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The other night, after putting my twin toddlers to bed, I dashed down to the basement, plopped myself on the couch, and watched six (yes, six) consecutive episodes of The Shield: Season 5 via Netflix. Three hours into this marathon my husband ventured in, shook his head, and said, "Do you need to go to a 12-step program?"
What can I say? I don't smoke. I'm not a shopaholic. I've never ever been drunk. But I do have a serious crime-drama habit. Before The Shield I was strung out on The Wire -- I watched the first 17 episodes in one weekend. (In my defense I was newly pregnant and didn't have the energy to do much else.)
Though watching crooked cops hunt mobsters for hours might seem like a path to brain rot, there are experts who'd argue that my habit is a healthy one. Science writer Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, maintains that TV plotlines have grown so complex since the days of Starsky & Hutch that following shows like The Wire and The Sopranos qualifies as a cognitive workout. I'll buy that. I've often had to watch scenes of The Wire three times, with closed captioning, to process what was happening.
Though Johnson's book focuses on television and video games, the title might well apply to many other popular habits that get bum raps. Okay, maybe not everything bad is good for you. Smoking is still bad -- really bad. And no one's condoning a daily trip to Cinnabon. But being a coffee fiend, a Facebook fanatic, an occasional gossip monger, or argumentative wife may, in fact, be more healthful than harmful...as long as you don't cross the line. Psyched to justify your personal vices? Look no further.Television
The upside: It's not just the intricate plots and shifting alliances in today's programming that challenge us, Johnson writes, but also the fact that we're not being spoon-fed the details. He argues that all this inferring and deducing is making us smarter. While there's not much scientific evidence to back up Johnson's theory, developmental psychologist Robert Kubey, PhD, director of the Rutgers Center for Media Studies, calls it "an intriguing idea." While Dr. Kubey doubts that sophisticated television, on its own, will turn us into a nation of brainiacs, he agrees that certain shows prompt us to exercise our mind and can teach and provoke. "People are learning things about science and medicine from shows like CSI," says Dr. Kubey. "And a show such as Big Love may make you reflect on your own marriage."
When you've crossed the line: Heavy channel surfing, watching TV out of habit rather than interest, and holing up to watch reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger while your family walks to the farmers' market are all signs that you need to put down the remote. Dr. Kubey says that though watching TV can be relaxing, his research has found that it can drain energy. People who watch more than four hours a day actually enjoy TV less than those who watch fewer than two hours a day.
TV devotees are also fatter. Research from the National Weight Control Registry -- a database of 6,000 adults who have shed an average 60 pounds and kept it off long-term -- found that the less time their members spent glued to the tube, the less weight they regained.
To dial down your habit, try picking specific programs you genuinely want to watch rather than just checking to see what's on. With your family, create a list of fun activities you can do together, whether it's playing a board game or going for a walk, and post it on the refrigerator. After dinner, choose something from the list -- not the TV Guide channel.
The upside: If you've just spent an hour reading Facebook posts like "Mallory Smith ate pepperoni pizza for breakfast," you might concede a point to those who view social networking as the ruin of humanity. But there's a reason that Facebook has more than 300 million active users worldwide. "These sites may help people deepen their relationships," says Christine Greenhow, EdD, chair of the Social Networks Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota.
You're not going to call a meeting with your friends and family and announce that you wish you could slim down or you need a savvy CPA, but if you post it on a social network, you may just get the support or referral you need. Another plus? "Friending" your school-age children on Facebook is a way to keep tabs on them and their crew.
When you've crossed the line: Constantly posting " Suzanne is avoiding her work" instead of actually doing it may signal a social-networking addiction, or "pathological computer use," says Jerald Block, MD, a Portland, Oregon, psychiatrist. Other red flags? You feel tense when your computer is inaccessible; you isolate yourself from others; your compulsion to log on to Facebook overrides the need to eat or sleep. Think you're hooked? Try building social networking into your schedule. Check it in the morning, once at lunch, and again at night rather than staying logged on 24/7.
The upside: Getting a regular jolt of java may actually be better for your health than abstaining. "People assume that coffee intake is bad, but that's not true at all," says David Liebeskind, MD, associate neurology director of the UCLA Stroke Center. His research shows that drinking three or more cups of coffee a day reduces stroke risk by 48 percent. Another stat worth remembering: A new study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that people who drank three to five cups of coffee a day had a 65 percent lower risk of developing dementia than those who drank little or none. Research also shows that coffee may help prevent Parkinson's disease, type-2 diabetes, liver cancer, and gallstones. What's so magical about java? "It could be the caffeine or some other component in coffee, or it could be how the caffeine interacts with the other components," Dr. Liebeskind says.
When you've crossed the line: If you're pregnant, the less caffeine you consume the better. A Kaiser Permanente study found that more than 200mg of caffeine per day -- roughly the amount in one to two 8-ounce cups of regular coffee -- increased miscarriage risk in pregnant women by 25 percent.
An expanding waistline may also be a sign you should cut back -- at least on fancy java drinks. A Venti (20-ounce) cup of brewed coffee at Starbucks has only 5 calories; a Venti Caffe Mocha with two-percent milk and whipped cream contains 410 calories and 17 grams of fat, prompting the Center for Science in the Public Interest to dub it "a Quarter Pounder in a cup."
The upside: "Gossip has a healthy place in our lives," says Marilyn Kagan, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist. "It's human nature." She argues that gossip -- whether it's about Lindsay Lohan or your next-door neighbor -- can make you less self-critical. When you read about a celeb's four failed marriages or hear that a coworker has been fired for stealing, you realize you're doing pretty well for yourself.
Gossip also relieves stress, says Elizabeth Rozell, PhD, a professor of management at Missouri State University in Springfield who has studied workplace gossip among nurses. "Their job is emotionally intense, so it may be nice for them to go to the break room and vent about the visitor who's a creep or a complainer," says Dr. Rozell. "Gossip can create a culture of closeness."
When you've crossed the line: Purposely spreading potentially damaging stories is an obvious sign that you need to zip it. If you get a thrill from pointing out people's failures, it can make you appear insecure, or even egocentric (do you spill scandalous tales to be the center of attention?). As for celeb gossip, be alarmed if you can't make it an hour without checking TMZ.com -- or if most of your convos are about Hollywood dirt.
The upside: "Constant fights can drive couples apart, but so can avoiding them altogether," says Mona Barbera, PhD, a Boston-based psychologist who runs couples workshops. "If you and your husband try not to bring up tough issues, you're not being truly intimate with each other."
Expressing your complaints and frustrations may even help you live longer. A University of Michigan study found that married women who squelched their anger when they felt wronged by their husband died earlier than wives who expressed their anger. And a decade-long study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that women who "self-silenced" during fights with their husband had four times the risk of dying during the study period.
Of course, it's key to fight fairly. Stay as calm as you can and keep your statements concrete and specific. Instead of making an exaggerated indictment, like "You never want to spend time with the kids -- do you care about them at all?" say "It would be great if you'd take Riley to the park this afternoon so I could get the shopping done." And if you sense an argument is about to get ugly, suggest that you both take a break -- or look for an opportunity to defuse it. Research from the Gottman Institute, in Seattle, has found that successful couples know how to exit an argument -- by changing the subject, making a joke, or offering a caring remark -- before it gets out of control.
When you've crossed the line: If your arguments have devolved into name-calling and nasty personal attacks, or if you find yourselves picking fights over every little thing, it might be time to call in a therapist or counselor to help you resolve your issues. Other red flags? You feel more like enemies than teammates; you believe you can't be happy unless your partner changes; you don't care about your spouse's feelings; you're constantly blaming or shaming each other; or one of you is consistently the bully and the other the victim.
The upside: You can stop feeling guilty about your untidy desk or jam-packed junk drawer. Moderately disorganized people are actually more efficient and creative than the obsessively neat, says Eric Abrahamson, PhD, coauthor of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. A survey he conducted for his book found that people who said they had a more orderly desk also reported spending more time looking for things. "It's considered a given that neatness equals efficiency, but there's no research to back that up," he says. While tidiness works for many people, some go to extremes and create such a complex ordering system that they forget where things are. "While they're organizing, you're getting things done. It can be more efficient to let some mess accumulate than to constantly interrupt yourself to clean."
Organizational scientist and author William Starbuck, PhD, believes Dr. Abrahamson's theory has merit. "Almost every expert would support the idea that messiness is reasonable in moderation," he explains. Even better, it may be a characteristic of innovative leaders. Researchers at PsyMax Solutions, a development and assessment firm in Cleveland, found that company CEOs are both less organized and more creative than their subordinates.
When you've crossed the line: It's time to regroup when your company's human-resources director deems your desk a fire hazard or it takes you 20 minutes to unearth a clean shirt from your closet every morning. "No one's advocating complete disorder," Dr. Abrahamson notes. Rather than aim for a Felix Unger level of tidiness, he suggests, let papers or other clutter pile up to a certain point; then, right after you finish a project or at the end of the week, set aside time to tackle those piles.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December/January 2010.