Thou Art Anxious

Decisions, decisions

In this age of information overload, with every word and byte amplified to an unprecedented extreme by social media and cable news, we have come to rely heavily upon advice of all kinds, hoping it can help us navigate the treacherous shoals and eddies of daily life. We’re now at a point where we need advice on the advice we’re receiving, which is what Timothy Caulfield offers with this very readable book.

Caulfield, the research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?, from 2015, structures Relax, Dammit! around the typical reader’s typical day: “We make a ridiculous number of decisions,” he writes in his introduction. “Some estimates are that the number hovers in the thousands; we make hundreds of decisions daily about food alone.” He then walks us through the numerous choices we face from morning to night. How do we actually make all of them? And based upon what?

Unsurprisingly, science and reason do not play much of a part in our quotidian decision making. By and large, we rely on folk wisdom and “common sense” heuristics. At the same time, we are finding ourselves needlessly anxious and unhappy about what we do and don’t do — all thanks to widespread exposure to fashions, untruths, and unfounded fears. “We live in a society that is now engineered to create confusion, stir anxiety, and spread misinformation,” Caulfield writes.

We could point to reduced crime, fewer missing children, less teenage pregnancy, declining cancer rates, and less poverty than a generation ago. But that all seems so counterintuitive. The bad news is often more memorable than the good, and it leaves a mark. Persistent unease — stoked by quack internet sites, corporations, the media, politicians, and even our friends and family — makes us more risk‑averse than ever, and angrier too.

Evidence-based decision making, Caulfield believes, can help guide us through the subjective maze that is our world of personal memories, social mores, and fearmongering, even the hard-wiring of our brains. By using this type of lens, he suggests, we can, for the most part, just relax. But is he right?

Caulfield has amassed a wealth of sources (nearly a quarter of the book) to help put our decision making in a historical and evidentiary framework. Despite the compiled evidence, ­however, readers won’t always find certainty. This is science, after all: conflicting or inconclusive findings are often the norm.

Does flossing your teeth every day actually do any good, for example? Well, probably not much, but “it will be a challenge to get the needed data to provide a definitive statement” on its value. What about afternoon naps? Maybe good, maybe not. Binge watching television? That depends, but if you must, follow a few simple rules: eat fruit for snacks, walk around a little, and don’t stay up too late. How about spending more time with your kids? Again, despite an apparent epidemic of parental guilt, there is no easy answer: “Granted, this is a topic that is difficult to study well because of all the complex variables involved (socioeconomics, parenting styles, etc.) and the fact that many of the results are correlational. Still, the key point remains: there is very little evidence that more parenting time is always the right answer. So relax.”

Caulfield steps more surely on some issues than on others. He deals with food fads — in our face more than ever thanks to Instagram and other platforms — firmly. No, it’s not a good idea to drink raw milk or natural “raw water.” No, gluten is not harmful (unless you have celiac disease). And yes, fluoridated water is a sound public health measure (pace Calgary city ­council). And so it goes throughout Relax, Dammit! Even if we listen to experts and check out the available data, we’ll have to dig around. That means spending the necessary time to make our choices as informed as possible. Even then, we might continue to worry.

A book like this — and Caulfield wouldn’t disagree — begs the reader to apply the same critical lens to the author’s claims as to any other. Sometimes he’s overly confident. Take brainstorming sessions in the office, for example. He insists that they’re a waste of time: “Let’s debunk one of the biggest justifications for meetings.” The evidence, research from University College London, does show that better ideas are generated when people work alone. But group brainstorming can filter those ideas, deepen them, and apply them to solving problems, at least according to the Harvard Business Review.

Nor must we accept Caulfield’s view that all wines taste more or less alike. Preferences in vino, as with any other food or drink, are conditioned by a number of extraneous social factors. Prestige labels, price, and ambience do play a role, and even wine judges can be tricked. But there’s still a significant difference in flavour between a Château Margaux and a Manischewitz. (Chacun à son goût, of course, which is Caulfield’s real point.)

Caulfield rightly warns us about mistaking correlation for causation, which is a common error that advertisers often exploit: People with healthy hair use Acme Brand Shampoo! That said, he doesn’t always follow his own strictures. Equitable sharing of housework may be correlated with better sex, for instance, but does the former lead to the latter, as he again implies, or do they both flow from a relationship that’s healthier for some other reason?

But there’s a deeper problem with Relax, Dammit! as a whole: it fails to calm. If we are indeed adrift on a heaving sea of advice, mixed with considerable misinformation, being told to relax is a bit like ordering a child to play on command.

As if to drive home the point, Caulfield ends his book with “The Relax, Dammit Rules,” including these: Arm yourself with tools that will help you recognize misinformation. Always consider the body of evidence on any given topic. Do not be persuaded by anecdotes or testimonials. Consider the source. Consider biases and conflicts.

On top of all of that, Caulfield tells us to do our exercise. Eat well. Sleep soundly. Stay off our phones. Drink moderately.

Who knew that relaxing would be such hard work?