Beach or Pills?

A few summers ago I was driving through the outskirts of Trieste and was tempted by the sea. I stopped the car and went for a swim. As I was drying myself off under some pine trees a number of Italian families began arriving. Their descent appeared more complicated than the disembarkation in Normandy; they staggered along with cooler bags, kept returning to their cars, fortifying their positions, entrenching their towels and inflatable mattresses. Once they had taken over their territory they embarked on an endless opening of bottles, passing round the food, munching away, toasting; boundaries between families were blurred, bottles moved across, followed by food to be tasted, the entire area bustling and abuzz with gestures and chatter. Everyone was talking about their experiences. Children were not autistically glued to their electronic devices, nor were they victims of ADHD, they were simply kids as kids used to be.

In the middle of all this feeding came the time for pausa pranzo, lunch break, and various workers appeared on the coast, from employees who hung their elegant jackets on the pine trees, to builders who first washed off the dust in the sea. Of course they too began eating and chatting while the people there from before still upheld their pace – their morning snacks extended into lunch.

Despite the quantities of food consumed, nobody was really fat. Statistics show that Italians live long and happy lives without any explicit cardiovascular problems (source), even though their lasagne literarily floats in creamy béchamel.

Now let me erase myself from the scene and pass observer’s place to an American or British scientist. Aware of statistics, they will soon start asking themselves – hey, why is the quality of life with these people so much higher than in my own country? They will investigate and think about it, take note of what these people eat and drink and upon returning home throw all the data into various analysing machines and programmes before eventually coming to the conclusion that the secret is resveratrol (source), a molecule contained in the skins of grapes and inherited by red wine. And there was plenty red wine on the beach! That is why they were all so happy and that is why they will live longer!

So let us imitate them: Molecules of resveratrol will be stuffed into pills and marketed.

In London and New York an exhausted, constantly worried and stressed precarious office worker rushes from one meeting to the next and, with Tinder the height of intimacy, feels that something is missing from their life. They want to do something for themselves, so they will swallow a pill or two of resveratrol on the go, washing it down with some take-away coffee.

Because we all wish to live better lives, the dietary supplement industry is big business; just in the US, worth over 120 billion annually (source). A lot of money for something that most likely has few beneficial effects (source), but consolation and faith cannot be measured in financial terms. In an era and lands of individualism where everyone is responsible for themselves, resveratrol pills represent a small talisman that the user carries around in their pocket and touches occasionally, as if to reassure themselves – I am working on the quality of my own life.

Not long ago scientists have analysed blood chemistry of people in loving relationships and discovered their secret – they have less cortisol in their blood (source). Of course, a wide choice of pills is already available (source).

Our precarious worker will continue to rush around the city but will be even more satisfied, for now they will have their anti-cortisol in the other pocket and thus be twice as well in control of their own fate.

Scientists have conducted numerous observations called longitudinal studies where they take a sample of the population and observe it over a long period of time, sometimes decades or even until their subjects die. The first such study began in 1921 (Terman Study) and is, of course, slowly drawing to a close. Another follows Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939 to 1944 (Grant Study). Its results have already been published and are clear and indisputable; people in meaningful and loving relationships live better and longer lives. They even earn more!

We know how important caregiving and companionship are at least since 1958 and Harlow’s experiments on monkeys (source).

The problem lies in the fact that you cannot simply say to the lonely and atomized individual, go off to the beach, but not alone. They will not consider you an expert and, more importantly, since you have not charged them for the information, will not believe you.

In a consumer society we equate doing with buying, so in order to be perceived as an authority you must be selling something. Furthermore, by regularly buying pills for the rest of their lives, the buyers will have continuous feeling of reassurance.

At the moment, modern world is trying two solutions against having fun and company on the beach: from the inside and from the outside. USA and northern Europe belong to the first one: pills, while Japan to the second: robots.

If you are on the selling side, you too know that you need to find as many idiots like this as possible in order to sell more and more of these colourful boxes so that, in a number of years’ time, you might be able to place someone else at the head of your company and take yourself off to the pine trees by the beach where you can feast all day to your heart’s desire, chat and laugh, and in the evening, as the sun sets, glass in hand, wink at the lady who has been seductively watching you for quite some time.

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