Friday, November 4, 2011

The Reactionary Dr. Andrew Weil

It seems so anodyne. Certainly, it's harmless. Dr. Andrew Weil’s cherubic face smiles out at us from the magazine and from the cover of his latest book. Only the halo is missing. To compensate Weil has allowed his white beard to surround the lower half of his face to produce a reverse halo effect.

Who could be more qualified to lead us all toward what Weil calls “spontaneous happiness?” Who better than the irrepressibly cheerful Weil to show us how to overcome depression?

As you know, best-selling author Weil is something of a tree hugger. He loves nature and he believes that we could solve our mood disorders if we could get back in touch with our hunter/gatherer selves.

But Weil is also selling vitamins and mineral supplements. Of course, he believes that we should absorb nutrients through the normal alimentary channels, but in case your diet does not include all of the right nutrients, he is happy to sell them to you. He will also sell you any one of a number of other products that will contribute to your quota of happiness.

Simply put, Dr. Weil is in the business of selling happiness. I fear that this makes him something of a huckster. Not because the products he sells or hawks are inferior—I have no knowledge of them at all—but because happiness is not really something that you can purchase online.

Of course, parts of his message are salutary. Aerobic exercise, proper nutrition, and good sleep habits will contribute mightily to your physical and mental well-being.

But, Weil is not selling exercise. He is selling vitamins and nutritional supplements. Thanks to his tireless hawking of these products, more and more Americans are taking some form of vitamin or supplement.

Of course, recent research is throwing doubt on the current American mania for vitamins and supplements. Some of those supplements that we all take produce more harm than good. Even multivitamins may not be quite as necessary as we have been led to believe.

One assumes that a responsible professional like Dr. Weil is fully aware of the risks and dangers that lie in the improper administration of vitamins and supplements. And yet, many people have been persuaded that these pills are an unalloyed good, a step toward health and happiness.

Ever on the lookout for new territories to exploit, Dr. Weil is about to bring out a book on curing depression. It is called Spontaneous Happiness. He presented his essential arguments in an essay in Newsweek. Linked above. 

The book is built on a theoretical foundation, and this gives us the opportunity to evaluate Dr. Weil’s thinking.

As he sees it, modern life has taken an emotional toll on human beings. We moderns are suffering from something like an epidemic of depression.

Unfortunately, when you start out by telling people that a normal human being would be depressed by modern industrial society, you are encouraging people to feel depressed. Most people want to feel that they are normal. Telling them that depression is the norm induces them to get in touch with their despair.

Dr. Weil next observes that affluence makes people more depressed. Most studies have shown that money does not make you happy, but they have also shown that poverty makes people miserable.

Dr. Weil avoids this inconvenient fact by limiting his comment to his personal observations.

He observes: “In my experience, the more people have, the less likely they are to be contented. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that depression is a ‘disease of affluence,’ a disorder of modern life in the industrialized world. People who live in poorer countries have a lower risk of depression than those in industrialized nations. In general, countries with lifestyles that are furthest removed from modern standards have the lowest rates of depression.

“Within the U.S., the rate of depression of members of the Old Order Amish—a religious sect that shuns modernity in favor of lifestyles roughly emulating those of rural Americans a century ago—is as low as one 10th that of other Americans.”

As always, it is good to remind ourselves that a century ago, at a time when people were presumably less depressed, their life expectancy was something like 46.

But Dr. Weil is not going to be selling too many books on spontaneous happiness if he tells people that they should live like people did a century ago and die young.

He is selling a false vision of a lost Eden, a world where people lived in harmony with nature and were happier, healthier, and wiser.

The proper word for this mindset is reactionary: it yearns for the past and wants people to live their present lives in the past.

I regret that I have to point out something that Weil should have learned in high school. If everyone were to live like the Amish, then some other enterprising group would happily invade us and take whatever they want.

Being invaded and subjugated is not going to enhance your spontaneous happiness.

When Weil asserts that more affluence does not translate into more happiness, he seems to be basing his assertion on his observation that his wealthiest friends and clients are not satisfied with their wealth.

But, if he is drawing on his own experience, he is surveying a self-selecting group, a group that has chosen to consult with him.

For all I know, he might be attracting more than his fair share of malcontents. Or else, he might be inducing them to feel dissatisfied and guilty because they have so much money and because they have lost touch with the primal goodness of nature.

Blaming modern life in the industrial world is not news. Strictly speaking, modern life, with its enhanced social mobility and increased opportunities for leisure, does produce a certain level of anomie.

Normal cultures address this problem by reconstructing customs and mores so that people can, as their nature dictates, form new functioning groups.

No one is going to cure anomie by taking the right vitamins and supplements.

Next, Weil quotes Prof. Steven Ilardi, who claims that we are depressed because: “…the human body was never designed for the modern postindustrial environment.”

But, if depression is a mental affliction, how can we blame the fact that our bodies are maladapted to our new environment?

But why is it so difficult to believe that human beings, having exited the hunter-gatherer stage, might be capable of adapting to different environments. Aren’t we more resourceful than that?

If we did not know how to adapt successfully, we would probably have remained at the hunter/gatherer stage of social development.

(And yes, I did notice that Weil is talking about the industrial world while Ilari is talking about the postindustrial world.)

Weil does not focus on the problem of social anomie. He prefers to focus on the fact that our modern lives are too sedentary.

He explains it more fully here: “Behaviors strongly associated with depression—reduced physical activity and human contact, overconsumption of processed food, seeking endless distraction—are the very behaviors that more and more people now can do, are even forced to do by the nature of their sedentary, indoor jobs.

“This kind of life simply was not an option throughout most of human history, as there was no infrastructure to support it, much less require it.

“Human beings evolved to thrive in natural environments and in bonded social groups. Few of us today can enjoy such a life and the emotional equilibrium it engenders, but our genetic predisposition for it has not changed.”

He continues: “More and more of us are sedentary, spending most of our time indoors. We eat industrial food much altered from its natural sources, and there is reason for concern about how our changed eating habits are affecting our brain activity and our moods. We are deluged by an unprecedented overload of information and stimulation in this age of the Internet, email, mobile phones, and multimedia, all of which favor social isolation and certainly affect our emotional (and physical) health.”

Surely, Weil is correct to say that reduced physical activity contributes to depression. He is also correct to say that a better diet is good for our physical and mental health. And he is correct to say that humans were designed to thrive in “bonded social groups.”

I am not so sure, however, that humans evolved to thrive in natural environments. If that were true, why have they always constructed villages and towns and cities and nations? And why do they live comfortably in such places?

But, is a return to a natural state a real panacea? Do our brains work better when we are looking out on nature or trying to figure out where to catch a fish for dinner?

The human brain stays in working order through conversation, true enough, but also through work, reading, writing, playing bridge and doing crossword puzzles. Modern life provides more opportunity for more brain work than does the more natural subsistence-level life.

I would mention in passing that Weil has nothing to say about how work contributes to happiness. He has nothing to say about how success in competition contributes to happiness. And he does not acknowledge that returning to the hunter/gatherer lifestyle that would tantamount to admitting failure.

Nor does he have any real appreciation for how much our routines contribute to happiness by diminishing the stress that attends a lifestyle based on the search for what Weil calls “spontaneous happiness.”

I would say that spontaneity is the enemy of happiness.

Retreating from the challenges of modern life will not make you happy. It will make you the kind of malcontent who thinks that you can cure it all by taking a better mix of vitamins.

For those who still harbor doubts, Weil contends that if we start living a more hunter/gatherer lifestyle we will be spending less money on eyeglasses.

No kidding. He writes: “Hunter-gatherers and other ‘primitive’ people do not develop the deficits of vision and the need for corrective lenses as early in life as people in our society do, probably because they grow up looking at distant landscapes more often than reading books, writing, or staring at television and computer screens. Because the eye is a direct extension of the brain, eye health is an indicator of brain health.”

Why would anyone believe that gazing at distant landscapes contributes more to your brain’s health than does reading books? It sounds like the kind of thought that would issue from a brain that has processed a few too many landscapes and a few too few books.

Not to be too redundant, but what was the average life expectancy of the hunter-gatherers? I would guess that it was around 23. 

And how will looking at distant landscapes make you more sociable? How will it spice up your conversation?

Next, Weil tries to take us for a ride on the analogy train and compares synthetic foods to synthetic entertainment.

In his words: “The allure of synthetic entertainment—television, the Internet—is eerily reminiscent of the false promise of industrial food. It seems like a distillation of the good aspects of a social life, always entertaining yet easy to abandon when it becomes tedious or challenging. But, like junk food, it is ultimately unsatisfying and potentially harmful. Our brains, genetically adapted to help us negotiate a successful course through complex, changing, and often hazardous natural environments, are suddenly confronted with an overload of information and stimulation independent of physical reality.”

I have difficulty thinking that watching good television shows, of which there are many, is roughly akin to eating Twinkies for lunch.

Would we really be better off if we spent more time getting lost in the woods? Weil does seem to understand that natural environments are not conducive to human health and longevity. Humans do not have the strength and agility to survive in them for very long, and thus they limit their exposure to them.

That’s why fewer and fewer human beings even try to live in them. We humans have accomplished what we have accomplished, both the good and the bad, by using our wits, by cultivating our intelligence, and by applying diligent labor to solving problems.

Weil’s message is ultimately depressing. If all of the great accomplishments of human civilization are bad for our health, how are we to feel pride in them?

And if we cannot feel pride in achievements, those of our ancestors and those of ourselves, however will we gain and sustain happiness.

Dr. Weil’s ramblings show what happens to the mind when you gaze too long on distant landscapes. He would have done better to spend more time reading, writing, and playing bridge.


pst314 said...

"But Weil is also selling vitamins and mineral supplements."

Ridiculously expensive vitamins.

"Thanks to his tireless hawking of these products, more and more Americans are taking some form of vitamin or supplement."

He would do them more good if he told them to buy vitamins at their local Walgreen's. But then he wouldn't be able to ride that gravy train. In the end, it's all about money.

Dennis said...

When we started eating meats our brains began to enlarge. There is a very good book by a once committed Vegan called, "The Vegetarian Myth" written by Lierre Keith.
As I have stated before many of those who have this Disney like fascination have NEVER taken a good look at it. They want to deny man's place in the cycle of life. They see this beautiful reef community and gush without realizing a war is going on for space. The inhabitants are stinging, killing, et al. Life survives on death.
I can understand why many of these people would like to curtail reading and other forms of knowledge because it is much easier to foist "junk science" and propaganda on them. Next time you see a meeting of the Sierra Club that includes the prime movers check out the suits and other a sundry items. All one can say is that environmentalism must really pay well.
Here is an interesting question. Why do some forms of music cause plants to grow well and other forms kill those very same plants? Or Why do plants react in the laboratory when brine shrimp are dropped into the flames of a bunsen burner?

Gina Pera said...

Excellent dissection!

Thank you for listening closely to what Weil is saying, pointing out the instances where he makes sense and where he goes off the rails. So many casual readers just focus on the "sense" part.

I wonder how many hunter-gatherers had to test their vision by reading the fine print in a credit-card statement?