Opinion: 10 tips for a better life from The Times’ 2014 Op-Ed pages

Year in review
Millennials, Facebook no-nos and diet issues were among 2014’s popular topics in The Times’ Op-Ed pages.
(Top: HBO, Los Angeles Times. Bottom: Getty Images.)

What to do about rude people? Anti-vaxxers? Ignorant voters? Here’s some of the most popular advice The Times’ op-ed pages dispensed in 2014.

Voting is not, as Lena Dunham says, “kind of a gateway drug to ‘getting involved.’ ”

“This is a widely held view and, as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no truth to it,” columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in November. “But even if voting boosted civic participation, the very idea puts the cart before the horse. It is like saying you should buy a car because that way you might learn to drive or take the test and then study for it. Voting should come at the end of civic engagement, not the beginning. …

“ ‘Vote first, ask questions later’ is not a mantra of good citizenship. It’s a marketing strategy designed to reward politicians for voters’ ignorance.”


No food trend is more powerful, and potentially dangerous, than one that targets health and diet.

That’s what David Sax argued in a May op-ed, in which he wrote: “There are few cities that can compete with Los Angeles for the sheer energy its residents pour into health and diet trends. This town is the world leader in anxiety over what you should, and shouldn’t, be eating. That’s not necessarily a good thing. …

“As much as our knowledge about health and nutrition has evolved, we still know remarkably little about how our food affects our bodies, and this injects the whole question of diet with a tremendous dose of anxiety. …

“It is this lack of clarity and understanding that make health and diet trends so dangerous. We all want to feel better and live longer, but with so much conflicting information and noise, we open ourselves up to misinformation. …


“With the exception of the long-held mantra to eat a balanced diet, steer clear of processed food and maybe ease up on the doughnuts, most health and diet trends are little more than a grain of science with a heady dose of marketing.”

Fear is for people who don’t get out much.

People who don’t travel, Rick Steves said in a November op-ed, “don’t see the world firsthand, so their opinions end up being shaped by sensationalistic media coverage geared toward selling ads. Sadly, fear-mongering politicians desperate for your vote pile on too. …

“The unhappy consequence: We end up being afraid of things we shouldn’t be -- and ignoring things that actually do threaten our society, such as climate change and the growing gap between rich and poor. …

“It seems that the most fearful people in our country are those who don’t travel and are metaphorically barricaded in America. If we all stayed home and built more walls and fewer bridges between us and the rest of the world, eventually we would have something to actually be fearful of.

“I’ve found that one partial solution is a simple one: travel.”

Sometimes the best cancer treatment may be none.

“My husband was a hardcore journalist, relentless in pursuit of a good story, no matter whose sacred cow he skewered,” wrote Nora Zamichow in an October op-ed  about her husband, who died 10 months after learning he had an inoperable brain tumor. “He was also a really smart guy, winning a scholarship to Harvard University from a San Bernardino public school. He began studying chess at age 15 and eventually became a ranked master. After leaving newspapers, he ran his own public relations firm. His greatest fear, he later told me, was that something might happen to his brain.


“After diagnosis, we hit the ground running, signing on with a top doctor at UCLA. Quality of life, we told him, was our most important priority. But when he offered hope that Mark might be able to gain another five years of life, we leapt at the chance. …

“If I were granted a do-over, would I subject him to treatment, knowing it might turn out as it did? No. But oncologists, as a doctor friend put it, are peddlers of hope, and non-treatment was never presented as an option.

“Only at the end, after we opted out, did it feel like Mark grappled with the cancer on his own terms.”

Parents should consider the dangers of not vaccinating.

“Do parents who choose not to vaccinate understand that they may be giving deadly diseases the chance to regain footholds?” Margaret Harmon asked in a September op-ed, in which she recounted how she almost lost her son to measles encephalitis.

“In the first eight months of this year, there were 18 measles outbreaks in the United States and nearly 600 cases of measles. That’s nearly three times more cases than in any year since 2001, according to statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When I read about a child fighting measles here -- where we once were safe -- I feel that heartbreaking weight of a beautiful brown-eyed toddler not breathing, blue, on my lap.”

Perhaps it’s time to accept that Facebook is a lousy medium for political debate.


On Facebook, years of friendship can end with a wordless, virtual severing, said Tal Abbady in an August op-ed. “People seem to be much more interested in making statements rather than asking questions or seeking out diverse opinions. As much as we might like to think we enjoy pluralistic feeds with multiple views, our ‘friends’ tend to be those with whom we agree. The rest, we shed. …

“The Israel-Hamas quagmire won’t be solved with posts meant for a narrowly self-selected crowd of people who share our views. In times like these, Facebook becomes a bizarre, cultural Rorschach test, where subjects are bombarded with endless YouTube videos sent by people hoping for a ‘like.’ ”

Don’t fall for the sham drug idea of the year: “pink Viagra.”

“The scientific community regards most sexual problems in healthy people as related to what is going on in the bedroom, the relationship, the partners’ individual lives and shifts in cultural norms,” Ellen Laan and Leonore Tiefer wrote in a November op-ed. “The incentives for sex — or for avoiding sex — are far more important in understanding a couple’s issues than one partner’s biology.

“If the pharmaceutical industry were truly concerned with women’s sexual well-being, companies would market drugs that are effective for women whose sexual problems are caused by physical problems or disease, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries. Yet efforts to test drugs for narrow markets have been curtailed on several occasions as the industry pursued its blockbuster dreams.”

Don’t beat yourself up for breaking your diet.

“Americans today live in a food swamp,” wrote Deborah Cohen in January. “We are constantly exposed to marketing and advertising designed to keep food on our minds and treats at our fingertips. …

“Humans are hard-wired to notice food over other items. Once we perceive food, through sight, smell, hearing, taste or touch, we find ourselves wanting to eat, even if we are already full. This was no doubt a useful adaptation as humans evolved. But today, in a time of plentiful food, such impulses aren’t in a person’s best interest.

“If you find yourself reaching in the refrigerator or grabbing a candy bar at the cash register when you’re trying to diet, you will probably blame yourself. But the fault won’t be entirely yours. Food manufacturers and marketers are playing with your most basic impulses, trying to trigger behaviors you have a limited capacity to restrain.”

In the battle against rude people, kindness is a powerful weapon.

“It’s pretty amazing. A small kindness that’s no big deal when you do it for someone you know is an incredibly powerful act when done for a stranger. It’s also likely to have cascading societal returns. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky found that recipients of kind acts were almost three times more likely to do kind acts for others. So simply by regularly reaching out to our co-humans, we can transform our society, little by little, from a vast strangeropolis to a really, really big neighborhood. The way I see it, a minimum of one kind act a day should be our self-imposed cover charge for living in this world,” wrote Amy Alkon in a September op-ed. “We get the society we create — or the society we let happen to us.”

Don’t ignore millennials.

“If you’re older than 34, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re no longer the wave of the future,” columnist Doyle McManus wrote in March. “That distinction belongs to those born between 1980 and 2002, dubbed the ‘millennial generation’ because they began to come of age at the turn of the century. They’ve grown up, most of them have found jobs (although that hasn’t been easy) and they’re a bigger, more powerful part of the electorate every year. The millennials are a major reason President Obama won reelection in 2012; if nobody under 30 had voted that year, Mitt Romney would be in the White House today. …

“But millennials are not necessarily committed Democrats; most of them don’t identify strongly with either party. And their standoffishness goes beyond politics: The millennials are ‘unmoored from institutions,’ Pew says. About 3 in 10 say they aren’t affiliated with any religious tradition, meaning more are ‘unchurched’ than any older generation. Only about one-fourth of millennials are married; at the same age, about half of baby boomers had tied the knot.

“And yet, despite their wariness about traditional institutions -- and despite the punishing recession at the start of their careers -- millennials are amazingly upbeat. …

“There are lessons in those numbers for both political parties. Democrats must understand that while the next generation of voters is open to their message, they can’t be taken for granted; when they get older and pay more taxes, some will surely bolt. And Republicans had better accept that if they remain a party of social conservatives resisting immigration reform, they’re on their way out of business -- soon.”


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