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3 Reasons Reading Numbered Self-Help Lists Is Bad For You And What to Do Instead.

In the mornings, I am particularly drawn to, and particularly vulnerable to, my inbox. Whether lying on my side pre-coffee or, maybe worse, propped up mid-coffee, when I touch the email app on my phone, I’m looking for solutions. And my inbox has them. They come to me in the form of the many newsletters […]

In the mornings, I am particularly drawn to, and particularly vulnerable to, my inbox. Whether lying on my side pre-coffee or, maybe worse, propped up mid-coffee, when I touch the email app on my phone, I’m looking for solutions. And my inbox has them.

They come to me in the form of the many newsletters and other “helpful” intrusions (like Facebook notifications) I’ve arranged, because, you see, I have all these … problems.

So my inbox is a cascade of:

6 Ways You’re Irritating Your Boss And How To Stop Today

5 Superfoods That Will Save Your Toenails

17 Hacks To Get Your Kids Out The Door, The Dogs For A Walk, Your Organic Cage-Free Dinner Ingredients Ordered, Your Chakras Aligned And Your Maxi-Pad Changed, All Without Getting Out Of Bed.

Ok, I made that one up. No one wears maxi-pads anymore. And yeah, I made them all up, but you know what I mean, right? I’ve got problems. We’ve all got problems. If you’re reading this post, you are most likely not literally drowning, but you often feel like you are at least dog paddling in a sea of problems.

And you go to sleep thinking about those problems and you wake up thinking about those problems and there’s your phone or your laptop and your inbox (or it could be some other online delivery system, like a so-called news app or a social network; I am just quite addicted to email) and, miracle of miracles, it renders up all these lovely SOLUTIONS. And you can finally breathe a sigh of relief because one of your problems has been SOLVED.

And the weird thing about that feeling of SOLVED is that even if you only learned “4 Ways To Get Dried Almond Butter Out From Under That Super Sharp Thingie At The Bottom Of The Blender,” the feeling of having solved that problem feels bigger than the little annoying problem itself.

My inbox and other online “news” providers tell me that’s because the feeling of solving a problem gives our brains a rush of dopamine. But then we become needy, dare I say addicted, to that rush, and we have to have it again. Just about everything we encounter online finagles with our dopamine and draws us into a vortex that David Brooks of The New York Times called a compulsion loop. That means that tomorrow when we wake up, or whenever we are feeling our problems, we’re again going to look for solutions, and start the loop over again.

What I am here to do today is to offer you three reasons that that very comforting loop is bad for you and what you can do instead. My challenge to you is to make this the last numbered help list you ever read. It will most certainly be the last I’ll force upon the reading public.

Reading numbered help lists is bad for you because:

  1. YOU’RE ADDICTING YOURSELF TO A DRUG CALLED SOLUTIONS. I’m not going to open up a can of science on you but I will say that when we go looking for reassurance, we ripen our brains to need more reassurance. Maybe we solve one problem, but we’re addicting ourselves to a cycle of problem-solution that sends us dragging through the streets for an angry fix.
  2. THIS SHIT CHANGES ALL THE TIME. The health news shit, at least. Maybe because I have a chronic condition (celiac disease), I am often attracted to numbered lists about nutrition and health. But since I have been reading them for over forty years, I have been able to identify a pattern in health research cycles that has proven (to me, at least) that this shit, meaning nutrition and health advice, changes all the time. Across my lifetime, eggs have been good for you (the 1960s), bad for you (the 80s) and not just good for you but great (now). Stay tuned! Similarly, breadstuffs were considered dietary cornerstones when I was diagnosed in 1967 and people felt so sorry for me to not be able to eat them. Today, about half my acquaintance has cut out gluten and claims to feel better. My grandparents would have sworn that daily bathing was essential to good health, but Michael Pollan says we should get dirty. Today’s health news lines the bottom of the next decade’s birdcage.
  3. SOMEONE’S MAKING MONEY OFF YOUR PROBLEMATIC STATE. Do you know everything? No. Can advice help? Sometimes. Are publications, including this one, making money off your search for help? Yes. Is that kind of gross? Yes. Would that breed an environment where problem-profiteers need for you to have problems and maybe would be willing to point some of your problems out to you and make you feel really crappy and inadequate so you’ll come to them for solutions? Tah-dah!

So what’s a poor problem’ed person to do rather than feed the machine that feeds your addiction to solutions? How can we break the chains of the publication-industrial complex and liberate ourselves to a lofty plain beyond both problem and solution?

Maybe we can begin by stopping thinking that there’s something wrong with 1) us for having problems and 2) so-called problems in general. What if the things we call problems are mostly just life? Things get dirty, we get tired and sick, we don’t get along with everyone. And guess what, we’re all going to die, including Peter Thiel.

When we cordon off these life basics by focusing on them as “problems,” we might be removing ourselves from some possibility of living a full life.

Instead, could we consider embracing the full catastrophe that is living, and stop trying to rank problem and solution like the latter is more valuable than the former? Maybe it’s a little sad that the world and living in it breeds these things we call problems, but that ranking puts us at risk of missing out on what could be lovely, rich, and meaningful nuggets found within those problems. Even if they are stuck down there under the sharp thingie at the bottom of the blender.

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