The ghost in the wellbeing machine

We thought we had it sorted – this wellbeing thing. You didn’t need a medical degree to understand what’s good for you, and what’s good for all of us is pretty easily explained:

Things to go for: plenty of regular exercise, a healthy diet involving lots of fruit and even more vegetables, regular sleep, fresh air, laughter, a dependable and active social network (real people, not just online “friends” you “like”), and without going overboard: sunshine and drinking water.

Things to avoid: sugar, tobacco and drugs, alcohol (mostly), sugar, sedentary living, processed food, too much of any of those good things above, sugar, debilitating stress, bullying jerks, boring people and, of course, sugar.

So what can be the problem? We can admit that the “wellbeing shopping list” is a bit harder to manage in the doing than it is to understand the point of doing it, but it seems that we should all be okay if enough of us actually do it?

Well no, actually. More is needed. And that appears to be down to a ghost in the machine, lurking beneath all this responsibility we are all supposed to be taking as empowered consumers, managing our own health. And the problem is the precipitate increase in bacterial resistance to antibiotics which, after eighty years of our living in the Age of New Medicine (i.e. post-penicillin and its progeny), looks like pitching us with our doctors back into an age where we cannot cope with even the most basic infections. We would be back in the day when you could scrape your knee in the street, and be dead in a week.

This is how this works. (And if you would like a more detailed explanation – still extremely readable but much longer than the 500 words I give myself, go here.)

Since battlefield applications of the first non-experimental doses of penicillin in 1943, the usual war of biological escalation has seen new bacteria that the early anti-biotics could not kill, so stronger anti-biotics came in that could kill them, leading to the mutation of even more robust bacteria. The danger would lie in the misapplication of the new miracle cure, in some way getting the drugs into people’s systems in such quantities as did not kill harmful bacteria but encouraged the rapid development of more drug-resistant strains of bacteria. And this latter is what has happened, in a big way, via Big Food – the agriculture and aquaculture industries.

The increasing use of antibiotics in the meat and farmed fish industries has been a gargantuan scandal of misaligned incentives and irresponsible lobbying of governments. We have become blind to the reality that antibiotics given to farm animals to hasten their bulked-up bundling along to the food processing plant only means this:

Those antibiotics are passed along the food chain into the guts of the consumers of that meat and fish.

Thinking outside the . . . what?!

Might it help us to think outside the box if we took more time to consider the definition of the blasted thing? And indeed if we spared a thought for the actual thinking we are considering doing: will it be, as thinking, indistinguishable from the sort of thinking we do when we are happily thinking away, but inside the box? Or is this thinking to be simply an accident of geography, different from the normal thinking we do inside the box, except that we have taken our thinking outside?

Too much language in marketing and business consultancy is more about marketing than about analysis and useful description. It is designed to engender warm and self-flattering feelings rather than to describe something in a meaningful way. “Thinking outside the box about, er, innovation,” promotes the effect of rhetorical Viagra mediated by Valium. We get excited that using the language will produce the desired effect, but we are inured to the numbing awareness that it just ain’t happening.

Why does this matter? Isn’t all we mean simply that we are bringing fresh thinking to bear upon an old problem, and our brains just need to up their game? Well no, it may be true that brains need to get better at what they do, but defaulting to even woollier language – “fresh thinking” as opposed to “thinking outside the box” simply won’t do. Understanding “the box” as a system of assumptions and constraints that are to be set aside for the purpose of considering anew an old challenge will become possible when we accept these three rules of thumb in defining the critical word “outside”:

  1. We choose to move outside the box when we cease considering the challenge in terms of re-calibrating precedents and rationalising failure, and decide instead what new targets and outcomes will result from our course of action;
  2. We move outside the box when we open our minds to questioning every single assumption that has gone into constructing the box and keeping us inside it, to include the very language with which the box was built; and
  3. We stay outside the box when every new idea, new argument, new suggested action is worked consensually around the thinking circle and examined transparently and honestly on the evidence that is presented for its newness and intended efficacy.

Try and think of a problem that does not benefit from thinking in this way. It is pretty hard to do, and this blog will have a lot of fun running these three rules over so many of the problems that beset our modern brains. Watch this space for examples in applying this particular “rule of three”.

What will be revealed is that continued thinking inside the box will at best defend the status quo, whereas an honest move outside of the darkness of the box and into the light of reason will give our brains a reasonable shot at moving one notch up the evolutionary ladder.