Happiness In The Age of COVID

The Advocate newspaper carries a column on parenting by child psychologist John Rosemond. I’ll herald the latest installment to my wife: “Hey Honey, cranky ol’ Dr. Rosemond is at it again!”  He’s old-school, wherein children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard, hard-work-is-its-own-reward, etc.  While not exactly advocating that kids work 14 hour-shifts in textile mills, he likes to cast doubt on such “modern” diagnoses as ADHD.

He sometimes makes good points. His column “Why Some People Believe That They Are Entitled,” speaks to the erosion of happiness in the age of COVID.  Entitlement is the idea that you deserve happiness, wealth, and success, whether you’ve earned it or not.  According to Rosemond, recent generations have raised kids to think like European Royalty, that they’re more special than everyone else, and thus Entitled.  Even cheating to get what you want is okay, since you’re above the rules meant for commoners.

Many argue that instilling a sense of Entitlement, and generally spoiling children, has led to the rise in depression and suicidality in kids and teens.  When kids don’t get their way in the real world, in school, with other kids or adults, they’re profoundly disappointed, their world-revolves-around-me view shattered.  Now with social distancing, travelling restricted to grocery shopping, and economic free-fall, few adults are getting their way anymore either.

With loss of work and freedom, people are bored, depressed about a life without purpose, and full of anxiety that they or their loved ones will get seriously ill. Many raised in the land of plenty are, like spoiled toddlers, now profoundly disappointed with life.  However, many others, in the search for meaning in this new age, have taken action. They’ve started life-affirming tasks- learning new skills like a new language or cooking; spending more time with their kids (and parents!), making masks and delivering food to health care workers and shut-ins, donating blood.

John Rosemond is right, at least about this aspect of parenting. Kids should learn that being useful, being moral, and working hard, are more important than striving to be happy and successful.  Then strangely enough, the pursuit of character begats happiness anyway.. Especially in the Age of COVID.

Another pillar of happiness is being connected with others.  While we just discussed that hard work and a meaningful life lead to happiness, social interaction helps too.  Before the invention of telephones in 1876, people communicated from afar by written letter. Also in those days, early death was a constant.  About one quarter of infants died before their first birthday, and almost half of children died before puberty.  The average adult was lucky to live past 40.  Thus letters between distant family members often started with “I hope this letter finds you well,” followed by a summary of the health of those at home.

That was the snail pace of life, death, and communication in the Age of Enlightenment. Thanks to the internet, with email, twitter, instagram, and facebook, the above sentiments are transmitted instantly.  I’ve gotten scads of electronic messages from near and far asking me if I’m okay on the “front lines” in the Emergency Department. At home we’ve been spending lots of facetime with my daughter in Seattle and my son in New Orleans, COVID hot spots.

Though it’s a good time for the internet, with it keeping us connected and informed, the net’s also a two-edged sword in these respects. Hateful and divisive posts on facebook or twitter come at us instantly as well. Nothing gets people fired up, and not in a good way, like a skewed political post claiming the other side is criminal or incompetent.

Misinformation spreads quickly too, For example, there’s many posts about how influenza, the plain old flu, has caused many more deaths than COVID, and yet we never tanked the economy by closing schools and businesses during flu season. What they don’t mention is that COVID threatens to cause even more deaths than influenza, since it’s more deadly to individual patients, may be even more contagious, and has no vaccine or anti-viral medication to check its spread. The only way to stop it and save lives- closures and social distancing.

So for information on keeping you and your kids safe, and your futures, please use expert sources without political or social agendas: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP.org). These places will give you the straight scoop as it becomes known, without an extra helping of anger to dampen your happiness.

The Good Ole Days Weren’t Always Good…

My father-in-law, Howard Fournet, grew up on a farm during the Great Depression.  The farmhouse was on Johnston St. (a gravel road then) in Lafayette, where the Albertson’s now stands.  The University of Louisiana’s athletic fields were the Fournet’s cow pastures.  It was hard living: the boys woke before dawn to milk cows, shared one bathtub’s water for ten, shared beds, and ate what they grew.  One year the boys all failed school because of sleep-deprivation, when times got so bad they had to let the hired hands go and do all the work themselves.

For Howard, going to Army Boot Camp in World War II was a vacation.  He got to sleep all the way to 6 am!  Three meals per day, daily showers, clean clothes, his own bed! And “work” was playing soldier all day.  He had never had it so easy.

As Billy Joel sings, the good ole days weren’t always good.  As far as health goes, there were fewer vaccines, so kids got more bad infections- more meningitis, blood infections, pneumonias.  Cars were less safe- no car seats or even seat belts, so kids got more horrific injuries in crashes.

While it wasn’t heaven when I was a kid either, many things were healthier.  With fewer TVs and only a few channels, we spent lots more time outside playing.  We had more recess and P.E. at school, more art, more music, less homework. We had more freedom to explore by foot and bike- the world was less crowded and our parents weren’t afraid of kidnapping. Eating was healthier- more home-cooking, and less junk food and prepared food.  With all that exercise and good food, there was much less obesity.

In the old days there were some good child-rearing choices and some bad ones. This raises the question- what choices do we make now when it comes to diet, exercise, and other facets of child-rearing?  What’s good, what’s bad, and what don’t we know yet?

When my friends complain about how hard we had it as kids, I think of the Monty Python skit about four guys who trade stories about their childhoods, trying to one-up each other about how rough it was.  In Python style, the tales get progressively more absurd, until they are saying things like “We lived in a brown paper bag in a septic tank,” getting up at 3 am to clean the bag, eat “a handful of cold gravel” for breakfast, go to work at the mill for 14 hours per day, and once back home “Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!”

I didn’t have it quite that bad growing up, but like we mentioned above, many things are better for kids today than in the “good ole days.”  There are more vaccines to protect kids from deadly diseases.  Cars are safer and car seats protect kids better.  We know more about healthy diets: cooking with less fat, high-fiber foods, buying foods grown locally, and eating less processed food.

However, we are unsure of some new things in child-rearing.  One is organized sports. When I was growing up there was little league baseball and football, but most of our exercise was running and biking the neighborhood.  Today kids spend way more time in super-organized sports- select soccer, baseball, volleyball, softball.  Those kids are getting lots of exercise, but we don’t know if the injury toll from repetitive practices and increased intensity is worth it.

Another unknown is the price of kids having phones.  It’s easier to stay connected with kids when they are away, and they can access lots of information from the net. But all that time texting and talking instead of experiencing the world around them- is that bad? And if they’re less bored because there’s always a phone game to fill idle time, is that good?  Or is some boredom maybe better, forcing kids to play and think creatively, rather than playing the phone?

These are important questions for we parents as we raise kids.  Choosing foods and vaccines and car seats is easy; life-style choices like sports and phones are harder. These are the Advanced Parenting choices not available in the Good Ole Days.

How Not To Get Sick!

Many people, when they tell me their kid is getting sick with a cold, start with “he was outside yesterday without a coat or shoes, and now look at him!”, as if cold air and exposure gave him the illness.  Many people believe that wind in the ears causes ear infections too.

Infections like colds, vomiting and diarrhea episodes, and fever episodes, are not from wind or cold air.  These infections are caused by a virus.  A virus is a crystal-shaped, microscopic chemical machine that is passed to the victim by another person.  The sick person coughs a mass of cold viruses onto his hands, or get a diarrhea virus on her hands when changing baby.  Later the dirty hand touches your hand or something your hand touches (a doorknob, faucet handle, counter top, etc.).  Then you put your contaminated hand to your mouth and the virus gets into you.  A day or two later, when the virus has grown enough in you, you start to have symptoms.

If you caught a cold virus, you start to cough and have a runny nose.  If you have a stomach virus, you have vomiting and diarrhea.  These are the ways a virus stay alive in the population- it gives you symptoms that turn you into a virus shedding machine.  You spew the virus around you for others around to pick up and the virus’ s children live on in your fellow humans.  Bystanders beware!

One of the great inventions of the 1800s was the idea of hand-washing and public health.  Before then, one of every five infants died of an infection before they reached 12 months of age.  Children and adults died more often of infections too.  Armies, with their troops crammed together in camps, lost many more men from disease than battles.

Then science discovered that “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Clean hands became popular.  Cities and army camps started providing clean water and sewage management.  Death rates from infection dropped dramatically.  Many more lives have been saved by city sewer pipes than by antibiotics or vaccines.  What better disease prevention could there be than moving massive amounts of germs away from where people live, eat, and drink?

Today the lessons are clear- wash your hands!  Wash them after you go to the bathroom.  Wash them before you eat.  Wash them after you blow your nose, touch someone else, or touch a potentially dirty surface.  We in medicine need to wash our hands before and after we touch every patient.  As a pediatrician, I wade through  a swamp of runny noses and diarrhea every day, yet rarely get sick myself- I wash my hands.

Unfortunately doctors and nurses have been notoriously bad at hand washing.  My wife, a pediatric nurse, recalls being appalled at some surgeons who would go from bed to bed, changing dressings, cutting off dirty bandages, and never wash their hands or scissors in between.  It has required an effort from the federal government to crack down on hand-washing in hospitals.  Patients are now encouraged to ask their doctors and nurses to wash their hands.  Signs are posted all over to remind medical workers of hand hygiene and the importance of wearing gloves.  The efforts seem to be working- rates of infections passed around hospitals are coming down.

Therefore, thank your governments for clean water, city sewers, and hospital regulation.  Then wash your hands.