from the world's big
How Do Companies Engineer Our Unhappiness?
In The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert Lustig holds up a much needed mirror to our consumption habits.
Though Robert Lustig is best known for his role as a pediatric endocrinologist—his 2009 lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” has been viewed on Youtube over 7.3 million times—he conducted six years of postdoctoral research in science at Rockefeller University; he also worked in a neuropharmacology lab at MIT as an undergrad. He may have made his mark in neuroendocrinology and childhood obesity, but he began his career studying the brain.
This was back before imaging data and MRI were available. Still, over thirty years ago, he recognized a behavioral connection between dopamine and serotonin. This chemical awareness remained in the back of his consciousness until he was working on his first book, Fat Chance, a scathing critique of the sugar industry and addiction, in 2011. A few year later he was leading psychiatric rounds when he met a recovering heroin addict.
The woman told him she had found pleasure in kicking heroin. Lustig raised an eyebrow. Heroin provides pleasure. Sobriety offers contentment. In other words, heroin is dopamine, recovery serotonin. This woman had it backwards. She was confusing her newfound happiness with pleasure.
Do words matter? Lustig thinks so. His new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains, depends on this argument. Happiness originally meant to be content. We’ve become so accustomed to the immediate reward offered by dopamine—through food, technology, pharmaceuticals, and other salable means—we’ve forgotten true happiness arises from the slow unfolding of contentment. His book is an attempt to take the word back.
First, Lustig had to understand how the word has been coopted. As he recently told me,
If you’re told by every TV commercial and everybody you know that you’re unhappy, to ‘buy this and you’ll be happy,’ you start to believe them. But it doesn’t make you happy; it actually makes you unhappy. It works for industry because it gets you to buy more, but it doesn’t work for us.
The root of happiness is hap, which means “luck.” Words such as happenstance and perhaps express chance occurrences. Lustig believes the original intention of happiness should be more akin to Aristotle’s term, eudemonia, which the philosopher coined as a synonym for “contentment.” Lustig admits happiness has a cultural connotation—a Christian and Buddhist might define the term quite differently. Given the global uptick in addictions and psychological disorders, a redefinition makes sense.
Lustig uses Nicholas Freudenberg’s “corporate consumption complex”—tobacco, alcohol, food, guns, cars, and energy—as an example of companies selling us “hedonic substances”: products that go above and beyond our survival necessities that simultaneously tap into our brain’s reward pathway, which is in stark contrast to its contentment pathway.
In the reward pathway, dopamine is the vehicle of communication between our ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NA), the region that attends to rewards. The NA is a “learning pathway.” Habits are formed here. If a habit brings us pleasure we repeat the routine. Hello one-click. Endogenous opioid peptides (EOPs) are released when engaging in this routine. If that term sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same pathway morphine and heroin use to generate pleasure. As with those substances, social media and shopping feel good until we need a stronger, then a stronger dose, until we’re hooked. We never have enough because more just feels so good.
The contentment pathway is altogether different. The dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), located in the midbrain, sends serotonin through the cerebral cortex. The result is not the quick rush of pleasure, but rather the relaxed sensation of feeling at ease in your skin. You don’t need more because you realize you already have so much.
Unfortunately, the dopamine loop is more seductive. When I mention the recent New Yorker investigation of the Sacklers, the family that engineered the opioid crisis while taking no responsibility for their aggressive and misleading marketing of Oxycontin, Lustig replies,
I have talked with many Coca-Cola executives who will not let their children drink it.
Which is reminiscent of the Facebook “like” creator disconnecting from technology and Steve Jobs refusing to let his kids use an iPad. Earning billions of dollars from addictive products while avoiding the trappings of those products is morally bankrupt. Lustig tells me it’s rather clear-cut, though. In October, 2013 he spoke to the Mexican government about the possibility of a proposed soda tax. In a closed door session he was told,
We don’t care who lives or dies; it makes no difference. It’s about the money. You have to show us how this is going to either make us or saves money.
Lustig did just that. The tax passed in 2014. Two years later it appears that besides saving nearly 19,000 lives, revenue from the tax will save nearly a billion dollars in health care costs. The data are there. The challenge is getting companies and governments to pay attention.
Which is the opposite direction America is headed. Lustig writes that the American processed food industry rakes in $1.46 billion per year, with 45 percent being profit, while the health care system spends $3.2 trillion, with 75 percent of the diseases treated being avoidable. The imbalance is stark. We pay into a destructive food system that we again pay into at the other end. Though the numbers are clear, we’re doing little about it.
The entire food supply is contaminated; people don’t even know what food is today. We explain to parents what food is because to many of them Cheetos are food. And if you think Cheetos are food then you’re never going to get it.
While Lustig is refreshingly critical of various industries throughout his book, his “Four C’s” are prescriptive:
The Hacking of the American Mind is an empowering observation of the modern American mindset, one that has been engineered to keep us consuming from birth to death. Reverse engineering our way out of this mess requires a diligent resurgence of serotonin. Patience has long been considered a virtue. For it to work, we have to employ it. As Lustig shows, now is the perfect time to do so.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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