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Five Penn authors offer challenges and inspiration to readers seeking better self-control, wiser conversations, age-appropriate outfits, meaningful reading, and wholesome eating.


Daniel Akst C’78 will be the first to admit that he suffers from a case of moderation that borders on, well, boring. “I don’t seem to be addicted to anything,” says the journalist, who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley and has been married to his dentist for 18 years. “I’m not a person who is up to my eyeballs in debt or who weighs 400 pounds or is gambling away my kids’ college money.” At one point, Akst quips, he drank too little, but even that habit no longer dogs him. In some of his weaker hours, at least, he avoids writing deadlines by scouting the Internet for tech bargains.

Akst’s relative temperance gives him a safe perch from which to comment on the array of temptations that call to us now that we’re no longer spearing mastodons for our daily survival. With all our free time and choices, modern humans have managed to rack up staggering credit card debt, pack on the pounds, abuse assorted drugs, and engage in a range of self-destructive habits. (That’s not even counting all the hours lost plowing virtual fields on FarmVille.) Akst surveys the damage and dangles some antidotes in his
latest book, We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess.

Akst became something of an expert on overindulgence while writing his second novel, St. Burl’s Obituary, about a newspaper obituary writer of supersized proportions who undergoes stomach-reduction surgery. When the novel came out in 1996, bariatric procedures were rare, Akst says. “Today, there are something like 200,000 of these operations a year.” To the author, such statistics show “just how hard it can be to control ourselves in a world that appeals ever more effectively to our desires—even if these happen to be desires we’d prefer not to indulge.”

Akst’s latest work joins a host of recent books by Penn alumni pointing to the things we should do with our lives: exercise self-control, adjust our wardrobes as we age, become better acquainted with the food we eat, focus enough on a book to be transformed by it, and converse better with our coworkers. For those inclined to make New Year’s resolutions, this reading collection offers some thought-provoking choices.

Resolution 1. Resist temptation (most of the time).

Our lapses in self-control do more than serve up titillating headlines. (Chances are, you can think of at least one womanizing ex-governor or pro golfer). They also come with wide-ranging consequences, Akst says, citing the annual death toll from cigarette smoking as well as the many lives overturned by the recent financial crisis:

This was the people’s crash, and with our swollen homes and credit card balances, our $4 coffees and gas-guzzling SUVs on lease, nearly all of us took part. Reckless overspending, once limited to the rich, was now a course open to practically every American, just like reckless investing. Suddenly we were all Emma Bovary, bored, entitled, and aghast when the piper at last demanded to be paid.

What saves this book from hand-wringing is the author’s in-depth exploration of self-control, as seen by Greek philosophers, fictional characters from Frog and Toad to Shakespeare’s Tarquin, and many labs full of psychologists and neuroscientists.

Before the wills of nursery-school students were tested with marshmallows, and before undergrads were asked to weigh offers of fast cash or bigger, delayed rewards while reclining in MRI scanners, the Greeks considered the importance of self-control. Aristotle, for example, stressed moderation—avoiding excessive pursuit of pleasure as well as denial—as the key to achieving a meaningful happiness. Plato held up sophrosyne, or self-discipline, as one of the four virtues of citizenship.

That doesn’t mean it has ever come easily. “The self did not evolve to exert the amount of control that we require of it in modern life,” psychologist Mark Leary says. Akst walks us through a brief history of the brain, explaining that our prefrontal cortex allows us to do things like put off pleasure in pursuit of a future goal, but it “is no match for the massively parallel capabilities of the much older parts of the brain, which coordinate a symphony of organic processes without conscious intervention.”

Philosopher Derek Parfit has suggested that some of what we’re up against is a sense of alienation from our “future selves.” Akst floats the analogy of a series of messy guests checking into a hotel room with no cleaning staff. If no one has an incentive to clean the room for the next inhabitant, the place will soon start to reek. “Yet it is foolish to pretend our ‘selves’ are really of so little consequence to one another,” Akst writes. “We know we will become them, and they have a claim on us.”

For many, that future claim is outweighed by present pleasure. Akst looks skeptically at a widening circle of behaviors that society has deemed addictive, from compulsive shopping to overeating to gambling. “There are good grounds for regarding addiction as just an unusually durable form of desire,” he writes. He reaches that conclusion because of how effective incentives and disincentives seem to be in stopping addiction.

Asked to clarify his ideas, Akst argues that the term addiction should be reserved for “that hardcore group of people unable to alter their catastrophic behavior in the face of all incentives to the contrary, and to the point their lives are ruined or even lost. I think the idea that you’re addicted to your ex or to Godiva chocolates is a metaphor that hasn’t served us very well.”

But his book is not about telling readers “to be pious and chaste and virtuous and abstemious at the table,” Akst adds. “What I’m trying to address is why it’s so difficult to act in accord with our own higher wishes.” Our environment plays a huge role.

Concluding that humans ultimately do have self-control, however, Akst devotes the last section of his book to some ways we might flex it. One is to enlist the help of government. Akst thinks this can be done without violating freedoms. Some states, for example, let problem gamblers register, voluntarily, for programs designed to keep them out of the casinos; such self-exclusion programs could be expanded. The government can also educate citizens about better choices and provide incentives for implementing them.

The private sector offers tools as well, Akst writes. Through Stickk.com, people can set personal goals, such as losing 20 pounds or finally finishing that novel, and sign binding contracts to forfeit a certain amount of money if they fail to follow through. Lost funds go to the user’s charity of choice, unless that person has dared to pre-select an “anti-charity” as added motivation. (Think of the political cause you love to hate.) Even without a formal agreement, announcing your intentions to other people can be highly motivating, Akst says.

Probably the most effective strategy, he says, is to manage your environment: Remove temptations from your midst. Turn off your email. Don’t shop for groceries with a rumbling stomach. Stash your credit cards out of reach.

According to Akst, the early Greeks were wise enough to realize the limits of willpower alone. When Odysseus fears he’ll be fatally tempted by the sirens, he has his men fill their ears with beeswax and tie him to the ship’s mast ahead of time; this way, when he feels compelled to follow the deadly music, he can’t.

Download this article (PDF)
FEATURE: A Shelf Full of Resolutions by Susan Frith
Illustrations by Jay Bevenour
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette


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  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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