The Power of Community

There was a famous antidrug PSA during the 1980s that showed a rat alone in a cage with two water bottles. One bottle was filled with pure water and the other was laced with cocaine. Unsurprisingly, the rat became addicted to the cocaine water. The ad ominously warned: “Nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it . . . and use it . . . and use it . . . until they are dead.”

But here’s the catch: These tests were done in isolation. Each rat was by itself, alone in a cage for a prolonged period of time. The experiment was repeated a second time, but the rats were now living together. This time, the rats mostly ignored the cocaine water. They didn’t like it, and no rats died.

Community and togetherness, it turns out, can often overpower the most self-destructive threats. Like many people, these rats were less interested in getting high than in escaping a profound sense of loneliness. 

–Andrea Miller, Radical Acceptance

How many of our financial woes are due to an interest in escaping loneliness? Do you think a sense of community might help you spend less?

Don’t Force Your Kids to Eat Their Vegetables: What I Learned from “First Bite”

I’ve considered all the best books I’ve read this year to be invaluable because of the changes they’ve made in my life – via new information and new perspectives. This book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, is the only one that changed my family’s life.

I accidentally left this book in my sister’s car, and she started reading it. She took one of the experiments described in the book, the tiny tastes program, on her picky-eating son, to great success. His palate has been considerably expanded to include new favorites like cherries, asparagus and cucumbers. The tiny tastes experiment is offering the subject an incredibly small amount of the target food over a period of days. The subject can also be bribed with a spoonful of their favorite food for successful completion of each “tiny taste.” Because the taste is so small, the subject generally complies. And with repeated exposure to the taste, the subject learns to like the taste.

The most interesting bit of knowledge that I learned from this book is that there is almost no genetic component of our taste. If you dropped us off in a different culture, we would be eating that culture’s food rather the one we currently do. The food we tend to like is food that is familiar to us and that may also be associated with good memories. The food we tend to avoid is food we are unfamiliar with and/or is associated with bad experiences in our past, like being forced to eat a whole plateful of food we hate/weren’t familiar with.

I know I still can’t stand the smell of creamed corn because I threw up once when after eating it when I was a kid, so I totally believe in this hypothesis. Also, as an Asian family, we ate all our meals family style, so there’s a lot less coercion to eat a large plate of vegetables by oneself.

The more I read about our personal preferences, it seems like we are really products of our culture. Like how our taste in music tends to run towards whatever was popular (or at least whatever music we listened to) when we were 13. That’s why I’m a 90s music girl, but that’s why most women of my age also listen to the same music. We are all uniquely the same in this way.

Overall though, people can still change. One way to do this may be to incorporate something like a “tiny tastes” program into one’s own life. Small exposures breed familiarity, which may breed to affinity (though there’s no guarantee that you’ll like after a tiny taste). You are not confined to your childhood experiences and small changes can help you change them (maybe, I’m shooting off the cuff here – it’s a hypothesis).

Let’s talk about our traumatic eating experiences!

Why It’s Not Surprising Al Franken Won’t Resign: Reading “With Liberty and Justice for Some”

Following up on the fun inequality theme of The Broken Ladder, I read Glenn Greenwald’s “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to destroyed Equality and Protect the Powerful.”

In a nutshell, Greenwald describes how, starting with the pardon of Richard Nixon, our nation’s Presidents, high-ranking officials and other wealthy and powerful people have continued to commit crimes and been shielded from any prosecution whatsoever (often by fellow politicians) while simultaneously increasing the tough-on-crime mentality that keeps more Americans in prison, per capita and as a percentage of population, than any other country in the world, many for low-level nonviolent crimes.

The disparity of justice is best highlighted by two anecdotes.

In one, a hedge fund manager at Morgan Stanley, Martin Joel Erzinger, hit a bicyclist from behind and sped away, leaving the bicyclist with “spinal cord injuries, bleeding from his brain and damage to his knee and scapula.” Though a hit-and-run is a felony in Colorado, Erzinger was only charged with a misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. The district attorney’s explanation: “Felony convictions have some pretty serious job implications for someone in Mr. Erzinger’s profession.”

In 2007, a couple threw a birthday party for their 16-year old son and his friends of the same age. The couple provided beer and wine but collected keys from all guests to ensure they couldn’t drive. None of the teens left the party and nobody was injured but a neighbor called the police and reported underage drinking. Both members of the couple were convicted of nine misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (one count for each minor who drank at the party) and were each sentenced to eight years in prison. On appeal, the sentences were reduced to 27 months, and the Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear the case. (As a Virginian, this is extra sad for me but not unexpected).

There was no mention of the jobs of the Virginia couple. No one considered whether their lives would be ruined by the prison sentences. It’s clear that their “crime” was not nearly as bad as Erzinger. And yet Erzinger gets away with no jail time.

There’s a completely different justice system for the wealthy than for the regular people. This is why Al Franken, who was caught on camera groping a woman without her consent, remains in office with the support of many women but if he were a less powerful person, would be spending years in jail.

For the non-wealthy, the scope of criminal law has expanded rapidly and in 2000, police arrested more than 2 million individuals for “consensual” or “victimless” crimes as curfew violations, prostitution, gambling, drug possession, vagrancy and public drunkenness. American prison sentences are vastly harsher and longer than in any other country to which the U.S. would ordinarily be compared. Public defenders are vastly overworked, understaffed and underpaid in order to be able to offer a meaningful defense. And the prison lobby has become a formidable force in keeping prisons occupied with more new prisoners and repeat offenders.

This, of course, assumes you ever get a trial, which is unlikely for those detained at Guantanamo Bay, which is still open despite Obama’s promises to close it.

Thus, in Obama’s multitiered justice system, only certain detainees are entitled to real trials: namely, those whom the government is sure it can convict. Others, for whom conviction is less certain, will be accorded fewer rights and tried by military commission. And those whom the government believes it can’t convict in either forum will simply be held indefinitely with no charges . . .

Greenwald posits that the reason this justice system is left standing is that most citizens don’t believe it will affect them. I think that’s a pretty pessimistic way to look at the issue. I think Americans just don’t really understand the extent of the multi-tiered justice system or don’t think they can change it. I’m not sure about the latter but now you know something about the former.

Americans – and non-Americans – do you think you will ever be entangled in this unjust justice system?

Kaizen Method: Read one page a day

Kaizen (改善), is the Japanese word for “improvement.”  And the Kaizen Effect is the idea of getting 1% better everyday.  Another way to look at it is “No Zero Days,” which is saying that every day you do at least one thing everyday to advance your goals.

And to alter a Bill Gates quote:

Most people overestimate what they can do in a day and underestimate what they can do in a year.

A one percent improvement every day will compound to amazing results in a year. Even, or perhaps more importantly, establishing the habit of thinking of improvements and consistently working towards your goal every day will do more to advance your goals than working for hours intermittently.

In this spirit, every week I will put up a suggestion on a 1% improvement you can make.

And in honor of my book reviews, which I started this week, and which will become an ongoing weekly feature:

Pick a book that you want to read, borrow it from the library (or take it off your bookshelf) and read 1 page every day this week.

What book will you start this week?


How to Let Go of Your Anger: Reviewing the Mistitled “How to Fight”

I’m a Christian but I understand that there is a lot of moral wisdom to be gained from nonChristian and non-religious books. I also often think that the Bible may be lacking sometimes in practical guidance. For instance, Jesus instructs us in Matthew 5:22, that even being angry at your brother is a sin. But he doesn’t tell us how to stop being angry. And the church doesn’t usually offer any advice beyond “call on the Holy Spirit to give you [patience, endurance, kindness].”

In Bible study, we are wrestling with the idea of God being our friend, while also being someone who was revered. The group agreed that “Sup, Bro” would be too casual to say to God. But they also agreed that getting angry at God was ok. But I think it’s got to be more reverential to ask “how are you” in vernacular than it is to express anger. Plus, though I realize that God isn’t a human, so we don’t really have to worry about God’s feelings, I think the act of getting angry, even when another person is not the victim, has damaging effects on us.

How to Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh has a really misleading name. It’s really about controlling your anger. Hanh shares my belief in the corrupting force of anger:

When you try to get anger out by hitting something like a pillow, it may seem harmless. But it’s not certain that you can release your anger by hitting the pillow, imagining it to be your enemy, the one who has made you suffer. You may be rehearsing your anger and making it stronger instead of releasing it. . . By rehearsing our anger we are creating a habit of being angry, which can be dangerous and destructive.

So Hanh is saying, the act of getting angry, even when there are no victims, is destructive to oneself. I think we know this instinctively to be true. My favorite passage is called “Killing Anger”:

…he cursed the Buddha to his face. The Buddha only smiled. The cousin became even more incensed and asked, “Why don’t you respond?” The Buddha replied, “If someone refuses a gift, it must be taken back by the one who offered it.” Angry words and actions hurt oneself first and hurt oneself most of all.

This passage reminded me that, many times, you have complete choice in how to respond to people. (It’s also helpful to think of in terms of gifts this holiday season. If someone gives you a malicious gift, you can just give it back. You don’t have to accept everything that is given to you). They may bait you, they may come at you with anger, but you don’t have to return the gift. They can take the anger home with them. You don’t have to take the anger home with you.

It’s funny that when you start reading books, they all start to relate to one another. The Longevity Plan , which I had discussed in another blog post, had also talked about the dangers of anger for the heart and breathing as a means to remove anger.

This book was really helpful to me for understanding my own anger. When I think of getting angry, I think of fighting. I don’t stop to think, did I misunderstand what the other person said or did? Do I need to fight back? If I started fighting, what would “winning” look like?

But when you’re angry and the other person is angry, you feel like you’re the only one suffering but the fact is, you’re both suffering. Hanh compares fighting in this scenario to running after the arsonist when your house is still on fire. By settling the anger within ourselves, we stop both sides from suffering, and we train ourselves not to become angry. This is the only way to truly put out the fire and prevent more fires from spreading.

What are your techniques for defusing anger?

Image via Giphy.


Hack Your Days to Have a Better Life: Advice from “How to Have a Good Day”

Ok I didn’t finish reading this book. But I skimmed it and there’s an appendix that lists all the best practices as an easy shortcut. Here are the most helpful tips I found.

Before Work

  • Think about something you’re looking forward to.
  • Set your intentions. What matters most today? What does that mean for my attitude, intention, attention and actions? What specific goals should I set for the day? Try to keep these answers in mind.
  • Visualize the most important thing you’re doing today and picture yourself doing your best. Notice what you’re doing and saying.

As you get started.

Continue reading Hack Your Days to Have a Better Life: Advice from “How to Have a Good Day”

Why the Poor Can’t Get Ahead in the U.S.: Reading “The Broken Ladder”

Look – a Republican reading a book about inequality? You all should be so proud of me.

Have you ever played that game where you’re trying to survive as a working poor person? The game keeps giving you terrible options but I’m so much of a stoic that I came out ok. It seemed like a bad exercise. I’m sure others would think I wouldn’t really be able to pass the game in real life.

According to The Broken Ladder by Keith Payne, the latter group may be wrong. The book covers how inequality completely changes the poor’s perspectives, focusing on the now, increasing risky behavior. Because I’m not one of the poor, I may be able to lift myself by my bootstraps but, if I had been born in poverty, I likely couldn’t.

Continue reading Why the Poor Can’t Get Ahead in the U.S.: Reading “The Broken Ladder”

How to Live to be A Vibrant Centenarian: Lessons from “The Longevity Plan”

The Longevity Plan by Dr. John Day chronicles an American doctor’s journey to a bucolic Chinese village that has one of the highest rates of centenarians in the world (yes, Chinese. Everyone keeps correcting me to say, don’t you mean Okinawa? Nope. China! people). Not only are there plenty of centenarians, but the centenarians are in great health.

The tips described in the book aren’t really earth shattering, but it’s good to be reminded of them and sometimes, a certain way of describing the problem can finally spur action.

1. Eat good food

Continue reading How to Live to be A Vibrant Centenarian: Lessons from “The Longevity Plan”