Psychology Today

The New Year has arrived, and with it the annual onslaught of weight-loss resolutions. For all those who are once more vowing to squeeze into that size 0 skirt or 32 waist pants by March, I have a modest proposal: 

Ditch the diet and focus instead on true health, the kind that goes beyond the number on the scale. Real health is not just physical but mental, emotional, and spiritual-the kind of health that reflects what you do rather than what you look like. Studies contradict one another, or are inconclusive. Medical research isn't always great at distinguishing correlation-two things that happen at roughly the same time-from cause and effect. Much of what we think we know about health turns out to be inconclusive or just plain wrong.

But don't despair; there are ways to increase your well-being. Here are five ideas for improving your real health this year. A votre sante!

1. Find some kind of exercise you love, and do it most days. Exercise helps with depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and a slew of other health problems. Our bodies are meant to move. Whether it's a brisk walk, African dance, or training for a triathlon, if it makes you feel good, you're more likely to keep doing it.

2. Add foods to your diet. More than 90 percent of weight-loss diets fail in the long run, thanks to the human body's persistent appetite for equilibrium. And we all know that deprivation inevitably leads to overindulgence. So don't deny yourself the foods you love; instead, broaden your diet. Add in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but don't eat out of a sense of duty: Studies show that our bodies make more efficient use of the nutrients in foods we like than in foods we dislike.

3. Accept that people come in all shapes, sizes, and weights. This is a radical suggestion in our appearance-centric culture. But consider the facts: Diets don't work. Genetics play a starring role in determining body type. And you can't tell someone's true state of health by looking at him or her. Thin people may smoke, eat poorly, and fail to exercise; heavy people may eat nothing but raw foods and walk five miles a day. Studies by Ancel Keys, Ethan Sims, and other researchers show that metabolism is far more complex than "calories in, calories out." And it turns out that being overweight or mildly obese (per the BMI charts) is associated with lower death rates, especially as we age.

4. Aspire to self-love, not self-loathing. The harder we work at getting thinner, the heavier we've gotten. Maybe it's time for a new strategy. According to Peter Muennig, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, many of the ailments associated with being overweight may actually come from stress and stigma rather than avoirdupois. In other words, walking around berating yourself for being fat in a culture that values thinness-or being berated by others-may be far worse for your health than being fat. Remember what your mother used to say: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Now apply this to yourself as well as others.

5. Understand that we're all going to die someday. So much of the advice around health seems to imply that if you eat perfectly, exercise, and do everything "right," you'll live forever. Which makes the stakes impossibly high. So forgive yourself your lapses. Focus on living well. And know that no matter how attentive you are to your well-being, sooner or later the warranty will expire. It's a surprisingly liberating feeling.

Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia.



At the end of my previous post, Selective Shopping in the Cafeteria of Life, I promised to examine "Ancient Toltec Wisdom" for ideas that might of value to the modern mind. Today I am making good on that promise.

Cover of The Four AgreementsSpecifically, I want to write about a book by don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, a Toltec Wisdom Book. A very long title for a very short book (138 5"x7" pages)! Despite the claim that the ideas in this book represent insights possessed by the Toltecs in what is now Mexico a thousand years ago, most of these ideas are highly similar to concepts used by modern humanistic psychologists, transactional analysts, and cognitive-behavioral psychologists. For example, Ruiz says that all children are born perfectly loving, playful, and genuine. However, parents teach their children what Carl Rogers called conditions of worth–standards of behavior the children must follow to receive love and avoid criticism. Eventually these standards become internalized into what Eric Berne called a life script–an unconscious set of instructions for living life. According to Ruiz, most of these unconscious beliefs are perfectly arbitrary or downright false. Many of them are irrational and unnecessarily limiting. They key to freedom–pace cognitive therapists such as Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck–is to become aware of our irrational and limiting thoughts so that we can replace them with healthy thoughts. In short, this book could be a primer for cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Ruiz says that children do not know any better than to agree with the adult realities into which they are indoctrinated. Children do not argue with the meanings of words or grammar as they are learning language. If my parents tell me I am smart and handsome, I believe them. If they tell me I am stupid and ugly, I believe them. Children have no choice but to agree. They are like Plato's prisoners in the cave, shackled and forced into believing that shadows of artificial objects are real. But as we mature, we can become warriors, breaking free from the shackles of agreements with our implanted, false ideas. We can accept healthier agreements. Ruiz presents four such healthier agreements in his book. Below is a Reader's Digest version; I have written more extensively on the agreements elsewhere.

1. Be impeccable with your word. In a sense, social constructivists are correct about words creating reality. We act on what we tell ourselves is real. Albert Ellis encouraged us to screen our self-talk for negative, irrational chatter. So, what kinds of words to you use when you describe reality? Do you lie and say hurtful and poisonous things about yourself and others? Not healthy! To be impeccable with your word is to be truthful and to say things that have a positive influence on yourself and others.

2. Don't take anything personally. The first agreement suggests that we avoid treating others hurtfully. The second agreement provides us with a way of dealing with potentially hurtful treatment from others. Because each person sees the world in a unique way, the way that others treat us says as much about them as it does about us. To not take anything personally is to acknowledge the unique identities of other people. We respect their subjective realities, realizing that their views do not necessarily describe us accurately.

3. Don't make assumptions. Assuming that you know what other people are thinking or feeling about you is a limiting thought that Aaron Beck called Mind Reading. Obviously, none of us can read minds. When we try to engage in mind reading we will often be wrong, leading to undesirable consequences. The antidote to mind reading is to ask for evidence before concluding what people are thinking.

4. Always do your best. One obvious reason for doing your best is that we cannot achieve our goals by being lazy. If you do your best, not only are you are more likely to achieve goals, but you will also avoid criticism from what Ruiz calls your internal Judge. There are also more subtle issues about doing "your best." One is that you should not try to do better than your best. Pushing yourself too hard can cause pain, injury, and mistakes. More subtle still is the recognition that our "best" will vary from moment to moment, that, in a sense, you are always doing your best. Realize this, and your inner Judge can take a permanent vacation.

1970s Calgon water softener commercialDo these four agreements actually derive from ancient Toltec wisdom? I will bet that many hard-nosed skeptics will accept that idea about as readily as Mr. Lee's claim of using an ancient Chinese secret instead of Calgon to get shirts clean. I am a skeptic myself. But to my fellow skeptics, I might mention that Ruiz's next book, The Fifth Agreement, suggests the following agreement: "Be skeptical but learn to listen."




"The Weirdest People in the World?" That's the title of a provocative paper published this year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The authors, an anthropologist and two psychologists, were describing the subjects of behavioral experiments, but not in reference to the obvious outliers and oddballs that enable scientists to explore what happens When Things Go Wrong. Instead, they argue, the nominally normal subjects used in the bulk of published research are actually the outliers, for they are WEIRDos-members of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies-and cannot stand in for the majority of the human race.

The authors-Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia-compiled numerous studies showing significant cross-cultural differences in areas including decision-making, cooperation, self-concept, and even seemingly hard-wired functions such as visual perception. Consider the popular Müller-Lyer illusion-two line segments of equal length, one book-ended by concave arrowheads, the other by convex. Undergraduates in Illinois judged the second segment about 20 percent longer than the first, but this number differs significantly from 14 small-scale societies, some of whom see no illusion at all, perhaps because of less exposure to carpentered corners.

Among industrialized societies, Westerners show an especially high degree of analytical as opposed to holistic reasoning. Within Western societies, Americans tend to be particularly individualistic instead of collectivistic. And college-educated Americans uniquely downplay divinity in their moral reasoning. The list of differences goes on. Further, WEIRDos are not just any narrow subject pool, but a particularly unrepresentative one, at the far end of the spectrum on many measures. In fact, the researchers write, they "may represent the worst population on which to base our understanding of Homo sapiens." WEIRDos really are weird.

And while it may be ironic that the world's most atypical people are the ones dominating the study of people, it's no coincidence: several of the traits that make WEIRDos so atypical-such as their extreme self-focus and analytical reasoning-are the very ones that drive them to conduct psychology research.

The implications of WEIRD science extend globally, the researchers say. For example, exporting our home-brewed brands of democracy and education and our egocentric models of mental illness may not resonate everywhere. As the author Ethan Watters points out in his new book Crazy Like Us, inappropriate diagnosis of PTSD in foreign cultures such as post-tsunami Sri Lanka has undermined local healing practices.

The researchers recommend that journal editors, granting agencies, and universities force psychologists to defend their generalizations, incentivize them to use wider subject pools, and assist them in international collaborations. And paper authors using WEIRD subjects should avoid describing how "people" and "humans" think, even if it means restricting their findings to "American undergraduates." "Language is the easy change which will make a difference," Heine says.

•An analysis of top psychology journals found that 96% of subjects come from Western industrialized nations, which contain only 12% of the world's population.
•67% of American subjects and 80% of international subjects are undergraduate psychology students.
•An American undergraduate is 4,000 times more likely to be a subject in a psychology experiment than a random person outside the West.


Being a true blue numbers geek, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep the tip of my mechanical pencil on the proverbial scratch paper of life now that my career as a molder of young mathematical minds has been cut short by motor neuron disease.

I discovered such a diversion today.

You know how on weekday morning news programs they have that little graphic in the bottom right corner of the screen that shows the current, up-to-the-second value of the New York Stock Exchange and just above that five digit, two decimal point number is a positive or negative two digit two decimal point number which denotes the gains or losses of the market in real time as well as that aforementioned overall number?

Well, this morning I invented a little mental math game -- no calculators or all-knowing computer programs allowed -- where given the current total and daily value of the NYSE, you have to figure out the initial value of the exchange prior to the start of trading for the day.

For example, let's say that the overall value is up 2.3 points to 17.4. The question that needs to be answered is what was the value before it gained those 2.3 points? Simple math will lead you to an answer of 15.1 as the initial number.

Pretty easy, right?

Well, considering that both sets of numbers get updated about once every three to four seconds on the screen and the digits themselves are a bit more complex than those given in the example, now you've got yourself a more challenging puzzle on your hands.

Before you cry uncle and curse my name for even bringing it up, why don't you just give it a shot the next time you are watching the morning news and you notice that little NYSE bug in the corner. You just may find that it's not as difficult a mental math problem as it sounds here.



Everyone suffers at some time. Everyone loses a job, health, and loved ones. Some may be subjected to more suffering than others, but no one is immune. Misfortune varies in nature and intensity, but what determines the outcome is how you view that specific misfortune, and how you respond to the suffering.

If you view adversity as God's punishment, you may rebel against it or wallow in it. But if you view adversity as part of God's unknowable plan, you'll simply receive it. If you indulge in your suffering you will isolate yourself, and salvation is not found in disengagement. Meet your suffering with pure and deep devotion; you'll find Divine Solace. Transform the energy inherent in suffering into profound spiritual engagement and you will cease to hurt.

Life is defined by known or secret sorrows and sufferings. Each person tries to bear misfortune in his or her own way, sometimes stoically, at times less so. What makes suffering unbearable is being alone. Your loving relationships help buttress you against the sense of being alone in the face of trauma. Still, even though you feel their genuine, generous love and concern, sooner or later friends go home and family members naturally shift their focus onto their own tasks and preoccupations. The power of human relationships goes only so far, but in faith you are never alone. With God you will be able to face life's adversities with equanimity, regardless of how traumatic they might be.

In isolation there is self-pity ("Why me?"); hopelessness ("This is it, I'm finished."); sinfulness ("I should kill myself." Or worse sins (I'll inflict my pain on others.") Misery may like company, but God considers inflicting pain on others an evil act." "I bore him in great pain!" Jabez's mother said in naming him (the name Jabez sounds like the Hebrew word meaning "he causes pain"). (1 Chron. 4:9) Later Jabez calls on God to change the meaning of his name to "he who does not cause pain." (1 Chron. 4:10)

Negative reactions to pain and sorrow further isolate the sufferer. As the proverb goes, "You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them from building nests in your hair." If you indulge in self-pity, hopelessness, and spiritual impoverishment, the proverbial birds will settle comfortably in your hair. Suffering is your reaction to pain and sorrow. Each of us is assigned to carry some of the weight of pain. Suffering stops when you understand, and gratefully accept, that the pain and sorrow you experience is a share of the burden in spiritual communion.

If you stay with your pain, in fact, if you allow it to cut deeper, you may find your purest tears of sorrow and your voice of longing. Meet your pain and transform it. Your soul is a prism for God's Divine Light. If your soul is faithful, it will transfigure your pain into sacred suffering. A serene peacefulness is embedded in sacred suffering much the same way that Divine Light is embedded in dark shadows.

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T. Byram Karasu, M.D. is the author of The Spirit of Happiness