The Economics of the Dowager’s Hump

"The Economics of the Dowager's Hump"The texts: The battle between your present and future self (Daniel Goldstein, speaker) and Cost of Eating Healthy vs. Unhealthy Part 2 (Lynn of Fit2Fat2Fit), On being wrong (Kathryn Schulz, speaker)
The media: TED talk, blog post, TED talk
The thought: In finances and health, our present “wrong” decisions strongly affect our future self and outcome. It is hard to satisfy one without sacrificing the well-being of the other.
The lesson: [Test your critical literacy by reading this post and finding a lesson of your own! Tell me in the comments. You’ll find mine at the end. :)]

A friend of mine is in medical school, and whenever we talk, she teaches me many new things that she has learned in her classes there. A lot of them are cautionary tales — when pregnant, you must strike a perfect balance between no vitamin A and too much vitamin A if you don’t want your baby to have this or that vision defect; to avoid the dreaded Dowager’s hump (I just spent way too long looking for the perfect link for “Dowager’s hump”), people under 30 should take calcium three times a day, but that after 30 there’s nothing more you can do (!).

In thinking about these lessons, and relating them to what I’ve seen in our self-diagnosing culture (WebMD, anyone?), I can’t help believing that outside the laboratory/doctor’s office, medical advancements and their propagation in the real world (not to mention the ever-viral internet) are perpetuating paranoia. Here is what I think happens:

  • making mistakes and getting bad results (or seeing the result of other people’s mistakes) makes us afraid of incurring more mistakes
  • fear inspires prevention
  • prevention means
    • seeking to better inform our choices and avoid mistakes,
    • only making choices with known, good outcomes, or
    • blindly depriving ourselves for the sake of a future payoff

How does this flow of fear and future relate to my texts? Well, Daniel Goldstein researches this exact science, and he inspired my above thinking. You can watch his TED talk below, where, among other things, he demonstrates how people can make more economically beneficial decisions for themselves by seeing a simulation of their future self’s emotions in correlation to their present decisions.

This is certainly interesting, and I’m sure I would have benefited financially from these ideas before choosing my undergraduate institution, which has left me with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. But an important aspect of that choice I made, is that I don’t regret it. Goldstein’s projects hinge on people’s readiness to regret their choices. Let’s look at another facet of regret.

At, Drew, a personal trainer, decided to spend six months gaining weight on a typical American diet and activity lifestyle, then working himself back to health in another six months. His wife, Lynn, recently wrote a reflection on the unforeseen health and financial costs of his “fat” stage. She mentions doctor visits and buying creams for chafing, and the extra costs of dining out — all of which were mostly unexpected or surprising. She counsels others to avoid these by staying healthy, since the long run benefit is so great. That is, like in the case of the dowager’s hump, without knowledge of how we may harm our future selves, we sometimes make poor choices and incur unexpected costs, which causes us to regret our past ignorance (or simple carelessness).

This brings me to “On being wrong,” Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk. You can watch it below; her essential message is that we need to allow ourselves to be unconventional, and to let go of this whole “wrong” thing. I equate the “wrong” thing to that feeling of regret when we find that our choices have led us to “pay”: needing chafing cream or having a dowager’s hump, or simply being embarrassed that our ideas don’t match society’s definition of correct.

There is no time to waste in our lives regretting choices we have already made. If they were “wrong,” then so be it — we’ll simply deal with them the best we can. For my student debt, I am doing my best to understand my finances and pay them off gradually. From fear of dowager humps (which prevails in spite of love for the name), I did start taking calcium, but who knows how long that habit will last. Plus, if my future self is unhealthy, it will probably be a result of a general set of mistakes, not just calcium-related. So I’ll just try to continue being healthy right now, in the best way I know how — running, eating well, drinking water, etc. It’s true that my future self depends heavily on my present self being perfect and omniscient. But how dare my future self demand that of me?

The lesson:

We can’t predict the future, or know everything about what will make us happier or healthier down the road. The best we can do is keep learning about our health and finances, and simply be content in each moment with the choices we are confident in making. Our future self should do his or her best to be kind to its past incarnation, and to dispense with blame. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes — even seek them out. Any resulting unhappiness can be righted again.


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