Junkish Values

Woman refuses to eat junk food .

by Randall S. Frederick

Standing there, holding the boxes, I was having a minor anxiety attack. This was after the holidays, after the rush and bustle of consumeristic frenzy, where we determine our self-worth by the value of that which is given to us and that which we give ourselves – a reward for a hard year’s labor. But I was anxious. I set the boxes back on the shelf and walked around, coming back, picking them up, trying to be mindful and feel their weight, to experience the cost to me if I purchased them, and then the awareness of my heart rate. I glanced at my wrist, vindicated that my accelerated pulse was not part of the imagination of mania but instead true and constant.

For the last year, I have been aware of absences. Gaps. Missing pieces. The hole inside of myself that, for so long, I tried to fill with things – tchotchkes and mementos, full shelves of books, the meaning and significance of being in a relationship – had grown without my notice and only now, too late, have I realized the rampaging, childlike exhaustion of recognition. In other areas – work, for instance – I excel. My students like me, I think, though one can never be sure until they review you online. Just now, there was a conversation in the hallway about a visiting author. What did you think of that particular image she used? But, beneath, the constant hum of the emptiness.

My literary mind imagines this is what space is like – not silence exactly, but the hum of silence. The paranoid awareness that we hear nothing. I suppose this piece of the imagination has come from watching too many science fiction movies who force silence into the film by adding a low hum. It is a persistent thing, the hum. It is a persistent thing to – at least with a brain like mine – overanalyze and become hyperaware, constructing meanings, plural, and stacking them in an order than makes sense. This is what it feels like to be alone, I tell myself. Not the void, but the the abiding awareness of absence, the liminal space before the gap itself measured out and timed by the swoop of internal radar. I know the measurement now, the distance and depth – again, this is my imagination – and imagine myself a leading scientist on the state of being alone because it has taken me so many years to truly understand the data I have collected. This time next year in Sweden.

A growing collection of scientific evidence suggests that something similar is happening to many of us. We are overabundantly fed values that are processed, refined, sugary, even fatty. Result: We have become mentally sick, which has triggered soaring (souring?) rates of depression and anxiety. I am able to identify this in my own life. When I ask my students if the anxiety they feel is larger than the test we are talking about – “Is there a chance you feel this way because of something larger? Perhaps something you don’t want to talk about with me, but something in your life or about your life that you’ve been thinking about and questioning for a while? – they almost always seem relieved, even if they don’t talk about it with me at that time.

For thousands of years, philosophers have warned that if you think life is about getting money and status and showing it off, you will become deeply unhappy. I wonder if that is that really true. My father pursued money and has built a mausoleum of artifacts to himself with his home. Over Christmas, we talked about the insignificance of stuff. He wasn’t willing to admit his values were skewed, but acknowledged that hoarding like a magpie “wasn’t cutting it.”

In the 1980s, a social scientist named professor Tim Kasser set out to test whether the traditional wisdom that excess led to unhappiness could survive scientific scrutiny. Kasser, now based at the University of Illinois, understood that there are, broadly, two different kinds of motives that drive human beings.

Imagine you play the piano. If you play it in the morning because it gives you joy, that is an intrinsic motive — you aren’t doing it to get anything else out of it; you are doing it simply because that experience is worth doing, in and of itself. Now imagine you play the piano to impress your parents, or in a dive bar you hate to pay the rent, or to seduce somebody into sleeping with you. That would be an extrinsic motive — you aren’t doing it because you think the experience is worthwhile; you are doing it to get something out of it. We are all animated by a complex mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motives. Striving to get more money or status or expensive goods for their own sake are classic examples of extrinsic motivation.

Let us not jump to conclusions just yet, I would offer. We are only acknowledging the terms of a study so far.

Kasser wanted to find out: How does acting on these different motives affect us? He investigated the question using a range of techniques, including correlational studies of broad populations, lab experiments and on-going mood diaries. His results were startling. People who achieved their extrinsic goals didn’t experience any increase in day-to-day happiness. None. Your promotion? Your fancy car? The new iPhone? The expensive necklace? They won’t improve your happiness at all. But people who achieved their intrinsic goals could and did become significantly happier, together with experiencing less depression and anxiety. As they worked at it and felt they became, say, a better friend, they became more satisfied with life. Being a better dad? Dancing for the sheer joy of it? Helping another person, just because it’s the right thing to do? These goals can (and do) significantly boost your happiness – if they are your values and not adopted because “that’s the ‘right’ thing to do.”

Conversely, Kasser discovered that people whose lives were dominated by extrinsic values had a worse time in almost every respect. They felt sicker, and they were angrier. They experienced less joy, and more despair. They had worse relationships, and they were more insecure. The results, naturally, needed to be confirmed and so twenty-two different studies — by Kasser and by other scientists in the field — have found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be. Twelve of those studies found that these values – let’s call them “junk values,” similar to “junk” food – correlate with increased anxiety.

Junk food looks like food, but it doesn’t meet our underlying nutritional needs. In a similar way, junk values don’t meet our underlying psychological needs — to have meaning and connection in our lives. Extrinsic values are KFC for the soul. Yet our culture constantly pushes us to live extrinsically. Perhaps the most radical thing I could say here is that this message got through to me when talking with a white supremacist recently.

*David (*obviously not his real name) was recently involved in what he cautiously calls “a racial event.” This event, or rather series of events, is scheduled for court in a few weeks and I knew *David through a series of winding connections. The “racial event” and his involvement became public knowledge and I asked to sit down with him to better understand where he comes from and who he is apart from hyperbole. We sat down and one of the appeals he kept making to me (a straight white male who is opposed to his social and political views) was “be honest” about the values of society. What he called “Jewish Socialism” I would simply call “marketing.” I was a marketing student in undergrad, and almost everything he railed against in society was, in my verbiage, “effective marketing.” Despite our differences, I agreed that something had gone wrong in society. While *David attributed the change that took place after World War II to “Jews” having “infiltrated America” with their “laughably pathetic Zionism,” I saw it as a series of adaptations and adoptions. First, we have the television that can connect the world. Next, we have a desktop computer – which appears similar to a television screen – which solidifies that connection. Any marketing major worth their weight in tuition knows a digital cube (Now in Hi Def! Streaming! Accessible anywhere!) is an opportunity worth exploiting. As Marshall McLuhan once said, the medium is the message.

A 1978 experiment helped to reveal how this process works. Researchers showed one group of young children two advertisements for a specific toy, and the second group no advertisements. Then they gave the children a choice: Play with a nice boy who doesn’t have the toy, or a boy who’s not so nice but has the toy. The kids who hadn’t seen the ad mostly chose the nicer boy, while the kids who had seen the ad mostly chose the less nice boy. Just two ads primed them to prefer an inanimate lump of plastic over human kindness, and the possibility of a more meaningful connection.

Any parent who has chosen to stay at work longer hours to buy something expensive and shiny, rather than go home to play with their kids, is trapped in the same dynamic. We live under a system, Kasser says, that constantly “distracts us from what’s really good about life.”

It’s not just media and technology, however. I’m notorious for my collection of gadgets. What confuses so many of us is the slick way that “junk” is promoted as “good.” Cheap, affordable, plastic, attainable – this is “good.” Said another way, Russell Moore (yep, that Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission), writes in his new book Onward that there was a time when “Most Americans agreed on certain traditional values: monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, the right to life, the good of prayer and church attendance, free enterprise, a strong military, and the basic goodness of the American way of life. The argument was that this consensus represented the real America.” Our civil disobedience and the less civil public discourse streaming across the headlines of the last few decades are evidence that this agreement both no longer holds, but has now come under close and incisive scrutiny.

Although we are often told that our epidemic of depression and anxiety is the result of chemical imbalances, there are many ways in which it is in fact an outgrowth of the way we live now. The best anti-depressant, then, is to change our way of life. For Kasser, that meant moving with his kids to a farm with a lot of goats, where they don’t watch TV and they don’t get exposed to these toxic messages. For me, it meant restricting my access to Facebook for almost a year. For Kasser, the first step is to reduce the amount of psychological toxins in our environment by strictly regulating advertising. For me, there is the argument for a wider revolution in our values.

The collective at The Book of Life recently published a list of areas where the modern world contributes to “a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression. (No sales or endorsements here: I’m a fan of their essays and publications. Go check them out.) There are six particular features of modernity that have this psychologically disturbing effect. Each one has a potential cure, which we will only collectively put into action when we know more about the disease in question.” Here are the six:

1. Meritocracy:

Our societies tell us that everyone is free to make it if they have the talent and energy. The down side of this ostensibly liberating and beautiful idea is that any perceived lack of success is taken to be not, as in the past, an accident or misfortune, but a sure sign of a lack of talent or laziness. If those at the top deserve all their success, then those at the bottom must surely deserve all their failure. A society that thinks of itself as meritocratic turns poverty from a problem to evidence of damnation and those who have failed from unfortunates to losers.

The cure is a strong, culturally endorsed belief in two big ideas: luck, which says success doesn’t just depend on talent and effort; and tragedy, which says good, decent people can fail and deserve compassion, rather than contempt.

2. Individualism:

An individualistic society preaches that the individual and their achievements are everything and that everyone is capable of a special destiny. It is not the community that matters; the group is for no-hopers. To be ‘ordinary’ is regarded as a curse. The result is that the very thing that most of us will end up being, statistically speaking, is associated, with freakish failure.

The cure is a cult of the good ordinary life – and proper appreciation of the pleasures and quiet heroism of the everyday.

3. Secularism:

Secular societies cease to believe in anything that is bigger than or beyond themselves. Religions used to perform the useful service of keeping our petty ways and status battles in perspective. But now there is nothing to awe or relativise humans, whose triumphs and mishaps end up feeling like the be all and end all.

A cure would involve regularly using sources of transcendence to generate a benign, relativising perspective on our personal sorrows:  music, the stars at night, the vast spaces of the desert or the ocean would humble us all in consoling ways.

4. Romanticism:

The philosophy of Romanticism tells us that each of us has one very special person out there who can make us completely happy. Yet mostly we have to settle for moderately bearable relationships with someone who is very nice in a few ways and pretty difficult in many others. It feels like a disaster – in comparison with our original huge hopes.

The cure is to realise that we didn’t go wrong: we were just encouraged to believe in a very improbable dream. Instead we should build up our ambitions around friendship and non-sexual love.

5. The Media:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

6. Perfectibility:

Modern societies stress that it is within our remit to be profoundly content, sane and accomplished. As a result, we end up loathing ourselves, feeling weak and sensing we’ve wasted our lives.

A cure would be a culture that endlessly promotes the idea that perfection is not within our grasp – that being mentally slightly (and at points very) unwell is an inescapable part of the human condition and that what we need above all are good friends with whom we can sit and honestly discuss our real fears and vulnerabilities.

The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

There’s an old idea called the Golden Rule, which states that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Kasser’s research suggests a modern update: the I-Want-Golden-Things Rule. The more you think life is about having stuff and status, the more unhappy, and the more depressed and anxious, you will be. We don’t have to continue to live this way.

This week, I asked my first year writing students to do an inventory of themselves. What was their character like, what motivated them, why were they here and why did they love what they loved? Many named things, aware that these were status symbols and not what they really wanted. I pressed. What were their values? “When pressed, we might find that a misogynist (like *David) who says a female in our classroom should not be in college but should be at home with her kids is really grasping for another way to say, ‘I was raised by a single mother. I always felt alone. I wish someone had loved me enough to be there.’” What this misogynistic student is really saying about themselves is that they value children and emotional health – albeit, in a socially inappropriate and even offensive way. In like form, the things we pursue – our “stuff” – are symbols of the things we are searching for in this brief adventure of life. They may seem terrible things to pursue, but then again that “terribleness” our first clue to the nature of the underlying value?

The emptiness I am able to identify (even, as a scientist, from a great distance) within myself is similar to this. I see the spot, I see the blank, even if I am not yet certain if it is a void or if it is a mass obscuring something else. I hear the hum like waves of radiation. I know what it is and the measurements. This week, I will challenge my students to begin to do the same – to critique and criticize and scrutinize not only literature but the underlying messages encoded in the texts. 

A week after Yale opened registration for its debut course “Psychology and the Good Life” this January, a quarter of the undergraduate population—more than 1,180 students—had signed up, making it the most popular course ever at the university. Meanwhile, one in six undergraduates at Stanford take a course that teaches students to apply design thinking to the “wicked problem” of creating fulfilling lives and careers. And at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec, students have flocked to “Lessons of Community and Compassion,” a course on social connectedness and belonging—precisely the things they may have sacrificed to get into one of Canada’s top institutions. It is obvious that something has turned in the West. For too long, junk values have been forced upon digitally medicated consumers who are in equal parts angry for the ways they have been deceived and aggressively pursuing alternatives. This is not novel. Previous generations tuned in and turned up, enlisted, dropped out, or found themselves attending religious services more than the national average indicated. 

Laurie Santos, the psychology professor teaching the Yale class, says the message behind her course is a simple one. Jenny Anderson of Quartz interviewed Santos.

“Our intuitions about what to do to be happy are wrong,” she says. We think we want to achieve high-powered positions or make a lot of money, even if that means sacrificing the things that make us balanced and sane—human connection, exercise, rest, and activities that allow us to recharge. “This is a great moment when we have rigorous research on positive psychology—what makes us happy, but also on behavioral change,” says Santos. Her course covers practical topics ranges from the psychological benefits of charitable giving to how to pick a meaningful career. The pursuit of happiness is, of course, hardly a new development. “Plato was talking about this,” Santo says. Scores of people have bought best-selling books on achieving happiness, from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project to Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. And as the New York Times notes, courses on positive psychology are a popular draw for college students.

According to Sonja Lyuboirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of the The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, 40% of our happiness is conscious, intentional, and under our control. “It takes the work you have to put in to be a great violinist, it takes work every day,” Santos says. Happiness is never a lost cause, but the science does suggests that becoming a happy person is not a quick fix. Taking a college course on the subject may be the best short cut there is.

Santos will only teach one semester of the Yale course. But a five-part seminar-style series, “The Science of Well-Being,” will be available in March, for free, on the online education site Coursera. So far, Santos has taught five sessions of “Psychology and the Good Life.” She says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “They are taking these ideas to heart in a way I did not expect,” she says. Alumni are already writing her to request a copy of the syllabus, as are kindergarten teachers and PTA heads. It’s not just young people who need help with happiness, she notes: “This is a human problem.”

As someone with clinical depression, I object to specific assumptions these studies can contribute to, while recognizing the validity of the research itself. Namely, the problem is that much of what determines happiness is outside of our control. Some of us are genetically predisposed to see the world through rose-colored glasses, while others have a generally negative outlook. We might add a few more reductionistic bits to this. Bad things happen, to us and in the world. People can be unkind, and jobs can be tedious. Zeroing in on these junk values, what are the daily practices we participate in that lead us to susceptibility?

A study of 1 million individuals by Jean Twenge, professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, “found that teens who spent more time seeing their friends in person, exercising, playing sports, attending religious services, reading or even doing homework were happier. However, teens who spent more time on the internet, playing computer games, on social media, texting, using video chat or watching TV were less happy.” In other words, every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day. Twenge continues

A similar trend might be occurring for adults: My co-authors and I previously found that adults over age 30 were less happy than they were 15 years ago, and that adults were having sex less frequently. There may be many reasons for these trends, but adults are also spending more time with screens than they used to. That might mean less face-to-face time with other people, including with their sexual partners. The result: less sex and less happiness.

Although both teen and adult happiness dropped during the years of high unemployment amid the Great Recession (2008-2010), happiness didn’t rebound in the years after 2012 when the economy was doing progressively better. Instead, happiness continued to decline as the economy improved, making it unlikely that economic cycles were to blame for lower happiness after 2012. Growing income inequality could play a role, especially for adults. But if so, one would expect that happiness would have been dropping continuously since the 1980s, when income inequality began to grow.

Consistently, studies indicate the validity of McLuhan’s axiom. The medium is the message, but maybe the message isn’t that great to begin with. For those of us who have managed to pull away from social media, what is noticed (after the withdrawl symptoms abate) is a dichotomous world where we feel increasingly out of sync. No, I didn’t read the latest headline. And I don’t care that much, to be honest. Once a consistent resistance was established, I became more aware of the values people around me held. Conversations about politics always seemed to make people angry, unheard, and unwilling to listen to others. Bullet points. No facts. No follow-up. All hearsay. Opinions, I noticed, were niche and highly individualized (ironic, since so much attention is given to claims of “group think”). More and more, I began to feel that it was neither the vehicle of delivery (ex: Fox News, E!, Vice, or CNN for news sources) but a sick zeitgeist that prized no values at all.

Follow me on Twitter, or check out my other essays on Sexuality & the City and Theology & the City.

Further reading:

2 thoughts on “Junkish Values

  1. Good job putting this out there. Your post reads like a personal confession and therapy session rolled into one. I like your message. I wish I could apply that research to my own life and wake up a different Me. I feel empty too, even though I have a great boyfriend, friends who care, and a job I enjoy immensely. Aren’t those the best things about life? So shouldn’t they fill that hole? I really believe that I don’t have the junk values you talk about, but the emptiness is still there. I sometimes think I have been carved so deeply by trauma that I’ll always feel that void. Maybe the emptiness is simply unique to the individual. Society as a whole values those external signs of happiness (wealth, status, skill, etc.), and maybe those values really do add to the decline in the overall societal mental health. But for me, I think my hole was left behind by little Me—a child who felt she had to withdraw so deeply into herself so as not to feel pain that she now struggles to feel joy. Maybe we each have to define our own emptiness before we can seek to eradicate it. Thus, I need to soothe little Me and coax her from the hole she crawled into 20+ years ago, and someone else needs to swear off junkish values (maybe just a trial period at first.. for Lent?) and see where life takes him. Or maybe this is just the ranting of a sleep-deprived brain. Anyway, thanks for putting this out into the world. I always appreciate blogs that get me thinking and trigger hours of unceasing internal dialogue 🙂

    1. Totally with you. Since I published this, I’ve thought a great bit about what was said here and would probably add the ideas that 1) yes, junk values are a large issue but 2) it does not account for the emptiness I – personally, privately, individually – experience because of my own trauma. So I think your “sleep deprived brain” was probably intuitive, sharp, and revealingly honest. 🙂

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