Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Financial Obesity (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Financial Obesity

The 1970s were still an age of moderation, exemplified by the fact that for New York lawyers and teachers, starting salaries were about the same. In those days, the number of overweight or obese in the populace hovered around 10 percent. But by 2010, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services classified 66 percent of adults in the United States as overweight or obese. That same year, the starting salaries for NYC lawyers had ballooned to four times that of the city’s teachers. The DHHS goes on to point out the dangers of physical obesity as, “increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and some forms of cancer.”
The explosion of body mass has been blamed on everything from constant snacking, to junk food, to consumption of huge portions, and, more and more, on emotional disorders. At last, the question is being asked, “Why are we compulsively snacking? Why do we binge on junk food? And why do we eat such huge portions?”
Overeating has been associated with depression, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, frustration, stress, problems with interpersonal relationships and poor self-esteem.
The cause and effect is illuminated in an article from Britain’s National Health Service. It starts with an insightful quotation. “I have just finished with my boyfriend and now I’m eating chocolate. I know it’s not chocolate that I want. I want a kiss and a cuddle. I want him. So why am I trying to find solace within that sheet of silver foil?”
According to Professor Andrew Hill, a psychologist at Leeds University, that is precisely the question we should be asking if we want to understand overeating. To him the simpleminded approach to curbing obesity—by counting how many calories we consume and how many we burn—is guaranteed to fail. “There’s energy in and there’s energy out but there’s a person in-between,” he says. “You need to understand the emotional reasons for eating if you are ever going to change behavior.”
He points out that from infancy, food is directly linked to emotions: the breast not only feeds, but comforts; favorite foods are used to calm and reward. Sweets forever remind us of the sweetness of mother’s milk. This changes little as we grow older. “What does a man give a woman when he is wooing her? Chocolates. What do you give your family for a special occasion? You take them out for a meal or you make a special meal.”
It is then safe to say that overeating is not about filling empty stomachs, it’s about “a kiss and a cuddle”—it’s about filling empty arms.

The real problem is not what we are doing, but what we are not doing, while we’re doing what we do. While food becomes a fleeting substitute for someone’s loving arms, it unfortunately gets us no closer to what we really need. On the contrary. Overeating sets a vicious cycle in motion: the more weight we gain, the more self-conscious we become, and the more reluctant to go out and meet someone to love. So we become even more lonely, anxious, frustrated and depressed. And, to feel better, we eat even more.

While our society is understandably focused on the unhealthy effects of plain to the naked eye physical obesity, few have questioned a less obvious, but more disturbing disorder affecting not only those suffering from it, but demoralizing and dehumanizing us all. Significantly enough, this disease began to go viral at about the same time as did physical obesity, and quickly became a pandemic infecting the whole world. Its symptoms are similar—swelling and ballooning—but instead of hips and thighs, it’s of bank accounts. This disorder could be termed, without malice, “financial obesity.”
While overeating can be understood, it is less clear what voids over-earners try to fill. In other words, what drives someone to accumulate wealth beyond any possible use or need? What motivates millionaires and billionaires to work nearly night and day, with no concern for friends, family or society, focusing on some menial endeavor that most often involves nothing more mentally challenging than buying and selling with the single-minded purpose of accumulating more? Were this kind of behavior exhibited by another species—like our dog, say we found it running endlessly around the neighborhood pilfering a dog biscuit here, another there, then piling them sky high in quantities that he couldn’t eat were he to live to be a hundred—would we not be alarmed?
When looking for the “why” of over-earning, I think we have to dismiss comparison to eating disorder motivations—of trying to relive the sweetness of mother’s milk and her comforting breast, for few people I know were brought up snuggling Rolex watches or sucking hundred dollar bills.
While physical obesity results in damage to our arteries, liver and heart, it is more difficult to measure financial obesity’s damage to the organ it affects most: our brain. It’s fair to say that the vital neurological paths—those formed by frequent use, as we’ll examine in chapter 14—would be of the most limited kind, made up primarily of basic arithmetic: figuring gain and loss. Most other vital paths—curiosity, imagination, warmth, kindness and empathy—had they ever developed, would have all atrophied, from disuse, long ago. I think we can assume that, as every other human, the financially obese need “a kiss and a cuddle.” Lacking the qualities which are normally inviting—warmth, kindness, imagination—they continue to substitute with an inanimate satisfaction, one they can count, and count on: money.
The point of this discussion is a simple one: Since the explosion of financial obesity corresponds in time to the explosion of physical obesity, there must be some aberration in our recent culture that has caused them both. In other words, we can assume that the emotional problems—depression, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, frustration, stress, problems with interpersonal relationships and poor self-esteem—that lie behind over-gorging are the same whether the over-gorging out is of the physical or financial kind.
What, you may ask, has this to do with real life? Well, since most cases of obesity are caused by emotional disorders which we feel obligated to address and treat to save the patient, then are we not equally if not more obligated to identify and treat the emotional problems of the financially obese? Not just out of fairness but out of self-preservation. Decades of obsessive hoarding and unbridled greed have led directly to a near economic collapse; hence the emotional disorders of the financially obese affect not only them but have severe repercussions on the welfare of us all.
The first step is obvious: to recognize financial obesity for what it is—a runaway pandemic. Second, instead of admiring it and refusing to see its danger, treat it like any other emotional problem or mental disease: with attentive understanding and care.

And make sure we “kiss and cuddle” a hell of a lot more.

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 

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