What We Measure

What We Measure April 10, 2013

I read an interesting study recently, which indicated that it turns out that being overweight, or even somewhat obese, doesn’t contribute to overall mortality. Now, the study was interesting in that it called into question our national obsession about weight, but my odd little brain went somewhere different with it. This meta-study, which examined a huge number of direct studies, looked at weight as related to risk of mortality. But isn’t our risk of mortality 100%? If you study everybody for long enough, doesn’t it turn out that everyone dies? Now, I understand that they were probably studying people’s risk of dying within a certain period of time, or before a certain age, or something meaningful, but still, I had to wonder. Why is it that the one question they seem to have asked was whether weight was related to dying? Surely there are significant concerns related to living. I would want to know whether weight was related to whether your knees allowed you to hike or dance, how it affected the level of comfiness your lap provided for a cat or a toddler, whether it made a difference in the amount of health care intervention a person needed. I don’t presume to know the answers to these questions, but frankly, I think they’re at least as interesting as the question of a person’s risk of dying in any given year.

Of course, medical studies are far from the only place where the question of what we measure seems oddly constrained. For instance, in any given week the news on the radio or TV will undoubtedly share with you the percentage of people in the country who are unemployed, and whether the stock market is up or down. But you will not hear about the percentage of people who find their work meaningful and rewarding, nor will your standard news report share with you what percentage  of the wealth invested in the stock market is held in the hands of, say, 500 people. We only learn what we ask, and what we ask is narrowed down by what those doing the asking feel that we need to know. Where are the statistics on the percentage of parents this week who carved out time to take their kids to the park? Who is going to tell us how the mental health of people who talk to their pets varies from those who don’t? Where’s the weekly update on the percentage of the population who spent time this week engaged in making music or art?

We don’t have a lot of control over what the economists measure, what the TV and radio stations report, what makes it into the medical journals. But we do have the opportunity to change what data we gather for ourselves. Instead of stepping on the scale each morning to see what we weigh, we could check the number of stairs we could run (or walk) up before getting out of breath. Instead of comparing how much our neighbor’s car cost compared to ours, we could count up the places we manage to go without driving. Rather than keeping tabs on how many friends or likes we got on Facebook, we could keep track of how many kind things we had done for those around us on any given day.

What we measure is a way of saying what matters. What will you measure in your life?

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