Deliver Us From Temptation

Pink Donuts Pixaio

Thy name, temptation, is unhappiness. Unhappiness in its many guises and sorrows. And as we prepare this report in late February, “The Year in Unhappiness” is off to a strong start.

On January 17, the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking was released

On January 17, the U.S. Surgeon General’s 50th Anniversary Report on Smoking, commemorating publication of the first Report on Smoking in 1964, was released.

In the United States, the percentage of adults who smoke has dropped from 42 percent in 1964 to 18 percent in 2012. As the percentage of adults who smoke continues to fall, however, we are still learning the extent of the harm smoking can do. The 2014 Surgeon General’s Report points for the first time to a number of health problems caused by cigarette smoking.

Smoking is a cause of liver cancer and colorectal cancer, the 2014 Report says, and is a cause of Type 2 diabetes mellitus, age-related macular degeneration, erectile dysfunction and rheumatoid arthritis.

In addition, the 2014 Report announces for the first time, smoking can impair the immune system, worsen asthma, and cause cleft lips and palates in fetuses. And, this year’s Report notes for the first time, secondhand smoke can cause strokes.

And there is this: Today’s cigarettes, the 2014 Report says, incorporate design changes and filter changes, made over the years, that let stronger chemicals, and in greater amounts, enter smokers’ lungs.

It is estimated that the current death rate from smoking is 443,000 per year in the U.S., making smoking the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

Let us say, then, that if your temptations include smoking, you are flirting with a killer.

On February 3, we got the first big study linking sugar to heart failure

On February 3, a couple of weeks after the U.S. Public Health Service released the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released the first U.S. study linking refined sugar— or “added sugar” — and heart disease. What is new is that this connection between refined sugar and heart disease has nothing to with obesity, or weight gain. The connection is the same for people who are heavy, normal-weight, or thin.

(Click here to read more on this subject.)

In a word, the CDC study found that adults who consume refined or “added sugar” in small amounts every day needn’t be concerned about heart disease, but the consumption of fairly small additional amounts will double or triple the chance of fatal heart disease —

  • A “safe” daily amount — If refined or “added” sugar is 10 percent or less of daily calorie intake (typically 2,000 calories), there is little risk of fatal heart disease from the consumption of sugar.
  • A first “dangerous level” will double the risk of fatal heart disease — If “added sugar” is more than 15 percent of total daily calories, the chance of fatal heart disease tends to double.
  • “Heavy use” of added sugar will triple the risk, or worse — Adults who consume 25 percent or more of total daily calories in the form of “added sugar” will triple their risk — or worse.

The CDC study stressed how little food and drink it takes to reach dangerous levels. Enjoying a cinnamon roll for breakfast, a super-size full-sugar soft drink for lunch, and a single scoop of chocolate ice cream after dinner can exceed 500 calories, fully 25% of a typical adult calorie intake of 2000 calories a day. That much added sugar every day, in a 2000 calorie diet, would increase by 3 times the chance of fatal heart disease.

Which temptations give us the most trouble?

As we learn more and more about the things we ought to be doing in our lives— and the things we should not be doing — will we find ourselves believing more and more that self-control is the key to a successful life?

In the widely accepted book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, published September 2011, authors John Tierney, the New York Times science editor, and psychologist Roy Baumeister say the answer to that question is without a doubt, “yes.”

Not only will we come increasingly to understand that self-control is the key to a successful life, they write, but researchers have consistently found that the two most important ingredients for success in our modern world are (1) intelligence, and (2) self-control.

We are limited, they write, in how much we can improve the level of intelligence we are born with — but there is a great deal we can do by way of studying self-control, and practicing it as we tend to our affairs, day in and day out. Better self-control will benefit us as individuals, and will benefit the social groups we belong to, and society itself.

Food and diet give us the most trouble

With that bigger picture in mind, which temptations do Tierney and Baumeister say give us the most trouble today in our everyday lives?

The “most commonly resisted desire,” their survey work found, was “the urge to eat.” That might be the urge to eat too soon, too often — to eat food too rich in fat, perhaps, or containing large amounts of “added sugar,” as analyzed in the CDC study summarized above.

Sleep is the second most reported temptation

The second “most commonly resisted desire,” survey participants reported, was sleep. Familiar examples: fighting to stay awake while driving at night, or working an evening or night shift.

Wanting to take a break (“leisure activity”) is third most common

The exact reason for wanting a break may vary, but the temptation is familiar enough: To take a break from work of some kind. To do a puzzle, or turn to a familiar game.

Sex, as a “commonly resisted urge,” comes in fourth

When we talk about “sex” as a temptation, are we talking about dating? Yes, but sex, which is the fourth “most common resisted urge” in the authors’ surveys, is a category that can include the briefest sexual touching at the workplace, touching that is not appropriate at home, or in the neighborhood, touching involving strangers, and so on.

Fifth, and somewhat related to sex, is the urge to have “other kinds of interactions”

Last on this short list of the “most common resisted urges” is the wish for interaction with others, “like checking e-mail and social-networking sites, surfing the Web, listening to music, or watching television” — when, in fact, the person in question is supposed to be doing something else.

Finally, how — and how successfully — do we handle these “most common” temptations?

Let us quote from the introduction to the book: “To ward off temptation, people reported using various strategies. The most popular was to look for a distraction or to undertake a new activity, although sometimes they tried suppressing it directly or simply toughing their way through it. Their success was decidedly mixed. They were pretty good at avoiding sleep, sex, and the urge to spend money, but not so good at resisting the lure of television or the Web, or the general temptation to relax instead of work. On average, when they tried to resist a desire with willpower, they succeeded about half the time.”