One of the most common problems among people I work with and coach is the feeling of always being busy.
And then it becomes a rationalization: I can’t honor my commitments because I’m too busy! I can’t be with my family or friends because I’m too busy. I can’t work out, meditate, shut down at night to get to sleep, or make time for solitude and disconnection … because I’m too busy.
Most of us have used this “too busy” rationalization, because it feels very true. It feels absolutely true that we’re too busy. And there’s a corollary to this: if we want to be less busy, we have to get all our work done first (and be more busy in the meantime).
Is it true? Or can we develop a habit of not being busy, even with the same workload?
Let’s get at the heart of this always-busy habit, and then reverse it.
The Always-Busy Habit
It’s a little complicated, because there are a number of components to the always-busy habit:
A More Focused, Meaningful Way to Work
Let’s imagine a fantasy scenario where you’re getting things done, but with a measure of focus and calm, not rushing but being fully present. With a sense of purpose and meaning. Getting the important things done even if they’re scary.
That’s what we’re looking for, with the idea that we’re not always going to hit this ideal. So how do we get there?
It’s a number of antidotes to our usual tendencies, but the idea is to not let ourselves engage in our usual tendencies. We have to intentionally shift them.
So here are the antidotes:
Putting It Together with Practice
The key word for me is “remembering.” We can practice this different mode of work, of being … but if we don’t remember, we can’t practice.
So how do we remember?
It gets easier with practice, of course. But in the beginning, we have to give ourselves a nudge, as often as we can.
It helps to have digital reminders, but in my experience, physical reminders work the best. For example, you might have several physical reminders such as:
Practice it over and over, until it becomes you default. Until it changes the way you live.
By Aly Walansky
People often credit ambition or confidence when starting a new business, but that’s not the only trait that can make the difference. It can go beyond passion and inspiration too.
According to Sir Richard Branson, founder of the multinational conglomerate Virgin Group, best known for Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records, the feeling that made all the difference for him is frustration.
“You often spot opportunities from personal frustration,” Branson told the audience at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit last week. The origin of Virgin Atlantic was tied into this negative emotion, which was channeled in a positive way by Branson
“I was 28, in Puerto Rico, trying to get to the Virgin Islands, and the pilot announced we had to wait until the next day,” the businessman with an estimated networth of $5 billion dollars recalled. This delay wasn’t anything unusual: because the flight didn’t have enough passengers, it was canceled.
Branson was frustrated, but it also gave him the seed of an idea.
“I had a beautiful lady waiting for me, and I was damned if I would wait till the next day,” he recalled.
Rather than waiting, Branson hired chartered plane. This was back before Branson was a billionaire, and a chartered plane wasn’t really in his price range at the time. However, he didn’t care. He did it anyway.
“One of my favorite phrases is, ‘Screw it, let’s do it!'”
With this mantra in mind, Branson booked the the plane, borrowed a blackboard, wrote “Virgin Airlines, one-way Virgin Islands $39” on it, and went around to the other passengers of his canceled flight. “And I filled my first plane,” he said.
That was the moment he started the company that changed everything.
Branson’s next step was to buy an airplane — secondhand, of course. He called a Boeing executive and said, “I’m Richard Branson, will you sell me a 747?”
“He said, ‘Who are you?'” Branson recalled.
“I said, ‘I have Virgin Records and the Sex Pistols.'”
“He said, ‘As long as you don’t call it Virgin, because people will assume your airline won’t go the whole way.'”
We all know the way this frustrating story ended: with Virgin Group and massive success.
So, there you have it. If something’s frustrating you, channel your frustration into finding a solution, and turn that negative emotion into something amazing. You may end up as the next Richard Branson, or — more importantly– the first you!
By Susan Steinbrecher - Inc.com
Reach a state of calm by changing the way you breathe.
It's no secret that stress can wreak havoc on your body and mind. In the U.S. alone, billions are spent annually on stress-related compensation claims, reduced productivity, absenteeism, health insurance costs, direct medical expenses and employee turnover. Medical researchers estimate that stress is now the underlying cause of over 80 percent of all illnesses, and there is an abundance of research that continues to uphold the fact that things are not getting any better. For example, CareerBuilder's workplace stress survey reported that 61 percent of respondents said they were burned out in their current job, while 31 percent of the study participants felt extremely high levels of stress at work. And workplace stress does not magically stop when you leave the office; stress affects your home life, as well. We've all experienced it -- work-related stress can negatively impact your relationships. Research backs this up -- job strain can manifest in ways such as being easily antagonized or short-tempered with a partner or child, or becoming withdrawn. Social scientists refer to this lingering work stress as the "spillover effect."
Are we really meant to live like this? With so much to contend with, maintaining a healthy lifestyle or a healthy state of mind may seem impossible. Faced with such challenging times, people are more likely to put their need for rest, rejuvenation, and reflection on the back burner as their "to-do" list overtakes them. It is not surprising that many seek relief.
Interestingly, one of the most effective means to combat stress does not come in a pill or an evening cocktail. It lies in the power of your ability to focus and calm the mind -- and in the power of the breath. Mindful breathing activates the relaxation response, creating a sense of calm, connection, and clarity of thought. This state decreases stressful hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, each of which can contribute to a host of unhealthy diseases from obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure to panic attacks and depression.
Andrew Weil, M.D., renowned founder of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona recommends a simple, yet powerful breathing technique called the "4-7-8 Breath" to help reverse the effects stress on both the body and mind. The method helps you focus on your breath and brings you back to being in the moment, and with consistent practice it will lower your blood pressure and your stress level.
Here is Dr. Weil demonstrating the 4-7-8 Breath:
You will likely feel more positive results if you practice twice daily for an extensive period of time. Here is the technique, step-by-step:
Dr. Weil's 4-7-8 Breath for Relaxation
We’ve all done it: we have an important task to do, and yet we have to do a thousand other things before we can start:
When we’re done with all of that, we decide it’s time to get going with that important task … but first, there’s that one other thing we realized we need to do. Every little task takes importance over this important task.
Try this experiment: commit yourself to doing the one big important task you know you’ve been wanting to do (it’s usually one you can identify easily, because you’ve been putting it off) … and commit to doing it right after you’re done reading this post.
See if you find little things you need to do first, before you can get started. If you have no problem, commit yourself to doing the next most important task (or continuing this one, if it needs several sessions) first thing tomorrow morning. I mean first thing, before you start checking messages or getting ready or taking care of the little things you normally do in the morning.
And then try it every day this week. If you’re like most people, you’ll find a bunch of things you need to do to clear the decks before you can get started.
But here’s what I’ve been reminding myself: you don’t need to clear the decks to get started. You can just launch into the important task.
The feeling that you need to take care of everything else first comes from a handful of sources:
Here’s what I’ve been practicing around this:
In addition, I’ll keep a note where I can write down the small things that I think of doing, and know that I can get to those later in the day. There’s a place for those things, but it’s not right now.
What is worthy of your full heart, attention and devotion right now?
Eva and I and our two younger kids are in the process of moving back to California from Guam, where we’ve been living with family for the last 9 months. As we pack our stuff, get some stuff ready to ship to California, and donate other things to charity … it is a great time to reflect.
Why do people have so much stuff?
Even though we have relatively little compared to most, we’ve still managed to accumulate too much, from getting gifts from other people to buying necessities (and non-necessities) along the way. Stuff just piles up over time — that’s the nature of stuff.
But most of it is not necessary. Most of our stuff, we buy because of one feeling: the feeling of uncertainty. This is the underlying groundlessness, shakiness, insecurity we feel about the future and the present moment. It’s the uncertainty we feel all day long, every day, to varying degrees. It’s what causes us to feel fear, stress, anxiety, worry, even anger. It’s what causes us to procrastinate and put off our healthy and productive habits.
The feeling of uncertainty is the root of our buying too much stuff.
Think about these examples:
The Futility of Shopping to Deal with UncertaintyWe don’t like the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity – we try to get rid of it as soon as we can, get away from it, push it away. We have lots of habitual patterns we’ve built up over the years to deal with this uncertainty and insecurity … and buying things is one of the most common, other than procrastination.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually give us any certainty or security. We buy things and we’re not really more prepared, in control, or secure. We hope we will be, and yet the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are still there. So we have to buy some more stuff.
We’re looking for the magical answer to give us control and security, but it doesn’t exist. Life is uncertain. Always. It’s the defining feature of life. Read the quote from Pema Chodron at the top — it says it all, we have to accept the uncertainty of life.
And in fact, this is the answer to our drive to buy too much stuff — if we lean into the uncertainty, embrace it, learn to become comfortable with it, we can stop buying so much.
We can learn to live with little, sitting with the uncertainty of it all.
The Practice of Opening to Uncertainty, to Live with Little
Imagine owning very little, living in a spare room, eating simple whole food, not being involved in social media, just working, reading, walking, spending time with loved ones. Meditating, drinking tea.
It’s a life of very little, and is beautiful in its simplicity.
But then uncertainty comes up, as it inevitably does. You have a trip, you have to go to a party, you have a new kind of project to take on, you are starting a new venture. You’re feeling insecurity and uncertainty.
Here’s how to practice with it instead of buying something:
Sleep is your life-support system and Mother Nature's best effort yet at immortality, says sleep scientist Matt Walker. In this deep dive into the science of slumber, Walker shares the wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep -- and the alarmingly bad things that happen when you don't, for both your brain and body. Learn more about sleep's impact on your learning, memory, immune system and even your genetic code -- as well as some helpful tips for getting some shut-eye.
Remember pay phones? Those telltale rectangular booths situated at every other street corner for your calling convenience? Well, it looks like Superman will have to find a new place to change, because they're quickly becoming a thing of the past (except in places like airports). If current trends continue, landline phones may soon join pay phones in the technology graveyard.
When was the last time you memorized someone's home number? It's probably been a while, as more people are beginning to make the majority of their calls on cell phones. In the U.S. and Europe, roughly 75 percent of the respective populations are wireless subscribers [source: Mobile Internet, Wireless Industry News]. Some European countries even expect to exceed 100 percent wireless penetration soon, due to people purchasing multiple devices [source: Mobile Pipeline].
As of late 2007, 16 percent of U.S. households had no landline whatsoever, compared to just 5 percent in 2004 [source: Associated Press]. If that rapid trend of ditching landlines continues, half of the U.S. could be without one in about 10 years.
Among the people who have landlines in the U.S., 13 percent nevertheless rely on their cell phones for the majority of their calls. Across the country, people are hanging up their home phones:
Even businesses are ditching their wires for more economical options, like WiFi and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol). Ford's Detroit headquarters, for example, recently purchased 8,000 wireless phones for the staff and ripped up its landlines. Eighty-five percent of the company's business is now conducted wirelessly [source: Foster]. It's not just major players like Ford who are embracing the new technologies, either. In New Jersey, sanitation distributor Laymen Global also has abandoned its landlines, except for a few it's keeping for emergencies.
People who have made the switch cite several benefits. Wireless communication saves money on local and long-distance phone charges, frees people up from their desks and prevents having to lay new cables. Laymen Global, the New Jersey company, saved $4,600 on its phone bill by forgoing landlines [source: Runner].
Ditching Your Landline Phone Service: Advantages and Disadvantages
While VoIP, cell phones and other wireless communication methods can save money, landline stalwarts don't believe a switch is warranted. They argue that the cost of replacement technology can easily eclipse the savings recouped by not installing cable. In addition, local- and long-distance phone charges may be cheaper, but that's not always the case. Making VoIP calls from overseas, for instance, can result in hefty charges.
Security is another factor for people to consider before letting go of their landlines. It's much easier for hackers to gain access to conversations on a cell phone or through VoIP than it is on a traditional phone line. Some people on the front lines of communications technology think that security concerns could prevent many companies from turning entirely away from landlines [source: Runner].
Interference may also pose a problem, depending on the quality of the landline's replacement. While the quality of WiFi and VoIP has improved significantly since the two technologies first came out, they're not 100 percent reliable. Some people claim crystal clear reception and say they can't differentiate between wireless and landline calls, but unless you carry around a portable cell tower, you probably still encounter dead zones every now and then.
A final issue that may prevent the landline's demise is simply nostalgia. Employers who do away with traditional phones often regret it when they see their workers straying farther and farther from their desks. The convenience of wireless communication can just as easily be a distraction, with salespeople chatting on the phone instead of focusing on their next sale. If landlines disappear, the days of sitting at your desk to complete the day's work may disappear, too.
If you can push those issues aside, the attractions of ditching landlines are hard to ignore: no more costly telephone switching stations, no more wires and fiber-optic cables stretching for miles and no more unsightly telephone poles (although you'd still have cell phone towers).
If you still find yourself having separation anxiety over the possible disappearance of landline telephones, though, you're not alone. Many people are fearful of what their disappearance might mean.
A Future Without the Landline?
Even though landlines aren't off the radar yet, some people are already starting to feel the impact of their decline. As you might expect, major telephone providers are among those affected by abandoned landlines, but some other unexpected groups, like pollsters and politicians, are feeling the effects as well.
Don't feel too sorry for the telephone companies though. While major players like AT&T and Verizon get from one-third to one-half of their revenue from land-based subscribers, they won't necessarily lose those subscribers; they'll just convert them to wireless subscribers instead. So perhaps the companies are right not to be concerned about the drop-off in landlines, but the landscape is undoubtedly changing.
For instance, phone companies are starting to face competition from cable companies, like Time Warner and Comcast, who have lured customers away with their Internet-based communication offerings. Even as their landline subscribers decline, the phone companies still have to fork out billions of dollars a year to maintain the networks [source: Cauley].
As the phone companies puzzle over their future business model, pollsters are starting to wonder about their own ability to continue in a world without landlines. Polling organizations rely mainly on calls to landline numbers. Federal law prevents calls to cell phones by the computerized systems most often used by pollsters, so public opinion surveys could start to see skewed results. This is especially true since the remaining landline users tend to come from a particular demographic. They're more likely to be affluent, homeowners, over age 30 and white [source: Associated Press].
Politicians, too, have had to alter their game since many of their targeted constituents -- young voters -- are likely to only have a cell. With cell phones, whether you're dialing or receiving the call you have to pay for it, so this method of communication is off limits to campaigns. Political candidates have had to get creative in how they reach voters: pop-up ads, blogs written by the candidate and Internet commercials are some of the newer forms of outreach.
Although cell phones and VoIP are increasing in popularity, landlines will probably stick around until coverage and security improve. At least one good reason to use a landline is that emergency service providers often still have difficulty locating where cell phone calls originate. So while landlines linger on for now, don't rule out having to explain what a telephone pole was to your great-grandkids.
I have a problem, and I think most people do as well: I want to do everything.
OK, not actually every single thing, but I want to do more than I possibly can:
Obviously, this is all impossible. But I bet I’m not alone in constantly wanting all of this and more.
There’s a term for this in Buddhism that sounds judgmental but it’s not: “greed.” The term “greed” in this context just describes the very human tendency to want more of what we want.
It’s why we’re overloaded with too many things to do, overly busy and overwhelmed. It’s why we’re constantly distracted, why we overeat and shop too much and get addicted to things. It’s why we have too much stuff, and are in debt.
Greed is so common that we don’t even notice it. It’s the foundation of our consumerist society. It’s the ocean that we’re swimming, so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we can’t see that it’s there.
So what can we do about this tendency called greed? Is there an antidote?
There absolutely is.
The traditional antidote to greed in Buddhism is generosity. And while we will talk about the practice of generosity, the antidote I’d like to propose you try is focus.
Focus is a form of simplicity. It’s letting go of everything that you might possibly want, to give complete focus on one important thing.
Imagine that you want to get 20 things done today. You are eager to rush through them all and get through your to-do list! But instead of indulging in your greed tendency, you decide to simplify. You decide to focus.
Let’s talk about the practice of complete focus.
The Practice of Complete Focus
This practice can be applied to all of the types of greed we mentioned above — wanting to do everything, read everything, say yes to everything, go everywhere, eat all the things.
Identify the urge:
See the effects:
Focus with generosity:
Practice with the resistance:
Let go of everything, and generously give your complete focus to one thing. Simplify, and be completely present.
You can do this with your urge to do all tasks, read all things, do all hobbies, say yes to all people and projects. But you can also do it with possessions: choose just to have what you need to be happy, and simplify by letting go of the rest. You can do the same with travel: be satisfied with where you are, or with going to one place and fully being there with it.
You don’t need to watch everything, read everything, eat everything. You can simplify and do less. You can let go and be present. You can focus mindfully.
New house, new car, new job? None of the above: 8 surprising signs your life is considerably better than you think
Stopping to smell the roses can make you feel happier and more fulfilled, as long as you smell the right roses.
The surest way to feel unhappy is to compare yourself to other people.
Take business: No matter how successful you are...someone is more successful. (Unless you're Jeff Bezos, maybe.) There is always someone better.
Wealthier. Smarter. Seemingly, at least, happier.
Focus on what they have--or what they seem to have--and it's natural to assume your life pales in comparison.
Instead, try this: See how many of the following apply to you.
You may find that your life is much better than you think.
You have goals you actively pursue.
Goals you don't pursue aren't goals, they're dreams--and dreams only make you happy when you're dreaming. (Wait, that sounded a little Fleetwood Mac-ish.)
Actively pursuing a goal will make you happy. According to David Niven, author of 100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life, "People who could identify a goal they were pursuing [my italics] were 19 percent more likely to feel satisfied with their lives and 26 percent more likely to feel positive about themselves."
So be grateful for what you have...and then actively try to achieve more. If you're pursuing a huge goal, make sure that every time you take a small step closer to achieving it, you pat yourself on the back.
But don't compare where you are now, with where you someday hope to be. Compare where you are now to where you were a few days ago.
Then you'll get dozens of bite-size chunks of fulfillment--and a never-ending supply of things to be thankful for.
And a never-ending supply of reasons to feel good about your life.
You have a few close friends.
Close friendship are increasingly rare; one study found that the number of friends respondents felt they could discuss important matters with has dropped from an average of 2.94 to 2.08 in the last 20 years. (So much for the power of social media.)
Do you have friends you would feel comfortable calling in the middle of the night if you need help? Do you have friends you can you tell almost anything, and you know they won't laugh? Do you have friends you feel comfortable sitting with for a long time, without either of you speaking?
If that's you, your life is much better than you might think.
You choose the people in your life.
Some people have employees who drive them nuts. Some people have customers who are obnoxious. Some people have casual acquaintances who are selfish, everything-revolves-around-me jerks.
Here's the thing: They chose those people. Those people are in their professional or personal lives because they let them remain.
Successful people attract successful people. Hardworking people attract hardworking people. Kind people associate with kind people. Great employees want to work for great bosses.
If the people around you are people you want to be in your life...you're successful.
And if they're not, it's time to start making some changes.
You have enough money to make positive choices.
Many people live paycheck to paycheck. Worse, many have to decide between necessities.
If the difference between what you earn and what you spend allows you to make at least some positive choices--investing, taking a vacation, taking classes, anything you want to do instead of have to do--then your life is better than you might think.
You've escaped the paycheck-to-paycheck grind and can leverage that extra money to make your life even better.
And if you can't, find ways to make more (like with a side hustle) and spend less.
You embrace a growth mindset.
According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people tend to embrace one of two mental approaches to talent:
Embrace a fixed mindset and you believe you are what you are...and when the going gets tough, you feel helpless because you think what you "are" isn't good enough.
Embrace a growth mindset and failure and you see failure as training. You see failure as the best way to learn and grow. You know there will always be challenges and obstacles, but you believe perseverance wins in the end.
That means you'll be happier with where you are today, because you know you can be even better tomorrow.
Knowing that--and feeling a genuine sense of hope--is a sure sign your life is better than you might think.
You're a giver, not a taker.
We've all experienced this moment: We're having a great conversation, we're finding things in common...and then, boom: The other person plays the "I need something" card.
And everything about the interaction changes.
What once appeared friendly has turned needy, almost grasping...and, if you're like me, you feel guilty if you decide you don't want to help.
People who feel successful aren't needy. They accept help if offered, but they don't feel the need to ask. In fact, they focus on what they can do for other people.
(For a lot more on the subject, check out Adam Grant's outstanding book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.)
You let others enjoy the spotlight.
Maybe you did do all the work. Maybe you did move mountains. Maybe you did kick ass and take names.
If you aren't looking for praise or accolades, that means you don't need the glory. You know what you've achieved.
That means you're confident. That means you're fulfilled.
And that means you've reached a pretty awesome place in your life.
You found a real sense of purpose.
Successful people--in whatever way they choose to define success--have a purpose. The result is passion. Dedication. Excitement.
And a genuine sense of meaning.
If you're found a purpose, if you've found something that inspires you, fuels you, makes you excited to get up, get out, and achieve, then you're happier than you might think.
Living the life you want to live is the best sign your life is better than you might think.
By Matt Richtel
A century ago, British scientists suggested a link between increased hygiene and allergic conditions — the first hint that our immune systems are becoming improperly “trained.”
Should you pick your nose?
Don’t laugh. Scientifically, it’s an interesting question.
Should your children pick their noses? Should your children eat dirt? Maybe: Your body needs to know what immune challenges lurk in the immediate environment.
Should you use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers? No. Are we taking too many antibiotics? Yes.
“I tell people, when they drop food on the floor, please pick it up and eat it,” said Dr. Meg Lemon, a dermatologist in Denver who treats people with allergies and autoimmune disorders.
“Get rid of the antibacterial soap. Immunize! If a new vaccine comes out, run and get it. I immunized the living hell out of my children. And it’s O.K. if they eat dirt.”
Dr. Lemon’s prescription for a better immune system doesn’t end there. “You should not only pick your nose, you should eat it,” she said.
She’s referring, with a facetious touch, to the fact our immune system can become disrupted if it doesn’t have regular interactions with the natural world.
“Our immune system needs a job,” Dr. Lemon said. “We evolved over millions of years to have our immune systems under constant assault. Now they don’t have anything to do.”
She isn’t alone. Leading physicians and immunologists are reconsidering the antiseptic, at times hysterical, ways in which we interact with our environment.
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Why? Let us turn to 19th-century London.
The British Journal of Homeopathy, volume 29, published in 1872, included a startlingly prescient observation: “Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.”
Hay fever is a catchall term for seasonal allergies to pollen and other airborne irritants. With this idea that hay fever was an aristocratic disease, British scientists were on to something.
More than a century later, in November 1989, another highly influential paper was published on the subject of hay fever. The paper was short, less than two pages, in BMJ, titled “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.”
The author looked at the prevalence of hay fever among 17,414 children born in March 1958. Of 16 variables the scientist explored, he described as “most striking” an association between the likelihood that a child would get hay fever allergy and the number of his or her siblings.
It was an inverse relationship, meaning the more siblings the child had, the less likely it was that he or she would get the allergy. Not just that, but the children least likely to get allergies were ones who had older siblings.
The paper hypothesized that “allergic diseases were prevented by infection in early childhood, transmitted by unhygienic contact with older siblings, or acquired prenatally from a mother infected by contact with her older children.
“Over the past century declining family size, improvements in household amenities, and higher standards of personal cleanliness have reduced the opportunity for cross infection in young families,” the paper continued. “This may have resulted in more widespread clinical expression of atopic disease, emerging in wealthier people, as seems to have occurred for hay fever.”
This is the birth of the hygiene hypothesis. The ideas behind it have since evolved and expanded, but it provides profound insight into a challenge that human beings face in our relationship with the modern world.
Our ancestors evolved over millions of years to survive in their environments. For most of human existence, that environment was characterized by extreme challenges, like scarcity of food, or food that could carry disease, as well as unsanitary conditions and unclean water, withering weather, and so on. It was a dangerous environment, a heck of a thing to survive.
At the center of our defenses was our immune system, our most elegant defense. The system is the product of centuries of evolution, as a river stone is shaped by water rushing over it and the tumbles it experiences on its journey downstream.
Late in the process, humans learned to take steps to bolster our defenses, developing all manner of customs and habits to support our survival. In this way, think of the brain — the organ that helps us develop habits and customs — as another facet of the immune system.
We used our collective brains to figure out effective behaviors. We started washing our hands and took care to avoid certain foods that experience showed could be dangerous or deadly. In some cultures, people came to avoid pork, which we now know is highly susceptible to trichinosis; in others, people banned meats, which we later learned may carry toxic loads of E. coli and other bacteria.
Ritual washing is mentioned in Exodus, one of the earliest books in the Bible: “So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not.”
Our ideas evolved, but for the most part, the immune system did not. This is not to say that it didn’t change. The immune system responds to our environment. When we encounter various threats, our defenses learn and then are much more able to deal with that threat in the future. In that way, we adapt to our environment.
We survived over tens of thousands of years. Eventually, we washed our hands, swept our floors, cooked our food, avoided certain foods altogether. We improved the hygiene of the animals we raised and slaughtered for food.
Particularly in the wealthier areas of the world, we purified our water, and developed plumbing and waste treatment plants; we isolated and killed bacteria and other germs.
The immune system’s enemies list was attenuated, largely for the good. Now, though, our bodies are proving that they cannot keep up with this change. We have created a mismatch between the immune system — one of the longest surviving and most refined balancing acts in the world — and our environment.
Thanks to all the powerful learning we’ve done as a species, we have minimized the regular interaction not just with parasites but even with friendly bacteria and parasites that helped to teach and hone the immune system — that “trained” it. It doesn’t encounter as many bugs when we are babies. This is not just because our homes are cleaner, but also because our families are smaller (fewer older children are bringing home the germs), our foods and water cleaner, our milk sterilized. Some refer to the lack of interaction with all kinds of microbes we used to meet in nature as the “old friends mechanism.”
What does the immune system do when it’s not properly trained?
It can overreact. It becomes aggrieved by things like dust mites or pollen. It develops what we called allergies, chronic immune system attacks — inflammation — in a way that is counterproductive, irritating, even dangerous.
The percentage of children in the United States with a food allergy
rose 50 percent between 1997–1999 and 2009–2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The jump in skin allergies was 69 percent during that period, leaving 12.5 percent of American children with eczema and other irritations.
Food and respiratory allergies rose in tandem with income level. More money, which typically correlates with higher education, has meant more risk of allergy. This may reflect differences in who reports such allergies, but it also springs from differences in environment.
These trends are seen internationally, too. Skin allergies “doubled or tripled in industrialized countries during the past three decades, affecting 15–30 percent of children and 2–10 percent of adults,” according to a paper citing research from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
By 2011, one in four children in Europe had an allergy, and the figure was on the rise, according to a report by the World Allergy Organization. Reinforcing the hygiene hypothesis, the paper noted that migration studies have shown that children born overseas have lower levels of some types of both allergy and autoimmunity than migrants whose children are born in the United States.
There are related trends in inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, rheumatic conditions and, in particular, celiac disease. The last results from the immune’s system overreacting to gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley. This attack, in turn, damages the walls of the small intestine.
This might sound like a food allergy, but it is different in part because of the symptoms. In the case of an autoimmune disorder like this one, the immune system attacks the protein and associated regions.
Allergies can generate a more generalized response. A peanut allergy, for instance, can lead to inflammation in the windpipe, known as anaphylaxis, which can cause strangulation.
In the case of both allergy and autoimmune disorders, though, the immune system reacts more strongly than it otherwise might, or than is healthy for the host (yeah, I’m talking about you).
This is not to say that all of these increases are due to better hygiene, a drop in childhood infection, and its association with wealth and education. There have been many changes to our environment, including new pollutants. There are absolutely genetic factors as well.
But the hygiene hypothesis — and when it comes to allergy, the inverse relationship between industrialized processes and health — has held up remarkably well.
As our bodies strive for balance, Madison Avenue has made a full-court press for greater hygiene, sometimes to our detriment.
We’re fed a steady diet of a hygiene-related marketing that began in the late 1800s, according to a novel study published in 2001 by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. Scientists at Columbia University who did the research were trying to understand how we became so enamored of soap products.
They have vastly overprescribed antibiotics. These may be a huge boon to an immune system faced with an otherwise deadly infection. But when used without good reason, the drugs can wipe out healthy microbes in our gut and cause bacteria to develop defenses that make them even more lethal.
A scientist who led efforts at the World Health Organization to develop global policy to limit use of antibiotics told me that, philosophically, this is a lesson that runs counter to a century of marketing: We’re not safer when we try to eliminate every risk from our environment.
“We have to get away from the idea of annihilating these things in our local environment. It just plays upon a certain fear,” said the scientist, Dr. Keiji Fukuda.
Has much of our hygiene been practical, valuable, life-preserving? Yes.
Have we overcorrected? At times. Should you pick your nose? Or put another way: Might that urge to pick be part of a primitive strategy to inform your immune system about the range of microbes in your environment, give this vigilant force activity, and train your most elegant defense?
In short, from a cultural standpoint, you still probably shouldn’t pick — not in public. But it is a surprisingly fair scientific question.
Matt Richtel is a best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter based in San Francisco. He joined The Times staff in 2000, and his work has focused on science, technology, business and narrative-driven storytelling around these issues.