#57

Now that we have survived Vice Month (there was one post that was finished but did not run because some of my readers are too young for it, by which I mean under 75) it’s time for me to address a nagging question, and by nagging I mean that I am tired of so many of you writing to nag me about it. Not a day goes by* that I don’t open my email to find a question like this: “Hey Mark, who do you think you are to write about happiness?” or “My great-aunt Eunice says she is the happiest person in the world, so why don’t you leave this stuff to the real experts?” or “Will there be snacks at the end of this series?” Also please stop asking me about hosting children’s parties, as the website clearly states that I no longer do these, due to the restraining order.

I am going to answer these hundreds* of inquiries and the one ‘enquiry’ from overseas with three separate responses, any of which may satisfy your curiosity about my qualifications to write this blog.

  1. I have the technical skills to create a WordPress blog. Being a big time blogger like me is sort of what Andy Warhol had in mind when he famously said, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” by which he clearly meant “having your writing read, on an in irregular basis, by 20 or 30 friends.” Also he probably didn’t actually say that, which is sad since his second most famous quote was, “I had a lot of dates, but I decided to stay home and dye my eyebrows.” Andy was a weird guy.
  2. I lost much of my hair prematurely in a lab accident which burned it away. Mark Phillips is my pen name, but my real name is Lex Luther*. This blog is part of a much larger plan…
  3. I have been happy and I have been sad. Happy is better. That’s my conclusion.
  4. I can’t count.

Now that I have convinced most of you, let me offer the remaining skeptics this final brief illustration of why I am qualified to write this blog each week.

5. Assumed safe. Have you ever taken a nutritional supplement of any kind? You know, the stuff you buy at the drug store or on QVC to fix some random physical ailment or shortcoming you may be dealing with? Supplements fall into three basic categories:

  1. Nutritional supplements, which include vitamins like A and C, minerals like iron and dirt, and combination pills which mix iron, dirt, and the aroma of an old miner’s beard to prove they are authentic.
  2. Fitness supplements, which promise to make you larger in certain spots, make you smaller in others, or remove love handles, saddle bags, waddle, chicken neck, etc., usually in 30 days or less.
  3. Natural supplements” like bee pollen, dried grass clippings and moldered cow tail.

Most of us swallow these supplements to treat or cure or prevent some condition that we have, or might someday get, or really don’t want to get, or read about on the internet and despite it being even more rare than platinum, which is rarer than gold, we notice that we have all the major symptoms and, oh wow, oh no….

The supplements industry makes big money. Tons of money. They made more money last year than United Airlines lost in one week by politely asking one customer to unbuckle and step off the plane for “re-accommodation” on another flight, which quickly escalated, as it has since the dawn of time, into “Don’t make me stop this (donkey/car/737) and come back there.” On the brighter side, the poor passenger’s settlement will enable him to buy as many supplements as he can eat for the rest of his life! Fly the friendly skies, right?

The next time you are shopping for a supplement you should take a moment to read the label. And here, as you eagerly seek a solution that diagnoses, treats, cures, or prevents some disease, you will be confronted with this jarring disclaimer:

This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Yep. Supplements are one the few products around that are required by federal law to tell you on the back of the package that they don’t actually do any of the things they claim on the front of the package to do. Congress is not required to admit this about themselves, but I think we already knew. The state of Vermont is considering placing this kind of disclaimer on the back of marriage licenses* to offset the overly optimistic vows recited at weddings: “this person is not intended to complete you or make you whole, and will likely fail at simple tasks like putting dirty clothes in the laundry basket, much less honoring or cherishing you…“.

Supplements live in a strange mirror universe from actual drugs: whereas drugs are assumed unsafe until proven safe (sort of like the stray rotweiler you might encounter while walking through a junkyard at night), supplements are assumed safe until proven unsafe (like the potato salad at your last church gathering, which is generally a safe bet). In other words, the FDA has basically taken a pass on this one, and it’s up to the maker of Super Caboose Sculptor Pro to make sure it really delivers that junk in the trunk you are going for. Make sure you understand this: drugs cannot be sold until they are demonstrated to actually work and to be safe. Supplements cannot be sold until someone adds the standard disclaimer that they don’t work, then it’s all good.

The weird part is that supplements live on the shelf right next to the “real” drugs. So you’re standing there at CVS and on one side of the aisle are Prilosec and Advil (tested by Merck and approved by the FDA), and on the other side is Mega-Maxi Super-Taxi Fat Burner Pro (that word ‘Pro’ proves it’s powerful) which was manufactured, tested and approved by “Jack” in Miami, which says on the back, in so many words, “This won’t do jack for you.” With impeccable credentials like that, you immediately buy three bottles because they’re on sale when you use your CVS member card.

This kind of jarring juxtaposition is like walking into Wal-Mart (bad example, I’m sorry I made you think about that) walking into a friendly, locally owned grocery store with fewer square feet than Denmark, and discovering a single aisle that offers cool mint toothpaste, fresh breeze mouthwash, arctic blast flavored fluoride rinse, and “Fruit of the Cow” brand potting mix, in a handy travel size. I’m not saying potting soil is bad, just that even if the products look alike they are fundamentally different.  I’m not even saying that supplements are bad; I took one this morning. I do worry that lots of them take advantage of people (especially desperate people) while some are useless or actually harmful.

All of which is to say that this blog is more like a supplement than an actual drug, and you should just assume it’s safe until your own experience proves otherwise and you realize that every single blog post is just depressing you, at which point you should definitely consider my other blog called “Super mega-happiness pro” which is on sale today with your membership card.*

            *These statements may contain exaggerations, over-simplifications, or outright falsehoods. Please consult  your attorney.

I have one (and only one) positive thing to say about makers of shifty supplements. That disclaimer on the back is the truth, in some cases the only truth on the label, and should be mandatory, in slightly modified form, on every product in every store in America:

This product will not make you happy.

The underlying promise of most of our economy is that some purchase will fix whatever is broken or missing inside you, and the truth is it won’t. That disclaimer should be mandatory on every piece of clothing, in the menu of every restaurant, and at the bottom of every employment contract. Frankly, it should be stamped indelibly on the forehead of every human being who wants to date or marry (after reaching the federally mandated minimum legal age of 25 for women and 30 for men).

As someone who teaches marketing but still wrestles with how I feel about marketing, my biggest concern about this dark art is not that it sometimes lies or exaggerates or over-sells things. I worry most that our culture (and marketing is really just a symptom of this) repeats this mantra quietly in our ears every day and we can’t help but pick it up: a better life is just one purchase away. In reality, the problems that purchases can fix are usually trivial things that we didn’t even realize were problems until some ad told us so, and the problems that really vex us have never really been amenable to what Amazon.com has on offer (note: when Laura gets a new knee next year to fix a problem that began in high school, that will be money well spent and will undoubtedly make her life better, but it will be the exception to the rule. It’s also not available on Amazon. Yet.).

So do your own self-research this week. Try to notice how quickly you jump from “problem recognition” to “shopping” mode. If you are really bold, wade carefully into the back of the closet or out to the garage or over to the junk storage unit you are renting or wherever your abandoned toys go to die, and ask yourself honestly how many of those things you bought to “fix” some problem. Probably most of them. Maybe the biggest lie of all is that all of life’s problems can be fixed at all…when the real goal is to find happiness despite them.

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This blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or have any other positive net effect on your life. Frankly I’m not sure why you are reading it anyway.