‘Anything can be made dispiriting when turned into an obligation.’
Burkeman was actually writing in response to a recent research project on the link between sex and happiness, in which participants were asked to double their weekly volume of sex, (I’m not sure volume is the most appropriate word in this context but you get the gist), and then asked to fill out a survey on their sex lives and happiness levels. Every day. For three months. I’m sure you don’t need me to go into the flaws of this experiment, but needless to say it appeared that the obligatory doubling of sex followed by critical analysis of the activity didn’t appear to increase happiness levels.
The sentiment behind Burkeman’s article, that of obligation turning even the sweetest of pursuits sour, struck a chord with another story in the news this week: that of the latest government advice to halve our recommended daily intake of sugar.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which advises Public Health England on nutrition, are suggesting that we reduce our sugar intake so that no more than 5% of our daily calories come from added sugar, which equates to approximately seven teaspoons. This advice also falls in line with new World Health Organisation guidelines. (Read the full report here).
At the moment, the average sugar intake in all age groups in the UK is at least twice the new recommended limit, and as such the government has decided to adopt these recommendations and will use them to develop its national strategy to tackle childhood obesity, due to launch later this year.
Professor Ian Macdonald, chair of the SACN Carbohydrates Working Group, has said:
‘the evidence is stark – too much sugar is harmful to health and we all need to cut back.
The clear and consistent link between a high-sugar diet and conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes is the wake-up call we need to rethink our diet. Cut down on sugars, increase fibre and we’ll all have a better chance of living longer, healthier lives.’
So far so reasonable.
However something about these new guidelines troubles me and it’s this: it’s one thing setting out guidelines outlining what people should aspire to eat, and it’s quite another to actually make them follow those guidelines.
While the health arguments are compelling, will people want to change their eating patterns?
If Burkeman’s assessment of human nature is correct, the worrying answer is ‘no’. You see, by our very nature we harbour an overwhelming need for a sense of autonomy and, as Burkeman notes:
‘any given piece of advice might be excellent, yet whether the pressure is coming from you or someone else, it can curdle the whole thing.’
And unfortunately, (as you may well know from personal experience – I certainly do), it’s tempting to indulge in self-defeating activities just to feel that we are expressing our autonomy.
Will people take the new advice on sugar as it’s intended, as sound guidance to improve their health and the overall health of the nation, removing one of the many strains on the NHS? Or will it be regarded as an unwelcome interference from a ‘nanny state’ aimed at curbing our right to choose?
I’ll finish with Burkeman’s wise words on the matter:
‘There are things that matter more than the freedom to follow whims; life’s deepest fulfilment may require the capacity to stick with things, even when they feel burdensome.’