Life is Hard Work

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January 11

Newsflash: Life is Hard

When psychology researchers do studies of equitability in relationships, they generally find that both parties contribute more than their fair share to the relationship. Thus, the sum total of what the two people say they put into the relationship is greater than 100%, with 50% being half of what is perceived to be invested in the relationship. For example, both the husband and the wife in a marriage might say they engage in 60% of the effort, compromise, or sacrifice that goes on in their marriage, which adds up to 120%. That would actually be a good result in that both parties in the marriage feel they invest a similar amount in the relationship, which similarity is associated with relatively happy marriages.

I would be willing to guess that most people think that life circumstances are tougher than average for themselves, that life has been unfair to them in some way. I am not aware of any data about this topic, although there probably is some somewhere. (Okay, I should look it up online. I know.) The flip side of this unequation, is that people tend to think they are better than average at whatever they do. They are smarter, more moral (even though most of them lie and cheat at times), better drivers, and have a nicer personality than the "average" person, for example. One explanation is this finding is that one's from one's own perspective, one's behaviors suit one's preferences, thus appearing better than average. For example, a man who cheats on his taxes or business practices, but not on his wife, justifies it by thinking that cheating on taxes is no big deal, especially since it helps keep his wife and kids "in the money" and keep them happy, which is what really counts. An extravert who has many relatively shallow friendships probably thinks that less extraverted people are somehow inferior since they do not seem as "friendly" as he or she is. However, the need to bolster self-esteem probably has more to do with it. We are motivated to think we are "better than average" and therefore, other, inferior people are making life hard on us.

The fact is that life is difficult for nearly all of us in one way or another. That is why it is so important for us to be grateful for what we have and the fact that things are not so bad after all -- that some things turn out really well, and we do have our blessings -- because the rest of the time, people tend to gripe about all the problems others or uncontrollable circumstances are causing them. Jokes about griping and petty complaints aside, culture and belief systems can affect how one views the fairness of life, as well as the one's sense of self-esteem and how to compare oneself with others. Philosophies which emphasize gratitude and humility help people to be more realistic in their views of themselves, and help people to feel that perhaps life hasn't been so difficult or unfair to them.

Certainly some cultures do a better job of this than others. I suspect that Asian cultures, which tend to be more collectivistic, tend to do a better job in these regards. Also, how a person is treated may affect these issues as well. Certainly, life is indeed easier for some people than others. Also, some people are given consistent messages about themselves throughout life -- messages that they are superior people, or inferior people, fortunate people, or unfortunate people. Research has shown that Asian women, for instance, unfortunately are often socialized to have self-deprecating views of themselves. So are people of oppressed racial or ethnic groups. Regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy of a person's evaluation of self or life, life remains difficult as a whole, the nature of life requires us to struggle -- first to survive, then to thrive -- with the prospect of the inevitable end of our lives and the big questions this fact of death brings. Nonetheless, I believe it is possible and desirable for people to have realistic views of life and themselves, without compromising mental health.

As time goes by and science progresses, life seems to get easier and easier. We have more and more inventions which are designed to "make life more convenient." There are even reality television series now about the inventions of ordinary people. Technology continues to make it easier and easier to get things done, freeing ourselves further from our struggles with our environment, as we and our inventors master more and more details of the environment. Regardless of how well we manage to manipulate our environment to suit our purposes, however, life remains by and large a difficult endeavor by its very nature.

There are three problems with the mentality that things are getting easier with the march of technology. One is that the technology itself creates unforeseen problems, such as pollution and global warming. A second is that to the extent that it works, people can use the technology without understanding it, becoming pysically and mentally lazy, which, as described in yesterday's post, is bad for a person. The third problem is that psychologically, people get the impression that life should be easy, when in fact, it is not. I suspect that part of our nature is to push ourselves in some way, to master skills, understand topics, learn more, become an expert, do our best, devote ourselves unselfishly to our children in order to make their lives better than ours were. This drive to struggle to make things better, and not be satisfied with the status quo, pushes society forward. It also makes life difficult, but that is how it should be. Just as "happiness" and "success" as a state are overrated, so is "the good life." Happiness, success, and "the good life" are ultimate goals of life but not static entities; rather they are processes resulting in mental, spiritual and material progress and health. For example, reading one's favorite book everyday, or eating one's favorite food every day ultimately results in stagnation, boredom, and failure to adapt. True happiness and success require facing new challenges, learning new skills, and growing as a person. Think about that.

January 10

This week was the beginning of winter session at the college where I teach. It was a very busy week, which explains the absence of posts. I actually had to make exams already, and do study guides for them from scratch, since they had been on my computer that crashed in November. To top it off, Eunice and I went "fishing" yesterday at a place called Crystal Cove. The fish weren't biting, but there was a super-low tide and we wound up with a considerable number of California Sea Mussels, which are humungous mussels 5-6 inches long. This is the time of year when they are safe and good to eat. Anyway, those activities took up the day yesterday.

Newsflash: Brainwork is Good For You

My mother's parents, according to my mother, argued constantly throughout their marriage. They loved each other very much, but both of them were highly intelligent, intellectually oriented sorts, so they always found things to argue about while tackling the complexities of life. Both of them lived to a ripe old age, and both had very active, sharp minds throughout their lives. My father's parents, on the other hand, virtually never argued. They were both very religious, tee-totalling Christians who appeared to be in basic agreement about everything. My father's father had a stroke when he was in his 70s, after which he could barely speak, and never recovered. He did about a year later of another stoke. My father's mother lived to about 90 years old, but the last several years of her life, she was quite senile. My father thinks her mental decline was due to a series of small strokes, rather than Alzheimer's Disease. But another explanation may be offered for the relative decline of the mental functions of my father's parents compared to those of my mother's parents -- arguing. Perhaps arguing over so many issues helped keep the minds of my mother's parents sharp, while the lack of argumentation between my father's parents allowed their brains to deteriorate. I am not arguing in favor of constantly arguing, but I am arguing that health takes work; mental health takes mental work; brain health takes brain work; and physical health takes nutritional and physical work. Of course, all types of health are interrelated. Each helps the others. A healthy body helps a person have a healthy brain and a well-adjusted mind, and vice versa.

I turned on the television a while ago, and checking the various public service television stations, I found two different shows about how to have a healthy brain. One was selling a brain exercise program for senior citizens, designed to ward off senility; the other was a lecture on brain health by a physician named Dr. Amen. We do not get cable at our house, so I have seen these programs before, but today was unusual in that they were both on at the same time on different public access stations. I was thinking of witing about some health issues, anyway, so this occurence seemed auspicious and pulled me toward the brain-health issue as opposed to the plethora of other potential topics on my agenda.

One of my main objectives in writing this blog is to encourage people to stretch their minds -- to think and use their minds to the fullest. In doing so, there is certain to be some discordance between the ideas of individuals. That is only natural, but it is also neccessary to have honest intellectual discourse, as well as science and the study of scientific findings, in order to make progress in our understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves. Research in recent years has made it increasingly clear that mental exercise is good for us, whether it takes the form of arguments, or some more harmonious, better synchronized form. In terms of brain function, basically, we start with a template which is provided by our human DNA, but that template is molded throughout our lives by our experiences, so that one's brain becomes a product of one's experiences. It is probably fair to say that the most extreme molding of the brain takes place during the early years of one's life, but the molding, known as "brain plasticity" continues to occur throughout life. Our neurons form connections througout life as we learn and form memories, and new neurons form and become functional. Meanwhile, little used connections disappear, and little used neurons die off. In a very real sense, we are what we have learned. The more we study, the more we think, the more we engage in honest intellectual discourse, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the more our brains grow and the healthier our brains become. Thus, I think of this blog in a sense, as a mental aerobics site, which ultimately has positive effects on mental and even physical health as well.

When my eldest brother was at my parent's house in nearby Riverside just before Christmas, we discussed nutrition quite a bit, since my brother is a geneticist with quite a bit of knowledge about recent nutrition research. It turns out that most of what we have been taught about nutrition over the past few decades is wrong. Actually, I have always suspected that nutritional recommendations have been off course, but my brother has the information to prove it. There is a strong parallel between brain research and nutritional research, as well as any other sort of research which studies highly complex systems, such as the weather and climate change. Early research has an inordinate influence on thinking for many years afterward. As soon as one researcher or research group finds something interesting, it is declared a major breakthrough, and the field as a whole makes that the basis of a new theory, or considers it to be an incontrovertable "fact," until eventually, someone else proves those ideas to have been simple-minded and incorrect, and gradually, a better but still incomplete understanding of the topic is developed.

Thus, avoiding fats and cholesterol in one's diet is the key to avoiding heart disease, and thus living a long and healthy life, doctors keep telling us, although these and other ideas about nutrition have recently been proven wrong as researchers have discovered more about the complexities of nutrition. The world was due for another Ice Age, until it was found that Greenhouse Gases were causing global warming, that is. And our brains were thought to form fully and reach their peak early in life, and be subject thereafter to a long, steady decline, until researchers discovered brain plasticity was constantly improving our brains, and that cognitive decline is not really a normal product of aging; it only occurs in persons who experience dementia, through Alzheimer's Disease, strokes, or other brain problems. In fact, barring such brain damaging conditions, we may even become smarter as we age. Don't forget that.