Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

Punting on the Cam

The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986.  It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012).  They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.

During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995.  I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.

Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings.  But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986.  There it was, in all of its splendor:  Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.

I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading.  But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.

My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters.  But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.

Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel.  Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.”  Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.

When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.

We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.

Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre.  We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric.  Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.

But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week.  On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour.  We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River.  Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge.  The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two.  The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.

Our next must-see site was King’s College.  During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge.  So we headed right for it.  (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)

Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence.  Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass.  (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)

As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam.  The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful.  We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.

The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river.  He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole.  His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.

The boat wasn’t crowded.  An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.

The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect.  Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.

What’s punting like?  Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam.  Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity.  Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past.  According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.

But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986.  Not at all.  Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.

I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring.  Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge.  But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.


Curl Up With a Good Book

If you have a penchant for reading fiction, guess what. You may have better social skills as a result.

A recent Harvard study asked 26 young people to undergo MRI brain scans while reading brief excerpts from novels, magazines, and other sources. The study found that reading fictional excerpts about people heightened activity in a brain system called the default network.

The study suggested that those who read a lot of fiction turn out to have stronger social skills than non-readers or people who read nonfiction. Why? Well, according to the researchers, reading fiction can improve social skills (also called social cognition) because a reader’s attention is drawn into other people’s mental states.

When the study’s participants read passages about people, there was significantly greater activity in the default network. (Reading about physical places didn’t evoke the same response.) The researchers noted that the enhanced activity stemming from reading about people linked to higher scores on social-cognition assessments.

In other words, stories with compelling emotional, social, and psychological content seem to trigger neural changes in the brain. And this apparently translates into enhanced social skills in real life.

The take-away? Reading fiction, especially stories that take readers inside other people’s lives and minds, may improve social skills by exercising the part of the brain related to empathy and imagination.

As someone who occasionally writes fiction, I’m delighted to learn the results of this study. They validate the feedback from those of my readers who’ve praised the characters I’ve created and the harrowing situations they’ve found themselves in.

As a reader, I love plunging into an absorbing story that’s focused on people with fascinating lives. Now I can envision my brain lighting up as I read an exciting passage.

I’ll bet you can, too.

So curl up with a good book—especially a story about other people’s lives. Then take a break and spend some time with your family or friends. As someone with enhanced social skills, you’re sure to have a great time.

The study, published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, was reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2016.

Chew on this

During the holiday season–spanning Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the December holidays–most of us worry about our consumption of sugary candy and desserts.

We should worry. Sugar not only adds calories but it also can lead to other health problems. For one thing, sugar clearly leads to problems with our teeth. It’s well established that the bacteria in our mouths combines with sugar to create an acid that causes tooth decay.

There’s a useful remedy for the tooth problem. No, not the one that immediately comes to mind.

Sure, you can brush your teeth right after consuming sugar-loaded food and drink. But how many of us do it?

Until something else comes along (and it inevitably will, thanks to researchers like the ones I noted in my blog post “Beavers? Seriously?” last March), here’s one thing you can try: chewing sugar-free gum.

In October, The Wall Street Journal highlighted how chewing gum can help reduce tooth decay. It quoted a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association–a family dentist in Fremont, California, Dr. Ruchi Sahota–on the virtues of sugar-free gum. According to Dr. Sahota, chewing gum after eating stimulates saliva, and that can prevent cavities.

Why? Naturally occurring saliva helps to neutralize the mouth by reducing the acids produced by bacteria in food, and those acids are what ultimately cause cavities. Chewing sugar-free gum can reduce the amount of the bacteria-happy acid. In 2007, the ADA began including chewing gum in its Seal of Approval program. But only sugarless gums can qualify (other gums contain the kinds of sugars used as food by bacteria).

Sugar-free gums typically use artificial sweeteners, most of which are created in a lab, and there’s been some discussion of whether they are safe. But concerns about their being carcinogenic have been dismissed by the FDA for lack of clear evidence.

Some dentists promote chewing gum sweetened with xylitol, a sugar alcohol that usually derives from wood fiber. Studies have shown that it adds mineral to tooth enamel, and one study showed that it can inhibit the growth of bacteria that stick to teeth.

But recent analysis concluded that there was insufficient evidence that xylitol can help prevent cavities. So Dr. Sahota told the Journal that the research “isn’t conclusive enough” to promote gums with xylitol over other sugar-free gums.

Although some dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum for at least 20 minutes to get the full anti-bacterial effect, Dr. Sahota disagrees. She advises moderation, cautioning people “not to overchew,” which can be hard on the jaw and tooth enamel.

Regarding candy, Dr. S. recommends avoiding sticky or hard candies because they’re the worst cavity-causing villains. Chocolate is much better for your teeth because it washes away more easily than other candies. Yay, chocolate!

As an inveterate gum-chewer, I’m happy to learn that all those sticks of sugar-free gum I chew can help me avoid tooth decay.

But “candy is candy.” So although chewing gum may help forestall the worst effects of coating our teeth with sugar, we need to remember that a toothbrush will do an even better job of scouring all that sugar off our teeth.

Enjoy those sugary holiday treats. But don’t forget to keep some sugar-free gum handy to pop in your mouth when you’re done. Even rinsing your mouth with water ought to help. And at bedtime, if not before, head for your trusty Sonicare or Oral-B.

Once your teeth are properly scoured, you can drift off to sleep, those visions of sugar plums dancing in your head.


I’ve Got a Tip for You

Next time you order a BLT at your favorite restaurant, will you leave your server a tip?

Tipping is an issue fraught with questions. Who do I tip? Where do I tip? How much do I tip?

When it comes to tipping, lots of people are confused.

But the people on the fuzzy end of the lollipop–the ones who do the hard work–live in hope that the folks they serve will cough up a big tip.

People who work as servers in restaurants are particularly vulnerable. Thanks to a crazy federal minimum-wage provision, in some states employers can pay tipped workers only $2.13 an hour, the same rate allowed since 1991.

The result? Tipped workers are about twice as likely to be living in poverty as workers who don’t rely on tips. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers have a poverty rate of about 13 percent, compared with a rate of 6.5 percent for other workers. The median wage for tipped workers—including tips—is $10.22, compared with $16.48 for workers overall.

Let’s look at how this result has come about.

Most of us favor a fair minimum wage for employees in our country. Witness the recent adoption of a higher minimum wage in such politically conservative states as Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, where referenda increasing the minimum wage passed in the 2014 midterm elections. And even though Republicans in Congress have stood in the way of enacting a higher federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, as proposed by President Obama, some state lawmakers have taken the initiative and increased the income of workers in their states by passing minimum-wage legislation of their own.

One group has been largely left out of this benevolent trend: Workers who depend on tips. According to articles in Mother Jones magazine in May 2014 and the Wall Street Journal in August 2014, only seven states, including California and Alaska, require employers to pay tipped workers the same minimum wage as nontipped workers.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained stagnant at $2.13 since 1991. If tipped workers aren’t earning the regular minimum wage (currently $7.25) via tips, employers are supposed to make up the difference. Are you surprised to learn that they don’t always do it?

President Obama’s proposed Minimum Wage Fairness Act would gradually raise tipped workers’ minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. That would help. But this increase has been opposed by the National Restaurant Association, which spent more than $2 million lobbying against it in 2013. (Some may remember that former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain lobbied against any change during his tenure as president of the NRA.)

The NRA claims that no one is making only $2.13 an hour. But the “servers who make ‘good money’ are in the minority,” according to a spokeswoman for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a group that tries to improve conditions for servers. She notes that servers are hit especially hard by the “wage theft” by restaurant owners who don’t make up the difference they’re supposed to. When the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigated the restaurant industry from 2010 to 2012, it discovered that nearly 84 percent of restaurants had some kind of wage and hour violation.

Barbara Ehrenreich has documented the deplorable life of servers in her 2001 bestseller, Nickel and Dimed. Trying life at poverty-level wages, she spent her first month as a waitress, resulting in a “monthlong plunge into poverty” during which she often endured dehumanizing treatment at the hands of restaurant managers.

One problem is that servers are often unaware of the law requiring employers to make up the difference. One server states that unless tips were on credit card receipts, “We never logged our tips or reported them to our employers.” And when she told other servers what they were entitled to, “nobody felt comfortable asking employers about it.”

In the last few years, a new trend has appeared: a ban on tipping. A handful of restaurants in California, New York, and elsewhere have adopted a no-tipping policy, paying servers between $10 and $20 an hour in lieu of lower wages plus tips. How do these restaurants cover the cost of the higher wages they pay? Some, like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, add a service charge (like 15 or 20 percent) to their diners’ bills. Others are experimenting with higher menu prices. The San Francisco Chronicle noted in November 2014 that a new restaurant in that city plans to simply raise all prices on the menu by 15 percent.

As the Wall Street Journal has noted, servers in some upscale restaurants who currently earn “a handsome income” might not welcome losing out on tips. But the no-tipping trend is clearly underway. If adopted throughout the industry, it would likely benefit the vast majority of servers who right now are seriously underpaid, often living in poverty as a result. Doing away with tipping would require enormous change for most restaurants, however, so it may never become the standard policy in American restaurants.

In the meantime, next time you order that BLT, think about putting a generous wad of your own lettuce in the hands of your server. You just may be helping that server escape the grip of poverty.

Have You Measured Your Face Lately?

I always figured that the way people look has something to do with their success. Let’s face it. We’re all constantly being judged by others, and some of those judgments are based on how we look.

How important is appearance? The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book, Executive Presence. Hewlett asserts that three elements make up one’s “personal presence”—how you behave, how you speak, and how you look. (She also notes that “showing teeth”—being decisive when faced with hard choices—plays an important role.)

Are we short? Tall? In between? Are we slim? Pudgy? Somewhere in the middle? Are we conventionally good-looking? Or would our faces stop a clock (to use a phrase favored by my brother-in-law)?

All these factors come into play when others take a look at us and evaluate our merits. I myself come up short (literally) on at least one of them.

One factor I never took into account is the width of my face. But a recent study has come up with some astounding results, leading researchers to conclude that a wide face is worth more in the business world than a narrow one.

The overall study was run by researchers at the business school at the University of California, Riverside, along with London Business School and Columbia University. The research team, led by a UC management professor named Michael Hasehuhn, conducted a series of studies on business students with different facial-width to facial-height ratios.

According to a July report on this research in the Wall Street Journal, the earliest studies revealed that business students with wide faces were more aggressive, self-interested, and unethical. They were even more likely to lie. The researchers found, for example, that these students were more likely to resort to outright deception to close a sale. They also cheated more in games.

The more recent research focused on how these students fared in negotiations. The researchers found that men with wide faces tend to take a more competitive approach to negotiations than men with narrower faces. When the students engaged in simulated salary negotiations, the men with wider faces entered the negotiations with a more competitive mind-set and wound up negotiating a signing bonus of nearly $2,200 more than the bonus won by men with narrow faces. In simulated real-estate negotiations, a property went for a higher price to a wide-faced seller but a lower price when that same wide-faced guy was the buyer.

According to Hasehuhn, these findings are consistent with earlier research on attributes associated with wide-faced males and may have implications for all men who enter into negotiations. For example, a narrow-faced man can anticipate a more contentious exchange if he knows he will confront someone with a wider face. At the same time, wide-faced guys can “tweak” their own approach to negotiations if they expect to be perceived as more aggressive.

Because these findings struck me as somewhat sketchy, I sought the opinion of a nationally-recognized negotiator, Ron Shapiro. In his over-forty-year career as a negotiator in the worlds of law, sports, business, and politics, Shapiro has conducted successful negotiations on behalf of high-profile clients like Cal Ripken Jr., negotiating more than $1 billion in contracts, even resolving a symphony orchestra strike. He’s also cofounded the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, where he trains people in a variety of professions how to negotiate successfully. His best-selling books include Dare to Prepare and Perfecting Your Pitch.

Shapiro reviewed the findings of the business school researchers. Although he doesn’t question the findings, he has a totally different take on things. He believes that even if physical characteristics are assumed to have an impact on the outcomes of negotiations, “the real difference maker … on outcomes is how systematically the negotiator goes about his or her negotiation efforts.” In other words, negotiators’ skills outweigh a superficial trait like the width of their faces. He’s seen outcomes “shift markedly” after a negotiator has been “empowered” by learning the right kind of skills. He “will take that over these wide/narrow research findings any day.”

If you’ve noticed that the research findings focus entirely on men, you may be wondering: What about women? The Bloomberg Businessweek review of the research noted that women didn’t benefit from “the perks of a wide mug.” Apparently, when men see their faces in the mirror, a wide-faced man gets a rush of power but a wide-faced woman doesn’t. Hasehuhn told Businessweek he thinks biology plays a role. “Men with wider faces tend to have higher circulating rates of testosterone,” and he claims that this higher level has been linked to feeling powerful.

Where is the support for Hesehuhn’s biological theory? I’m not sure. Maybe he’ll reveal it when his paper is published in an upcoming issue of Leadership Weekly.

In the meantime, as a woman, I’m apparently immune to the wide-faced/narrow-faced dichotomy. But if you’re a man, maybe you should think about measuring your face sometime.

On second thought, you’d be wise (if not wide) to take Ron Shapiro’s advice and focus instead on sharpening your negotiating skills. Women should do the same.

And maybe, when appropriate, you should show your teeth—no matter what kind of face they’re in.

If You’re Getting Older, You May Be Getting Nicer

We tend to encounter four images of “old people”—two for women, two for men.

The first female image? A kindly grandmother, rather plump, with gray hair pulled back in a bun and a sweet smile on her face. She’s often wearing an apron, as though she just stepped away from baking a batch of cookies. Just look at a display of Hallmark Mother’s Day cards to see some examples. But I don’t see any women resembling this image in my own life. The older women I know tend to be energetic, not very plump, and rarely sporting kitchen aprons.

The second female image is an emaciated crone, with spiky too-dark hair and an angry look on her face. This image turns up as a witch in fairy tales, often borrowed by Hollywood films and omnipresent on Halloween.

The first male image? A sweet old duffer, kind-hearted, not too sharp mentally, hovering over his kids and grandkids whether they want him to or not. Are there men like this out there? Maybe, but I don’t know any. My older male friends are vigorous, sharp as a tack, and involved with their kids sans hovering.

The second male image is a fierce, belligerent guy, his face contorted by rage and/or confusion. To others, he may appear to be well on the road to dementia, imagined or real.

I take issue with these images, especially the angry ones. The truth is that we get nicer as we get older. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal in April 2014, several large research studies have recently shown that a person’s personality naturally changes during adulthood in response to life events. And positive events, like entering a committed relationship, can lead to positive personality changes.

In one study, people reported noticing increases in their positive traits between the ages of 20 and 65. Significantly, they became more agreeable. This study backed up other research by psychologists, who refer to it as “the maturity principle.” Brent W. Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has pulled together some of this research. One finding he’s highlighted is that personality traits continue to change in middle and old age. Specifically, people become more conscientious and emotionally stable as they age.

It’s no secret that friendly, outgoing, responsible people tend to be happier than shy, irresponsible, unsociable people. That’s been known for years. But here’s a new twist, described in the Journal of Personality in January 2014: people who start out being happy tend to become even more so.

Researchers think that “personality” (characteristic ways of thinking feeling and behaving) is about 50% innate and 50% learned. So while many of us may start out being happy and some may become even more so, others can learn to be happier.

Now let’s go back to those angry images. Looking angry doesn’t always relate to feeling angry. Believe it or not, gravity plays a role. If you peruse a bunch of older faces, you’ll notice that the mouth, pulled downward by gravity, can make a person look angry or, at the very least, bored. But guess what. Smiling can erase the effects of gravity. A cheerful smile can transform an older person’s face. By smiling, he or she can suddenly look less angry and, well, younger.

Like the maturity principle, the “facial feedback hypothesis” has been around for a while. It’s a psychological theory that facial expressions can directly influence emotions. In other words, if you’re forced to smile during a social event, the theory holds that you’ll find the event more enjoyable. Charles Darwin was among the first to suggest that physiological changes (such as a smile caused by feeling happy) was not merely the consequence of being happy but also could intensify the feeling of happiness.

Recent studies by psychologists validate this notion and actually go even further. Forcing participants to smile, even when they weren’t feeling especially happy when they began the study, made them feel happier once they smiled.

The “mouth-down” phenomenon may account for the popularity of Botox and fillers injected into the faces of oldsters who want to look younger. A dermatologist in Maryland has in fact studied Botox as a treatment for clinical depression. After looking through 19th-century photos of stony-faced women institutionalized in a French hospital, Dr. Eric Finzi wondered whether the facial feedback hypothesis applied to patients who were depressed. He funded and oversaw two clinical trials studying Botox in people with depression. In the most recent study, he found that six weeks after treatment, 50% of the patients receiving Botox had their depressive symptoms reduced by half or more, compared to only 15% who were injected with a placebo. This remarkable finding demonstrates the power of a smiley face.

Life can be tough. We may face obstacles in our careers, financial challenges, rough patches in our relationships, serious illness, and worst of all, the loss of loved ones. But even though you might not always feel like smiling, you needn’t resort to Botox. The latest research leads to some simple advice: Try smiling. It just might make you feel better.

So…whether you’ve always been a basically happy personality, or you’re working on getting there, a smile on your face can lead to both feeling and looking happier. As a bonus, you’ll probably look younger, too.

In his 1936 film, Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin introduced a song later known as “Smile. “ The lyrics include this insight: “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.”

Smile, anyone?

Hey There, Handsome!

Hey, handsome!  You know who you are.  You’re a charitable donor to at least one worthy cause you support.

Say what? 

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur C. Brooks, the head of a nonprofit organization, accumulated a wealth of data to support the conclusion that giving to charity makes us happier, healthier, and yes, even better-looking.

First, according to one study cited by Brooks, happiness and giving are strongly correlated.  A survey by the University of Chicago showed that charitable givers are 43% more likely to say they are “very happy” than non-givers.  By contrast, non-givers are 3.5 times more likely to say they are “not happy at all.”  Wow!

But is it really charitable giving that makes us happier, or is it the reverse?  Another study provided one answer.  Researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia found that the amount of money subjects spent on themselves was “inconsequential for happiness,” but spending on others resulted in significant gains in happiness. 

In another study, University of Oregon researchers asked people to divide $100 between a food pantry and their own wallets.  The researchers used a brain-scanner to see what happened.  It turned out that choosing the charitable option lighted up the brain’s center of pleasure and reward, the same center that lights up because of pleasurable music, addictive drugs, and a mother’s bond with her children.

Are we also healthier when we act in a charitable way?  Brooks cited several studies that say we are.  A University of Buffalo psychologist recently studied more than 800 residents of Detroit and found that volunteering for a charity significantly lowered the association between stressful life-events and death. 

Two studies conducted in California lent further support to this notion.  When researchers at Stanford and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging tracked nearly 2000 older Americans over a nine-year period, they found that the dedicated volunteers in the group were 56% more likely to have survived all nine years than non-volunteers who started out in identical health.  A study of teenagers yielded even more support.  In 2008, the University of California reported that altruistic teenagers were physically and mentally healthier later in their lives than their less generous peers.

And now we get to our most intriguing question:  Does being charitable do anything for the way you look?  Dutch and British researchers recently showed women college students one of three videos featuring the same good-looking actor.  In the first video, he gave generously to a man begging on the street.  In the second, he appeared to give only a little money.  In the third, the actor gave nothing to the panhandler.  The result? The more he gave, the more handsome he appeared to the women in the study.

Brooks concluded that this finding explains why men loosen their wallets in an attempt to impress women.  And he uncovered one more study to support his conclusion.  A 1999 experiment conducted by the University of Liverpool showed that “eager men” on first dates gave significantly more to a panhandler than men who were already in comfortable long-term relationships.

In short, giving generously to the causes we support really does appear to boost our well-being and our esteem—even our appearance–in the eyes of others.  Although I have reservations about some of the techniques used by charities to pry money from us (see “Why Am I Suddenly a Member?” found elsewhere on this blog), I wholeheartedly support charitable giving and volunteering on behalf of worthy causes. 

The charitable men in my life have always looked good to me, and as I’ve gotten older, I find they’re looking better and better.

As for me, in addition to my feeling good about giving, I now know that it helps me look good, too.

That reminds me…where’s my checkbook?



“Paper or…?” Drying your hands has unexpected consequences

We’re all familiar with the following question:  Paper or plastic?

For decades, every purchase in a supermarket or drugstore has led to this question.  And for decades, many of us have wondered:  Is it better—for the environment, for my pocketbook, for my overall well-being—to request paper or plastic?  The answer hasn’t always been clear.

Never mind.  Today, in San Francisco and an increasing number of other cities, the question is moot.  Local ordinances ban plastic bags and require customers to pay for paper ones, thus encouraging shoppers to carry their own reusable bags.  The “paper or plastic” question is fast disappearing.

But now we’re confronted with a new but even more troubling question:  When we use a restroom in a public place and we wash our hands (as we’re repeatedly urged to do), should we use paper towels or an air blower?

In this case, we usually don’t have a choice.  Restaurants, stores, theaters, museums, and other institutions with restrooms for their patrons generally confront us with only one way to dry our hands:  paper towels OR air blowers.  A few establishments offer both, thereby giving us a choice, but most do not.

I’m a strong proponent of paper towels, and my position recently garnered support from an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic, Rodney Lee Thompson.

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal last December, the Mayo Clinic has published a comprehensive study of every known hand-washing study done since 1970.  The conclusion?  Drying one’s skin is essential to staving off bacteria, and paper towels are better at doing that than air blowers.

Why?  According to this study, paper towels are more efficient, they don’t splatter germs, they won’t dry out your skin, and most people prefer them (and therefore are more likely to wash their hands in the first place).

Thompson’s own study was one of those included in the overall study, and he concurs with its conclusions.  He observed people washing their hands at places like sports stadiums.  “The trouble with blowers,” he says, is that “they take so long.”  Most people dry their hands for a short time, then “wipe them on their dirty jeans, or open the door with their still-wet hands.”

Besides being time-consuming, most blowers are extremely noisy.  Their decibel level often strikes me as deafening.  Like Thompson, I think these noisy and inefficient blowers “turn people off.”

But, he adds, there’s “no downside to the paper towel,” either psychologically or environmentally.  Thompson states that electric blowers use more energy than producing a paper towel, so they don’t appear to benefit the environment either.

The air-blower industry argues that blowers reduce bacterial transmission, but studies show that the opposite is true.  Much to my surprise, these studies found that blowers tend to spread bacteria from 3 to 6 feet.  To keep bacteria from spreading, Thompson urges using a paper towel to dry your hands, opening the restroom door with it, then throwing it into the trash.

A recent episode of the popular TV series “Mythbusters” has provided new evidence to support Thompson’s conclusions.  The results of tests conducted on this program, aired in June 2013, demonstrated that paper towels are more effective at removing bacteria from one’s hands and that air blowers spread more bacteria around the blower area.

In San Francisco, many restrooms have posted signs stating that they’re composting paper towels to reduce waste.  Because San Francisco has embarked on an ambitious composting scheme, we’re not even adding paper towels to our landfills or recycling bins.  Other cities may already be doing the same, and still others (like New York City, where composting has already been proposed) will undoubtedly follow.

I strongly advocate replacing air blowers with paper towels in public restrooms.  Political leaders, including those who’ve already compelled their constituents to abandon plastic bags for the sake of the environment, should carefully review this issue as well.  If they conclude, as overwhelming evidence suggests, that paper towels are better both for our health and for the environment, they should enact local ordinances requiring that public restrooms use paper towels.

Paper or…?  The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.  The answer is blowin’ in the wind.