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Network Contagion~ Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

For those of us not actively toiling in a university, most modern writing in the social sciences can be placed into one of three categories. The first category, which is vast, consists of the arcane and the incremental — those studies so obscure, or which advance scholarship so infinitesimally, that they can be safely ignored by the general reader. (Not that this work isn’t important; it keeps academic publishing in business, and significant knowledge accretes in tiny drips on the way to tenure.) The second category consists of statistical proof of the obvious. (Some actual study findings published recently: “the parent-child relationship . . . commonly includes feelings of irritation, tension and ambivalence”; women are more likely to engage in casual sex with “an exceptionally attractive man”; and driving while text-messaging leads to “a substantial increase in the risk of being involved in a safety-critical event such as a crash.” Thank you, social science!) And in the third category, which is surely the smallest, are works of brilliant originality that stimulate and enlighten and can sometimes even change the way we under­stand the world.

But here’s a funny thing: Some research, defying logic, manages to straddle the boundary between the second category and the third, seeming alternately (or is it simultaneously?) obvious and brilliant. “Connected,” by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, is full of this kind of research. “What a colossal waste of money it is for social scientists to prove the obvious,” the authors themselves write, characterizing a typical response they got to an attention-grabbing study they published two years ago in The New England Journal of Medicine.

That study, about how obesity can be contagious, has already won the authors a modicum of fame. Earlier this year Time magazine named Christakis, a professor of medicine, sociology and health care policy at Harvard, one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, gained additional notice by providing the first statistical evidence of the “Colbert bump” — the boost of political support elected officials enjoy after appearing on “The Colbert Report.” In their writing, they are endearingly excitable, ranging enthusiastically across science and culture to find gee-whiz insights and unexpected results that support their arguments. For instance: “A study published in the scientific journal Nature revealed that a typical article in Wikipedia was almost as accurate as a typical article in the Encyclopedia Britannica.” And: “Fungi can even ‘collaborate’ to find the best path through mazes into which they have been placed by human experimenters.” And my favorite: “In fact, the model that best predicted the network structure of U.S. senators was that of social licking among cows.”

Do the arguments and ideas present in this book merit such far-reaching exploration, not to mention the attention they have brought the authors? Quite possibly so. For starters, that obesity study. Poring through the meticulous records of the Framingham Heart Study, conducted from 1948 to the present in a small Massachusetts city, Christakis and Fowler mapped out the relationship of 12,067 people with more than 50,000 ties (or connections between friends and relatives) among them. Analyzing the network, the authors noticed that obese people tend to be friends with other obese people, while thin people tend to be friends with other thin people. On one level, this is obvious and unsurprising; birds of a feather and all that. But based on their reading of the data (which some other researchers have questioned), the authors concluded that the relationship was causal: being associated with overweight people, even indirectly, is likely to make you overweight.

As Christakis and Fowler (along with other researchers) have found, obesity spreads by contagion. So if your friend’s friend’s friend — whom you’ve never met, and lives a thousand miles away — gains weight, you’re likely to gain weight, too. And if your friend’s friend’s friend loses weight, you’re likely to lose weight, too.

Christakis and Fowler explore network contagion in everything from back pain (higher incidence spread from West Germany to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to suicide (well known to spread throughout communities on occasion) to sex practices (such as the growing prevalence of oral sex among teenagers) to politics (where the denser your network of connections, the more ideologically intense and intractable your beliefs are likely to be). And while it’s hardly surprising that emotion can be transmitted from person to person, the authors report that getting a $10,000 raise is less likely to make you happy than having a happy friend is — in fact, the raise is less likely to make you happy than is having a friend who has a friend who has a friend who is happy. They even argue — and this is sure to generate controversy — that the obsessive drive to create “nut free” environments is not the result of any real increase in children’s allergies but rather something akin to an epidemic of adult hysteria, spread via network transmission.

How does network contagion work? What is the mechanism whereby your friend’s friend’s obesity is likely to make you fatter? Partly, it’s a kind of peer pressure, or norming, effect, in which certain behaviors, or the social acceptance of certain behaviors, get transmitted across a network of acquaintances. In one example the authors give, Heather stops exercising and gains weight, which influences her friend Maria’s thinking about what normal weight is, so that when Maria’s other friend Amy (who has never met Heather) also stops her exercise regime, Maria is less likely to urge Amy to resume it. So Heather’s weight gain influences Amy’s, even though the two women never meet. Of course, there’s an awful lot of supposition here; the authors are more convincing in arguing that this sort of contagion happens than in explaining how it happens.

They’re also pretty interesting on why it happens. During the early stages of human evolution, selective advantage was probably conferred on those individuals who lived in social networks and could share information about food or predators. The primatologist Robin Dunbar has argued that the human brain evolved to its present size to keep track of a network of 150 people. Dunbar argued further­more that grooming (picking the nits out of the fur of the other individuals in your group), which is the behavior used by other primates to maintain relationships, becomes inefficient in a group of 150. So we evolved the capacity for language, a “less yucky and more efficient way to get to know our peers, since we can talk to several friends at once but only groom one at a time,” as Christakis and Fowler put it.

As among primates, those humans who are best able to manipulate social networks to their advantage thrive, and that ability may be genetically encoded. Using a clever study of young twins, the authors observed that genes accounted for “46 percent of the variation in how popular the kids were.” (This is either brilliant or the reductio ad absurdum of genetic analysis or both.) And in a series of “cooperation game” studies, in which altruistic behavior among a social network was rewarded with money, the most popular girls ended up with four times as much money as the least popular, proving once again the propensity of the rich to get richer — not to mention the compounding cruelty of unpopularity.

Network science has implications for public policy. By learning more about the structure of various networks, we can identify where the hubs are — the most “influenceable” nodes that are likely to spread an idea (or a behavior or a germ) quickest — and intervene at those points to stop the spread of, say, an unhealthy behavior (like smoking or overeating or suicide), or to promote a positive one (like voting or becoming an organ donor), or to vaccinate more efficiently against disease.

But the more interesting implications are philosophical. A social network, while not quite sentient, acquires its own agency; it wants things, and it wants us, the nodes of which it consists, to do certain things, whether to gain weight or have oral sex at age 13. Mathematical models of flocks of birds, or colonies of ants, or schools of fish reveal that while there is no central controlling director telling the birds to fly one direction or another, a collective intelligence somehow emerges, so that all the birds fly in the same direction at the same time. Christakis and Fowler argue that through network science we are discovering the same principle at work in humans — as individuals, we are part of a superorganism, a hivelike network that shapes our decisions. “A smoker may have as much control over quitting as a bird has to stop a flock from flying in a particular direction,” they write. The authors take a benign view of this and argue that as we become aware of the networks in which we’re enmeshed, we’ll all be better off.

As described by the authors, network science has potential to be used for good. But then again, if all the strutting and fretting that we believe to be the product of our individual free will is really only the antlike scurrying of a collection of nodes, can anyone really be said to “use” the network? Or is the network always using us?

Scott Stossel, the deputy editor of The Atlantic, is writing a book about anxiety.

CONNECTED: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

By Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler

Illustrated. 338 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.99

Click Here to Buy It Now!

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Pain Beyond Words, and an Impulse Just to Endure

Having gone through five significant operations, including one to remove my entire diseased colon and another to cut out my cancerous prostate, I think I can safely state that pain falls into two broad categories: the kind you can articulate, and pain that is beyond words.

If you can tell an E.M.T., a nurse or a doctor where it hurts and how much, that is generally a good sign. But what interests me even more is the pain that can’t be articulated. Fortunately, I’ve experienced this only twice.

The first time came in 1984, when I had my colon taken out. I had been taken back to my room after surgery, one-quarter awake and feeling as if I had just tumbled over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The orderlies and nurses wheeled the gurney against my hospital bed, then started to move me. That was when I became half-awake.

Even though they were tugging me just a few inches, my body pulsed with the worst pain that I had felt in my life. And when it seemed to me that the half-dozen or so tubes snaking from my body were about to be ripped out because they were tangled at the foot of my bed, I tried to shout. But all that came out, I think, was, “Uh-uh-uh.” Mercifully, once I slumped onto my bed, I heaved a sigh and went to sleep.

When I had my prostate out in 2008, I almost fainted when a new resident tried to remove one of my drains. Instead of giving it a firm yank, she waggled it inside my body as if she were whipping up cotton candy. I became dizzy, broke into a cold sweat and nearly threw up. She finally left and got help.

I wouldn’t have chosen to be in those two situations, but each one granted me insight into myself and into the nature of pain.

In each case, I was humbled by pain that to me seemed to transcend the basic medical scale of 1 (mildest) to 10 (most severe). And pain is a path to humility. When it hurts just to wriggle up in bed, elbows digging into the mattress for support, you generally don’t think of yourself as sitting atop the food chain.

And pain is a teacher. More than ever, I understand how abhorrent it is to inflict pain. I have learned to distinguish between mere discomfort and pain that can’t be tolerated. And tough-guy popular culture — oh, great, ultimate fighting on Spike TV — doesn’t impress me at all.

I have no patience these days with the Nietzschean cliché, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve found that the deepest pain holds no meaning. It is not purifying. It is not ennobling. It does not make you a better human being. It just is.

All the worst pain does is reduce us to our most primal animal. We want it to stop. We want to survive. It short-circuits any sense of self, diminishes us to a bundle of biological reflexes.

Right after the radical open surgery to remove my prostate, I felt like one big post-op throb of pain. The morphine drip was my new best pal. It didn’t take long, though, for discrete fiefs of ache and twinge to make themselves known: catheter burn (complemented by the occasional bladder spasm), sore and swollen testicles and the subtle attack of hospital-bed back.

But oddly enough, those sensations were almost pleasant — distractions from my wounded gut. The abdominal incision was raw and tender, but that didn’t stop me from fingering it, searching for different notes of discomfort on the xylophone of the 25 metal staples that held me together.

I’ve been surprised by the degree of pain you can become used to. Before I had my colon out, my stomach hurt constantly from ulcerative colitis, and I bled a lot from my rectum. It wasn’t until I was recovering that I realized how sick I had been.

One side effect of all these operations is that common day-in-and-day-out bumps and bruises don’t get much of a rise out of me. Stubbed toes and headaches, spider bites and bee stings? Whatever. The bracing prickle of alcohol sloshed onto a cut or a scrape actually feels pretty good to me. And after all the siphoning, and replenishing, of my blood over the years, I don’t flinch at needles.

We don’t like to talk about pain — are somehow shamed by it and try to shrug it off. We’re told to play through pain or, even, to pray through it. We revere our stoic American archetypes, like the Wild West gunslinger riddled by half a dozen slugs of lead who swears, “Aw heck, Doc, it’s only a scratch.”

One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done was not take my pain medication after that surgery in 1984. I was raised in a tight-lipped rural culture in which even aspirin was suspect, and I was taught that real men embraced their pain as if it were their destiny. It was supposed to be better to sweat through pain-induced insomnia at 3 in the morning than give in to the terrible temptation to take a pill that would let you sleep.

Well, enough with that. Pain is a crucial part of our medical tales. It needs to be articulated, then confronted — even if, sometimes, the pain is beyond words.

Dana Jennings is a reporter at The New York Times. His postings on coping with prostate cancer appear each week at nytimes.com/well.

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Alan is also the author of the Free report “Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a Sensational Life” available at www.throughyourbody.com

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Mind: How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect

In addition to assorted bad breaks and pleasant surprises, opportunities and insults, life serves up the occasional pink unicorn. The three-dollar bill; the nun with a beard; the sentence, to borrow from the Lewis Carroll poem, that gyres and gimbles in the wabe.

An experience, in short, that violates all logic and expectation. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that such anomalies produced a profound “sensation of the absurd,” and he wasn’t the only one who took them seriously. Freud, in an essay called “The Uncanny,” traced the sensation to a fear of death, of castration or of “something that ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”

At best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy.

Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large.

“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.

When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

“There’s more research to be done on the theory,” said Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, because it may be that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance. But he added that the new theory was “plausible, and it certainly affirms my own meaning system; I think they’re onto something.”

In the most recent paper, published last month, Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.

The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.

But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

“The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others,” Dr. Heine said. “And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”

Brain-imaging studies of people evaluating anomalies, or working out unsettling dilemmas, show that activity in an area called the anterior cingulate cortex spikes significantly. The more activation is recorded, the greater the motivation or ability to seek and correct errors in the real world, a recent study suggests. “The idea that we may be able to increase that motivation,” said Dr. Inzlicht, a co-author, “is very much worth investigating.”

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories, for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

Still, the new research supports what many experimental artists, habitual travelers and other novel seekers have always insisted: at least some of the time, disorientation begets creative thinking.

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Alan is also the author of the Free report “Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a Sensational Life” available at www.throughyourbody.com

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1103 Peveto St.
Houston, TX 77019

Dogs: An Affection Multiplier, With Four Feet and Wet Nose.

THE nine-pound longhaired miniature dachshund at the animal shelter wasn’t the kind of dog I imagined walking in Manhattan. She was a little lap dog and a cliché, too small for someone as insecure and image conscious as me. And her name was Zoe — too cutesy. I put a deposit down on her anyway.

A form to fill out asked, “Why do you want a dog?” The answer should have been simple: companionship. But it was more complicated than that.

I always swore I’d never get a dog. In fact, I’d spent the first half of my life as a dog denigrator. Why have a needy pet with so many needy people in the world? One divorced friend has spent the last six years lounging around too intimately with a slobbering golden retriever who is as devoted to her as her ex was not. Another single woman I know thinks that if her Maltese snaps at someone she’s dating, he’s probably not right for her. (Talk about snap judgments.) I once had a date with a handsome man and his handsome Portuguese water dog who were so interested in each other they paid no attention to me.

“You don’t understand,” friends said. “Dogs are all about unconditional love.”

O.K., but what about earned love? And common sense?

When I first met Ira, who would become my spouse, he owned (or perhaps I should say was owned by) a beloved Cairn terrier that would lunge and bite whenever we tried to leave him, and would refuse to go out for walks because he hated the noisy city streets. With a push from me, Ira finally put the dog into a carrier bag and flew him off to a better life with a loving stay-at-home owner in a quieter, leafier city.

For several years it was just the two of us in our white antiseptic apartment, living our pet-free and child-free lives of stylish travel, creative careers and limited family responsibility.

Not that Ira wasn’t a handful all his own. He was often so vulnerable, voluble and, shall I say, doggedly affectionate that it scared me.

When I started saying, “I want a dog,” it was half in jest. But it became more serious as I cooed at dogs on the sidewalk, beagles in particular, while Ira shook his head.

“You have a limited amount of affection to give,” he said without irony. “If we get a dog, all your affection will go to him and there won’t be any left for me.”

Maybe he was right. I’ve always made it a goal to not be too needed, even by my aging mother and father. But last winter was a tough one. After my parents’ deaths, I’d been in conflict with my brother, and I was facing daunting tax and career troubles. Ira was troubled, too.

Maybe a dog would change things, or at least cheer us up. But the question did come into my head: Was there something lacking in our lives as a couple that I wanted a dog to fulfill? It’s common enough for the presence of a baby to change the dynamic of a marriage. Could a dog do the same thing? And then there was Ira’s issue, which I couldn’t shake: Did I have enough affection for both him and a dog?

In the spring we started visiting animal shelters. But there was only one breed I imagined owning, a beagle, and there weren’t any available. So I started looking online, also in vain. The day in May after I reluctantly put down the deposit for the mini-dachshund, I was tortured with recrimination. Why couldn’t I make myself want her?

“Is the problem,” Ira asked, “that you don’t think you can care for a dog?”

“She’s just not the dog I imagined losing my freedom for,” I wailed like a freaked-out groom before his wedding night. “She’s too small. She’s just too gay!” I was sitting at my computer in a cold sweat, searching for beagles with the guilt of a porn addict.

Ira was disgusted. “You just want something you think is cute,” he said. “But that dachshund needs a home, and if you think a dog is just an accessory then maybe you don’t deserve to have one.”

I wanted to bark at him and bite his head off. Instead I got into the car and seethed as I stepped on the gas and drove us back to the animal shelter.

The administrator looked at me suspiciously. Did I want this little dog or not?

“Can we take her for another walk before I decide?” I asked.

A no-nonsense attendant in rainboots took us past rows of barking dogs, many big and scary, at least to me. The smell of the kennel was rank, the atmosphere fraught with desperation. When we reached the little dachshund’s pen, she was on her hind legs against a cyclone fence, barking in an unbearably shrill tone, though she was wagging her tail.

The attendant handed me her leash. Black and brown, and not much bigger than a ferret, she strained at it outside, paying us no heed as she yanked with surprising force and barked at each dog we passed in a way that put me on edge.

“How can you stand that shrill barking?” one woman asked.

I didn’t know, but the dog must have sensed my equivocation because suddenly, at a moment when I wasn’t holding her leash properly (what did I know about holding a leash?) she ran from us down a winding road that led to the Long Island Expressway. It was horrifying. How did those stubby little legs carry her so fast? Ira chased her, running in the middle of the road faster than I’d ever seen him run.

“Help!” he yelled. “I need help! Get the car!”

I feared they’d both be hit by oncoming traffic, and imagined my happily married life about to end, all because of a little dog. Between the time I got into my car to chase her and the moment we caught her, I had a painful stab of the most profound sorrow — imagining a return to the hermetic life without Ira that I had led for most of my adult years.

With the help of a passing driver, we caught the dog, put her in my car and drove her back to the parking lot of the shelter, where we all sat in the front seat, catching our collective breath and getting over our shock.

Ira was panting, as was the little dog in my lap, her heart pounding against my thigh. Soon enough she calmed down and rested her long snout against my forearm.

After such a dreadful experience, you’d think I’d be ready to give her back. Instead, I felt something in me shifting as she curled up and snuggled deeper into my arm. “All she wants is to be held,” I said in a tone I’d have mocked an hour before.

And that was that. A dog I originally disliked for cosmetic reasons instantly transformed me into the kind of myopic, cooing dog owner I had previously scorned. And without missing a beat, Ira found himself devoted and in love with her, too.

With us for four months now, she has been following me around the house with needy eyes that I never would have expected to find so engaging. And if, as I’ve heard before, the work of dogs is to love and be loved, then she is doing her job, maybe a little too well. Twice over the summer when returning from out of town, I caught myself looking forward to her greeting more than Ira’s, and then feeling conflicted about it. And often when Ira and I hug or tussle, I find myself waiting for her to jump in to join us.

Then there is the issue of bedtime. With the sober concern of parents dealing with the sleep issues of children, we debate whether to allow her in our bed. She doesn’t take up much room, but she does manage to get between us, making it difficult for us to fall into our typical embrace before sleep.

For now, I keep her off until dawn, when I let her out of her crate. She leaps onto the blankets, long black ears with fringed bottoms flapping behind her, right into Ira’s arms to plant kisses on his face. As he cuddles with her, it feels like he’s doing the same with me — that’s how profoundly I feel we are all intertwined. It’s ridiculous, I know. But then, I sometimes think that dogs are around to make us sillier than we are.

Well, they don’t judge. George Eliot must have known that when she wrote that we love dogs because “we long for an affection altogether ignorant of our faults.” Certainly they don’t challenge you in the ways a spouse, parent or child can. But in their own way, they do get you to think beyond your own needs a little. If you don’t believe that, try walking an unhappy dog at midnight in the pouring rain.

PERHAPS if I’d had one while I was single, it would have helped prepare me for the demands of a relationship. One thing I know for certain: Ira had it wrong. Affection, I can now see, is not something one has in limited supply like money or drinking water. It’s more like a muscle that grows the more you use it. Or maybe it’s an explosion like nuclear fission.

The other night we were on the couch with our wiggling dog in something between a tangle of caresses and a group hug. Ira couldn’t have looked happier.

“She’s actually made you more affectionate towards me, not less,” he said.

A little dog I didn’t think I wanted has turned out to be exactly what we needed. We only had to tweak her name a tiny bit to make it work for our own self-consciously ironic purposes. Instead of Zoe, she is now Zoloft. And she is as good as her name.

Bob Morris is the author of “Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating With My Dad.”

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Alan Davidson is the founder of ThroughYourBody.com and the author Body Brilliance: Mastering Your Five Vital Intelligences, the #1 bestselling Health & Welness book and winner of two National Book-of-the-Year awards.

Alan is also the author of the Free report “Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a Sensational Life” available at www.throughyourbody.com

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1103 Peveto St.
Houston, TX 77019

The Guilt-Trip Casserole:Family Dinners & Teenage Smoking, Alcohol or Drug Abuse

“I DON’T need family-dinner studies to guilt-trip me,” said Shannon Rubio, a mother of three teenage boys from Spring, Tex. “I do it to myself.”

But just in case, Mrs. Rubio, here is the latest, from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University:

Teenagers who eat with their families less than three times a week are more likely to turn to alcohol, tobacco and drugs than those who dine with their families five times a week.

Mrs. Rubio works for a human resources firm. Her husband, a tugboat mechanic, lives offshore four consecutive nights, followed by four nights off. Now that the school-season squall of sports and activities is blowing hard, Mrs. Rubio comes home every evening, piles a boy or three into the car and starts driving. Football, band, water polo, varsity swimming.

Dinner? “We go to Sonic very frequently,” she said. “You’re handing out sacks of food as quickly as you can. I hate it, but I don’t know how you get around it with one parent at home.”

Since the first CASA study in 1996 saw an association between the frequency of family dinners and rates of adolescent substance abuse, numerous other studies have pointed to the importance of the family dinner. They suggest that family dinners have a positive impact on nutrition, verbal abilities, mental health and workers’ stress. The news media passionately presses the cause; it’s a cornerstone of the slow-parenting movement.

A mushrooming industry of cookbooks, advice columns and even takeout foods repackaged as “family dinners” beckon folks to the table. Coca-Cola, Smucker’s and Stouffer’s were among the sponsors for activities for the annual Family Day (Sept. 28 this year), designed to promote family dinners.

Like breastfeeding and Baby Mozart tapes, family dinner has become a red-hot item on the good-parent scorecard, by which mothers in particular judge one another and themselves, a tinderbox for networks like Twittermoms.com. (According to the NPD Group, a market research firm, women are responsible for about 80 percent of meals in the home.)

So it’s not surprising that many parents, especially mothers, who work night shifts or long hours, or who, like Mrs. Rubio, have teenagers running every which way to activities, are painfully aware that nightly dinners ’round the table are something other families get to do.

Nor is it surprising that many others do veritable back flips to ensure that dinner and diners convene under the same roof, at the same time. A lawyer at a Manhattan firm rises at 4 a.m. in New Jersey to do enough work so that she can eat with her husband and three children by 8 p.m. A California writer feeds her tweens hefty snacks so they can eat supper with her husband, around 9 p.m.

But as parents go to ever more breathless effort, or feel ever more guilt-ridden, are we becoming too literal-minded about “family dinner”?

Few would gainsay families eating together. The image of family members at day’s end being nourished and nourishing one another, a refuge against whatever the outside world has loosed upon them, tugs at the heart. In the ideal, it’s the safety zone, where tweens and teenagers, those elusive creatures, will reveal secrets.

And some evidence suggests that parents are eating more dinners with their teenagers, though that may be as much a response to the recession as the family dinner campaign. According to NPD’s 24th annual compilation of studies, “Eating Patterns in America,” released Thursday, 71 percent of 250 households with at least one teenager ate five dinners together a week, up from 65 percent in 2008. CASA, which interviewed 1,000 families, found that 59 percent of teenagers said they ate dinner with their families at least five times a week, a proportion that has remained steady since 2004 but up from a 1998 low of 47 percent.

Dr. Philip A. Cowan, a psychologist and former director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the alacrity with which Americans embrace equations like family dinner frequency and substance abuse speaks to their need to find “silver bullet” solutions to profound problems.

BUT, he cautioned in an e-mail message, there is not a proven cause and effect that more family dinners equal less drug use. “To say that family dinners are associated with good outcomes is not the same as saying that family dinners cause good outcomes,” wrote Dr. Cowan, who has studied families.

The most likely explanation for the CASA results, he added, is that families who place importance on eating together — and can organize themselves to pull it off — are those who are more likely to produce good outcomes for their children anyway.

But what’s a mother to do? Deborah Perham owns a court reporting agency in Commack, N.Y. Her husband is a security director. Her son is in college and her two teenage daughters are scampering off to sports, part-time jobs and, well, life. She insists that the family eat together once a week.

Two weeks ago, she peered at her household calendar, color-coded with everyone’s activities. And there, thanks to a rare school holiday, she spied a smidgen of white.

“Lunch on Monday at 3 p.m.!” she told her family. “Put it in your BlackBerries.”

Does that count?

And does dinner have to be cooked? At home? What if it lasts only 10 minutes?

Um, TV?

O.K., what about “60 Minutes”?

“I don’t think we really know what a good family dinner is,” said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies family meals and adolescents and is the author of “I’m, Like, So Fat!” Just do something, she suggested. “And yes, lunch counts.”

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, said, “We need to figure out when we can be together and not focus on the magic number.”

And guess what? Watching TV while eating may not be the end of civilization as we know it. In a 2009 study of 806 teenage girls, Professor Neumark-Sztainer concluded that watching television during dinner had little impact on substance abuse rates. What mattered was that the family ate together. (“Though I’m not a proponent of watching TV at dinner,” she added.)

And for those who think family dinners should include thoughtful exchanges and revelations? Tell that to a 14-year-old. Amy Middleman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, said that the dinner table may be the last place a teenager chooses to drop a humdinger. “There’s too much time to see your parents’ reaction and their over-reaction,” she said. “That’s why they prefer to drop them just as they’re getting out of the car.”

Dr. Middleman herself has three children, ages 5, 9 and 11. Her schoolteacher husband usually gives them a late snack and helps prepare dinner, so that they all sit down by 8 p.m. She believes in the family dinner. She counsels patients with eating disorders to eat with their families. And yet she is not certain that the fundamental element of “family dinner” is even food itself.

“The family dinner research may be telling us that that some of the more important elements may be about slowing down, organizing our lives with a little bit less harried time,” she said. “There just needs to be some element of structure and reconnection during the day. And I don’t know that it has to be ‘meaningful.’ It could be a drive, a walk, a regular conversation.”

To separate from the family in a healthy way, Dr. Middleman said, a teenager “has to have some level of reassurance that when they come back, what they left will still be there. And so whatever it takes to make that clear is probably what we’re getting at with ‘family dinners.’ ”

By that measure, Mrs. Rubio, laughing with her tumult of teenagers as they gobble from paper bags in the parking lot of the Sonic, is doing a pretty good job.

And families for whom the gold standard of five weekly dinners will always be a mirage just do what they can. Erica Shrader, a divorced mother of four, commutes about an hour from Virginia to her job as a database administrator in Washington, D.C. She gets home around 7 p.m. “We can only do about three meals a week together,” she said describing the exhaustion, laundry, silliness and homework that converge when she walks through the door.

The rest? “Do it yourself. Leftovers. Cereal and a banana,” she said. “By the time I’m home, they’ve already eaten and I can grab a kid, make a run to Target. Then you get the one-on-one time. I think there are different ways to get to the same place.”

A Manhattan lawyer with a frenzied bankruptcy practice and two young children also has found her own way to the same place, but declined to give her name, fearing social embarrassment. “I don’t know why dinner has to be the meaningful thing,” she said. “Having my kid eat four snacks so she can wait for a 15-minute dinner with us and go to bed right away doesn’t work. What’s important to me is creating dedicated time with my kids that clients don’t infringe on.”

For her, that’s from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., when they eat breakfast and walk to school.

During the work week, Carol Lapidus, an accounting-firm partner from Tenafly, N.J., wakes at 5:30 a.m. and never gets home before 8 p.m. She and her husband, who works in commercial real estate, rarely have dinner with their children, a daughter now in college, and a son, 15.

“But there’s never a lack of talking,” she said. “In this house? Are you kidding?” She is ready to go to sleep by 10 p.m. “My son comes in every night, sits on the bed, talks about his day, kisses me goodnight and tucks me in.”

Even Joseph A. Califano Jr., the founder and chairman of CASA, said that “family dinner” could be read as a surrogate term for parental engagement.

“I spent four years working for Lyndon Johnson as chief domestic aide,” Mr. Califano said, “and I wasn’t home for dinner much. My wife had dinner with the kids. But I spent every moment with them on Saturdays and Sundays. You have to try.”

Désirée de Monyé, a county Web support worker, is usually home in Vancouver, Wash., with her daughters, 18 and 16, by 6 p.m. They never dine together.

AROUND 9 p.m., the older daughter will rustle up something — the other night it was Campbell’s chicken soup and cheesy, herbed biscuits — and each will grab a plate and eat in her own room, Ms. de Monyé scrapbooking and the girls doing homework or texting. “Dinner is refueling,” Ms. de Monyé said. “It’s another chore.”

But when the three watch television, they pause shows, she said, to do “a yakkety-yak.” On weekends, they often rent movies. During the week, she usually drives them to school. Her office is close enough that her daughters frequently visit. At lunchtime, the girls call to chat.

The 16-year-old will ask, “How’s your day, Mommy?”

“If I say, ‘fine,’ ” Ms. de Monyé said, “she’ll say: ‘No, Mom, I don’t want to hear a one-word answer. I want you to tell me what project you’re working on.’ ”

Ms. de Monyé laughed. “She wants me to spill it. So I do.”

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