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Is Ignorance Bliss?

I am an endless knowledge seeker, so on first pass I naturally scoff at the notion we could somehow be blissfully ignorant. AS such, on face value, “is ignorance bliss?” seems like an asinine question. My desire to educate myself on how to be happy has fueled my involvement with the International Positive Psychology Association and my study of academic thought leaders in this space — people like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and Barbara Fredrickson — to learn ways to be happier. However, lately I have observed that there are a lot of instances where more information leads to dismay. At a basic level, I watched my one-year-old son thoroughly enjoy a simple train set for months.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

There is a great store where we live that has cheap, recycled toy train parts, so my wife and I continued to introduce train pieces and have made my son’s set more robust over the past few months. We loved doing it for him because he couldn’t get enough… until the day he did. As we continued to add disparate train pieces with the best of intentions, some trains do not fit certain tracks — some trains fit the existing track but are too tall to go under the existing bridge that came with the original set. What has ensued is confusion and frustration. I have let it go on because I think the development of problem solving outweighs the loss of bliss my son used to achieve when the set was simply enjoyable. However, this loss of bliss is observably noticeable and therefore significant. We are basically making my son unhappy by introducing new information.

Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world. —Shawn Achor

Have you ever found yourself in a supermarket, surrounded by an aisle of different choices, wishing there was only one available? Science tells us endless options can be anxiety-provoking. When faced with choice, we use a lot of energy to make our final choice. When there is an abundance of choice, the cost is an increased chance that you will regret your final decision later. If you want to feel like you made a solid choice, you need to scrutinize all the available information you have available and then (once you process all this information) make your decision. But, as a general rule, does more information actually contribute to a more satisfactory outcome? How much information do we need to make an informed decision, engage in play, achieve flow, take action or simply be happy?

The topic of choice touches on different areas of our personal and professional life. Choice contributes to our happiness, as well as our social arrangements. We can view the argument of “ignorance is bliss” through the lenses of behavioral psychology, philosophy, politics, education and marketing sciences. The topic is provocative since it juxtaposes our general wish for autonomy with a more paternalistic and prescriptive view. In a world that is filled with seemingly constant impulses and endless options, we would often like to believe we are happier when we have all the information. However, this might not always be congruent with the desire to reduce our stress and feel balanced.

When Choosing Feels like Losing

The paradox of choice is not a new phenomenon; we can observe it in different areas of our lives, from the food we eat to who we are attracted to. Nowadays, there are so many options available to us in every aspect of our life. If you are not completely satisfied or happy, why not dump what you have and replace it (or even him/her) with another version?  Why should you practice discipline and perseverance when it is so easy to find yourself a superior model to what you have now? Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote extensively about the paradox of choice and argues that Americans do not seem to be benefiting from all the choice that is available to us (Schwartz, 2004).

Various research also shows us that when more choice is available, we are more likely to be dissatisfied with what we finally choose. Jonathan D’Angelo and Catalina Toma (2016) explored this idea in their study of online dating. When participants selected their dates from a larger set of people, they were more doubtful about their dating choice a week later (when compared to those who had fewer potential partners to choose from). A similar observation has been made in marketing. Studies show that people who spend more time deliberating about a decision can later feel a sense of loss towards the options they did not pick. During what we perceive to be a careful selection process, we develop a sense of attachment to our decisions, which researchers believe might be harmful to our well-being (Carmon, Wertenbroch, & Zeelenberg, 2003). The premise “choosing feels like losing” has been introduced. Choosing from a set of options can lead us to a feeling of post-choice discomfort.  Once we opt for one option, we no longer possess the other — that’s just a fact. Instead of feeling a sense of relief about finally making a decision, we let negative feelings creep in and we start to feel dissatisfied. Rebecca Ratner of the University of Maryland and her colleagues explored different strategies that can help us help others in their decision-making process. They indicate that providing good information is one of them, but restricting options or adding restrictive options are also recommended (Ratner et al., 2008). For instance, pre-committing to a choice can free us from having to face the decision later, and can also help with self-control when more options become available. It is part of the science that makes restrictive diets like WHOLE30 episodically successful. Simply put, if we can manufacture a predisposition to making (and sticking with) a decision it makes our life a lot less challenging.

When Are You Most Free to Make Autonomous Choices?

Although we all generally value autonomy, there appears to be some ambivalence surrounding this topic. For instance, in education, some studies of problem-based learning showed that while students welcomed some degree of autonomy afforded by this technique, they were also engaged during more prescriptive approaches to studying (Harmer & Stokes, 2016). It appears that paternalism can sometimes free our energy to engage in life in a more efficient way.

From a philosophical stance, there is also a vibrant debate about what constitutes choice. It is pretty easy to find critics anytime the idea of a “forced choice” is brought up. For example, in the West, we have the freedom to choose (and this is widely lauded). However, sometimes, there is the subtle (unspoken) condition that we ought to choose the right thing. If we fail to do that, we can be ostracized and, and in a way we lose some of our freedom to choose (Žižek, 1989). How many “forced choices” do we make just to remain a part of our community (or “tribe”) and conform to the expectations of our environment? In choice, too, there appears to be a degree of ignorance we are willing to accept to “keep the peace” and avoid the cognitive dissidence of malalignment with the philosophy of our peers.

So a strong scientific argument can be made that a plethora of choices can create decision fatigue. Our mind simply cannot cope with an endless amount of information; our decision capacity runs out, and at this point we run the risk of making bad decisions. Our mood can worsen when we are faced with too many choices as well. Research shows that too much choice leads to suboptimal decisions (Schwartz, 2004). Therefore, significant decisions should not be made when we are fatigued or in a bad mood. This was illustrated by a study of judicial decisions conducted at four major prisons in Israel (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). The authors examined parole decisions made by experienced judges. It transpired that having a break (thus feeling less fatigued) influenced the judges’ ruling. More favorable decisions were made in the mornings (at the start of the work day) and after food breaks — this pattern was predictable, possibly confirming our need to rest and replenish our energy before making an important decision. It appears a good decision can sometimes be more about the timing, and less about the choices we are presented with. The saying “sleep on it” might sound simplistic, but it has some scientific credence.

Then, there is the scientific theory behind choice architecture. If you are interested in going down the rabbit hole of choice and well-being, I suggest following Brian Wansink. In various studies, Dr. Wansink has shown that if you crowd out the ability to make bad decisions by rigging your environment towards a bias to make good ones, you can steer yourself and/or others towards healthy behaviors (never the wiser that they’ve been unwittingly influenced). As I became aware firsthand in my study about workplace wellness strategies, people do not like to know their choices have been limited; however, if the reduction of choice is unobserved, one can rig the system for people to make specific decisions (arguably in their best interest) based on controlling the information available to them.

When Are You Most Free to Be Creative?

A study by Associate Professors Anne-Laure Sellier and Darren W. Dahl challenged the established belief that having more choice fuels creativity. They conducted two experiments that focused on knitting and crafting. The selection of creative inputs was increased from moderate to extensive: a bigger selection of yarn colors in the case of knitting; and a larger selection of shapes for a Christmas tree decoration in the case of crafting. Interestingly, the creative output of experienced and knowledgeable participants was negatively affected by more choice. Those who were less experienced, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be effected by the change in choice but it did not enhance their expereince either. The authors concluded that restricted choice could be better for creative success as it allows us to focus more — and actually enjoy the creative process more — particularly if already experienced or skilled in that pursuit (Sellier & Dahl, 2011).

One of my heroes, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a couple of decades ago wrote how restricting choice could reduce stress and anxiety. Choice does give us the feeling that we can be more creative. However, this feeling is just that — a feeling — it is generally an illusion. Science suggests we have more difficulty focusing and enjoying an activity when provided with an extensive choice.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Is Ignorance Bliss? Maybe.

Science tends to back up why my wife and I might have been unintentional wet blankets. When we have too much information, we risk the potential of decision paralysis. We are given less room to follow our creative paths, engage in flow and — let’s face it — sometimes enjoy ourselves. Other studies by Darren Dahl also highlighted that the highest level of enjoyment is achieved when there is a right balance between restriction (e.g. providing limits around a task) and the freedom to create with autonomy (Dahl & Moreau, 2007). It is important to note that while researching this topic has in no way curtailed my thirst for knowledge, but it has garnered a new respect for the relationship our happiness has with information and choice. For many of us, happiness is a choice. We don’t need to be ignorant to be blissful, but waiting around for the right information does not appear to help any either. To contrary, in some cases it may do the opposite.

Sources & further reading:

Carmon, Z., Wertenbroch, K., & Zeelenberg, M. (2003). Option attachment: when deliberating makes choosing feel like losing. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(1), 15–29.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Dahl, D. W., & Moreau, C. P. (2007). Thinking Inside the Box: Why Consumers Enjoy Constrained Creative Experiences. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 44(3), 357. doi:10.1509/jmkr.44.3.357

D’Angelo, J., & Toma, C. (2016). There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea: The Effects of Choice Overload and Reversibility on Online Daters’ Satisfaction With Selected Partners. Media Psychology, 1-27. doi:10.1080/15213269.2015.1121827

Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 108(17),6889-6892

Harmer, N., & Stokes, A. (2016). “Choice may not necessarily be a good thing”: student attitudes to autonomy in interdisciplinary project-based learning in GEES disciplines. Journal of Geography In Higher Education, 40(4), 531-545. doi:10.1080/03098265.2016.1174817

Ratner, R. K., Soman, D., Zauberman, G., Ariely, D., Carmon, Z., Keller, P. A., & … Wertenbroch, K. (2008). How behavioral decision research can enhance consumer welfare: From freedom of choice to paternalistic intervention. Marketing Letters, (3/4). 383

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Sellier, A., & Dahl, D. W. (2011). Focus!! Creative Success Is Enjoyed Through Restricted Choice. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 48(6), 996-1007. doi:10.1509/jmr.10.0407

Žižek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso Books.

Pyrroloquinoline Quinone and mTORs

As a general statement, mTORs are cellular regulatory proteins essential for the activation of proteins specific or important to growth and cellular replication.  Almost any factor important to protein synthesis affects mTOR activation to some degree by interacting with the TSC1/TSC2 protein complex.  Relevant to the question, the underlying mechanisms for many tumors and cancers involve dysregulation of mTOR cell signaling pathways (usually an abnormal up-regulation of mTOR components).  Thus, as an approach to controlling the growth of cancerous cell lines, the use of mTOR inhibitors has been proposed.  The question or concern related to PQQ evolves from such observations, specifically the report by Kumar et al. in Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2015;15:1297-304 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25832358).  These researchers observed that PQQ exposure lessens the growth of human leukemia HL-60 Cells through Inhibition of mTOR.  Thus the question – Could something similar happen in muscle?

The cells in question versus muscle cells:

HL-60 (Human promyelocytic leukemia) cells are derived from a type of blood cells, known as neutrophils.  HL-60 cells proliferate continuously in suspension cell cultures.  Accordingly, they are used in cell proliferation studies or studies in which cells with the characteristics of phagocytic cells, such as neutrophils, are the focus of an investigation.  Phagocytic cells are cells that are recruited to the sites of infection, cell injury, and inflammation.  An interesting observation is that when activated, some of their mitochondrial content gets extruded (cf. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15548627.2015.1063765) in to plasma/blood.   In this regard,  plasma levels of mitochondrial DNA (from phagocytic and the targeted damaged cells) can be used as a marker for the extent of inflammation in human and animal subjects. Phagocytic cells can even generate hydrogen peroxide and superoxide radicals to aid in the chemical modification of inflammatory by-products and cellular debris.

Muscle cells, of course, are different.  In vivo, they do not replicate or “turn-over” rapidly, in contrast to phagocytic cell lines.  Their mitochondria stay intake and are not extruded.  Oxygen utilization is efficient and used for ATP production, which in part is in contrast with phagocytic cells, wherein some of the cellular oxygen is directed at “oxidant” and superoxide production.  The point here is that interpretation of results related to cell signaling is cell-type and process dependent.  When the only data available are derived from cells in culture, it ‘s hard to make assertive conclusions without a lot of nuance and other assumptions.

mTOR, PQQ, and Muscle

So – can mTOR levels influence muscle growth.  The answer in some situations is yes.  Several research groups have noted that there is a sarcopenic effect (presence of lower muscle mass and either lower muscular strength or lower physical performance) with long-term mTOR inhibitor use (e.g. for long-term cancer treatment. (cf. Gyawali et al. Muscle wasting associated with the long-term use of mTOR inhibitors. Mol Clin Oncol. 2016; 5:641-646).  Importantly, only very very potent mTOR inhibitory agents have been studied.  Thus, to what extent this has a direct relevance to a normal exercising person taking PQQ is not clear.  Moreover, as it relates to PQQ, there are few comparative studies of using differing cells and their response to PQQ exposure.  We know of only one.   Min et al. reported (J Cancer. 2014; 5:609-24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25161699)

PQQ exposure enhanced apoptosis (programmed cell death) in tumor cells (3 types of tumor cells were studied) but promoted no apoptotic changes in the normal cell lines derived from renal and umbilical-derived cells.  Accordingly, an answer to the PQQ/muscle question is, if there is an effect, it is probably modest, if at all.  Importantly, exercise “trumps” most known dietary factors and nutraceuticals taken as supplements to optimize muscular function or maintenance.

As a final comment, for questions such as the one posed, going to the resveratrol literature is sometimes helpful.  In many respects PQQ and resveratrol (RV) influence similar cell signaling pathways.  A PubMed search identified over 50 papers addressing RV, tumor growth, and apoptosis, i.e. RV suppresses tumor growth.  In contrast, there are dozens of paper suggesting RV improves many aspects of muscle function.  For PQQ, although the literature is not as extensive, the available reports suggest similar findings.

Summary

In an active individual, is PQQ going to do much independent of the effects of exercise?  Few external factors promote muscular or mitochondrial function as well as exercise itself.  The mTOR cell signaling pathways are clearly essential to muscle function, but any mTOR inhibitory response that PQQ might have is probably overridden by other factors.  For example, PQQ has been shown in animal studies to have clear positive effects on neonatal growth, anti-ischemic/cardio-protective effects, neural protective effects, an ability to enhance fatty acid metabolism via mitochondrial oxidation, and anti-inflammatory effects.  Rather, than increasing performance per se, the benefits of PQQ, if any, are more likely related to recovery following an episode of intense activity.  In this regard, some mTOR suppression may have some utility.

Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small and Mid-Size Businesses

Businesses are continuing to look towards viable workplace wellness strategies, and these programs are increasing in popularity, despite inconclusive evidence regarding their return on investment and effectiveness. Analysts are so bullish on the growth of workplace wellness programs that the sputtering consumer wearable market is banking on their success by speculating on the opportunities being made available as large enterprises continue to expand their employee well-being programs through technology.

According to a government-funded RAND study in 2013, about one in every two American employers offers some form of initiative that promotes employee wellness (Mattke et al., 2013). Going into 2017, this saturation is probably higher. Corporate wellness stakeholders often want to know how much money they will save if they introduce or expand a wellness program for their employees. They look for hard data to support their decisions, and many decision makers continue to rely on return on investment (ROI) as a quantitative measure to gauge program efficacy. However, because proving program ROI has been elusive, it has been suggested by those in corporate wellness trade organizations that other factors should be considered when assessing the long-term benefits of these programs. As an alternative to ROI, there has been an attempt to introduce value on investment (VOI) to capture some of these program’s intangible benefits. These “intangibles” include subjective measures such as: contributions to knowledge, collaboration, innovation, presenteeism, retention and employee engagement (Hight, 2012; Norris, 2003). The contrived VOI model has basically become essential in attempting to financially justify funding and investment in most programs (Norris, 2003).

Workplace Wellness Research for Small and Mid-Size Businesses

For the most part, the primary focus of academic research regarding workplace wellness programs has been large enterprises. However, the findings of these studies are often not generalizable to companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. There is a significant and growing need for models and strategies that can benefit smaller organizations. This need is especially significant considering that a majority of employees in the American workforce serve small and mid-sized companies (McPeck, Ryan, & Chapman, 2009). My recent study “Workplace Wellness Strategies for Small Businesses” attempted to fill the knowledge gap that exists in this area. My purpose was to determine what common strategies are being used by small to mid-sized business (SMBs) that had both effective and viable workplace wellness programs.

Workplace Wellness Strategies in Small and Mid-Size Businesses (SMBs)

Four organizations participated in the study: a beverage distributor, a boutique hotel, a general contracting firm and a service-based company. I conducted in-depth interviews and studied company artifacts. The data collected was compared for similarities, differences and patterns (a comparative case study approach), and data analysis was performed according to the standards of thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This process provided me the opportunity to uncover and better understand the commonalities of effective and viable SMB workplace wellness strategies that were demonstrated by these four companies.

My findings found 19 strategies used by these effective programs. Five overreaching concepts are identified that helped organize these strategies:

  • Innovation
  • Company culture
  • Employee-centric
  • Environment
  • Altruism
Effective and Viable Workplace Wellness Strategies

One of the common characteristics (“concepts”) of the programs studied was their ability to be innovative. The positive company culture within the businesses themselves was another commonality of successful programs. The employee-centric concept referred to the company’s desire to care for the well-being of its employees. All companies that participated in the study also worked proactively to create healthier work environments and provide healthier options for their employees. Finally, the concept of altruism referred to the company’s inherent desire to help others, and included the presence of a selfless leader running the workplace wellness program.

These five primary concepts each had corresponding strategies presented as themes. For instance, innovation was connected with non-traditional approaches, constant iteration and refinement, ideas that were internal to the company, thoughtful use of technology and the “fail fast” concept (often found in lean methodology). Company culture presented themes that include employee influence and involvement, authenticity and leadership that did not directly get involved (in program design), but instead provided autonomy to the right people within the business to run the programs effectively. The concept of employee-centric got expressed through various holistic approaches to employee well-being, starting with the employee’s well-being as a foundation (in contrast to considering economic motives), as well as through shouldering the financial burden of employee health care costs and tailoring their wellness approach to the needs of the employees. Concern for the external and internal corporate environment was shown in themes that described the designation of physical space for well-being considerations, company community involvement and the provision of healthy options for the employees. Altruism related to a selfless program leader, appreciation of program feedback and a program budget that was based largely on recommendations rather than mandates.

Why is this SMB Workplace Wellness Study Important?

I am proud of this study and believe it provides new insights into the characteristics of successful workplace wellness strategies. While some of the themes that emerged will feel familiar to my contemporaries, several rather surprising findings were identified as well. A better understanding of these factors — combined with validation of the more common strategies already well-established — this study gives SMBs programs a new, unique map to improve their workplace wellness strategies. What I have documented is a set of strategies that transcends the cookie cutter advice commonly disseminated by workplace wellness providers (generally tailored for big business) because their motive is to move large corporate clients into their sales funnel.

A poignant example of this is a theme that surprised me: that some of the most successful program ideas were internal. This is contrary to the established belief that workplace wellness ideas get cascaded down from vendors and brokers that offer employee well-being services at scale (Hughes et al., 2011). Although my professional role is working for a provider (Active Wellness), my study was conducted as a doctoral candidate, and in taking an unbiased look at these programs the data suggests health promotion vendors (catering to big businesses) might not be the optimal providers of workplace wellness strategies to SMBs. Another interesting assertion I make is challenging the common wisdom that successful programs rely on involvement from leadership. Historically, it has been generally advised that managers should personally promote wellness initiatives, act as role models and engage with employees in wellness (O’Boyle & Harter, 2014). My study, however, did not support this established view. In the case of the four companies that participated, wellness thrived in environments where leadership passed the responsibility for wellness programs to the right person within the organization. That person was given the autonomy to implement the program in a viable way based on the culture of the organization. Intuitively, one might posit managers within SMBs might not always be the best qualified to lead by example. Running SMBs often is fairly stressful and requires managers to play multiple strategic roles. Therefore, these individuals in many cases should not necessarily champion wellness initiatives if they are already struggling to maintain their own wellness due to high levels of stress (Swaby, 2016).

My sincerest hope is that the findings of this study break new ground and can fuel a positive discussion about the importance of creating healthy workplaces and supporting employees in small and mid-size business — so these businesses can support employee well-being as effectively as larger enterprises. If you would like to learn more about this study on workplace wellness strategies, please feel free to reach out and/or you can view the study in its entirety over at the International Journal of Workplace Health Management by clicking here.

Sources & further reading:

Braun, V., and Clarke, V. (2006), “Using thematic analysis in psychology”, Qualitative Research in Psychology, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 77–101.

Hight, C. (2012,), “Move from ROI to VOI” Institute for Organization Management, available at http://institute.uschamber.com/move-from-roi-to-voi (accessed 30 June 2016).

Hughes, M. C., Patrick, D. L., Hannon, P. A., Harris, J. R., and Ghosh, D. L. (2011), “Understanding the decision-making process for health promotion programming at small to midsized businesses”,  Health Promotion Practice, Vol. 12, No. 4, p. 512.

Lincoln, Y. S., and Guba, E. G. (1985), Naturalistic inquiry. SAGE Publications, Newbury Park.

Mattke, S., Liu, H., Caloyeras, J. P., Huang, C. Y., Van Busum, K. R., Khodyakov, D., and Shier, V. (2013), “Workplace wellness programs study: Final report”, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.

McPeck, W., Ryan, M., and Chapman, L. S. (2009), “Bringing wellness to the small employer”, American Journal of Health Promotion, Vol. 23. No. 5, pp. 1–10.

Norris, D. M. (2003), “Value on investment in higher education”, EDUCAUSE Research Bulletin, No. 18, pp. 1–13, available at https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erb0318.pdf

O’Boyle, E. and Harter, J. (2014). “Why your workplace wellness program isn’t working”, Gallup Business Journal, available at  http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/168995/why-workplace-wellness-program-isn-working.aspx (accessed 5 July 2016).

Swaby, S. (2016). “Leadership wellness: The conversation no one is having”, The Good Men Project, available at http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/leadership-wellness-the-conversation-no-one-is-having-part-1-snsw