Me, Myself, and My Numbers

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A few years ago, I bought a 23 and Me test, and my favorite part of the results was that they tried to estimate the color of my eyes. The test revealed new and interesting information, too — genetic-disease profile, heritage by geography — but this part seemed funny to me. Did I just spend $200 to confirm that my eyes are brown?

I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on quantified life stuff. Off the top of my head, I track my periods (free), I’ve used a fertility-tracking machine ($330), I’ve measured my blood sugar ($47), and I’ve worn heart-rate sensors that also measure my sleep ($300 combined, but I got them for free as press). The other day, I sent out a stool sample in the mail to get data on my gut microbiome ($199), and while I waited for my results, I ordered another kit from a second company ($100). I’ve peed on strips to measure my ketones ($8; they’re supposedly what your body burns instead of glucose when you eat low-carb), I’ve taken basal body temperature upon waking to supposedly track ovulation ($5), and for a while I was measuring my daily steps (“free” thanks to the phone I pay for).

With each of these experiments, I’ve been surprised that my friends weren’t especially interested in knowing their own numbers and results or in “tracking” themselves this way. Although 26 million people have taken an ancestry test as of February 2019, for instance, that’s still only around 7 percent of the U.S. population. Why does what appeals so much to me seem lost on most other people?

“There’s something captivating about numbers,” writes Zeynep Tufekci for Scientific American, in another story about the crumbling promise of the quantified self. Despite the initial enthusiasm for fitness tracking, she reports, the first large-scale experimental study to compare fitness trackers with non-trackers found no differences in health outcomes between the two. Later she cites a study in which trackers’ behavior initially changed before reverting back to normal: “The novelty does wear off,” she writes, “and then we return to our baseline behavior.” Meanwhile, the downsides of quantification can include unwanted privacy exposure — and subsequent possible consequences for insurance rates and employment. Genetic-privacy laws are currently a mess, says Wired.

But one thing I don’t see mentioned a lot is the role loneliness plays in all of this. While it’s easy to make fun of someone like Jack Dorsey (for his ice baths, silent retreats, and extended fasts), my first thought on hearing about his extreme wellness habits was Oh, he’s lonely just like me. Getting all these numbers and facts can be fun and novel, but it also makes me feel busy and comforted, like I’m doing something worthwhile — researching, fussing, preparing. There’s something about gathering data on my own body that feels like setting up a tea party around myself, comforting myself with at least the illusion of importance.

A couple of years ago, a study found that lonely people are more susceptible to believing conspiracy theories, and maybe the same holds true for the appeal of the quantified life. Maybe the idea of a secret hidden truth existing right around the corner, or right under the surface, is most attractive when your current regular-life stuff (love, work, family) has petered out. When you don’t have the things you think you “should” have, or when those things aren’t going the way you want them to, the temptation may be to essentially put yourself on ice for a while. Well, if I can’t have the life I want right now, I can at least work on improving myself for when I do, later.

I cared less about quantified life stuff when I was in a relationship, living with someone. It’s also just harder to measure these things — and to come up with normal-sounding rationales — when someone is there to witness what you’re doing. “Oh yeah, that’s my shit-testing kit that just came in the mail. Excuse me a moment.”

Is all the quantifying just an appealing distraction from the stagnancy of loneliness? Maybe so. But it suggests a path out, too — like, I’m lonely now, but maybe if I improve myself by way of these numbers, I can find a partner. And when I do, I’ll be better: I’ll sleep better, I’ll digest better, I’ll be prettier, I’ll have a better heart rate, and that partner and I will be happier, together.

Last summer I was sitting in a coffee shop when these two very, very fit guys came in and sat down at the table next to me. They began talking animatedly about the workout they’d just finished, comparing notes on what seemed to be an extreme-fitness app; they were basically at Iron Man levels or something. They were both roughly my age (mid-30s), one of them mentioned being a dad to a young child, and each eventually referenced their wives, too. Something about this picture of their lives made me want to stare at them, to take everything in.

One was more familiar with the app and was showing the other some of its finer details, the minutiae of the stats it could measure. I think they’d just come from a session at which it had tracked them swimming, biking, and running. I was jealous and impressed, but the whole thing — haggling over lung capacity, muscle twitch, whatever it was — also made them seem insane. I wanted to be like, “It doesn’t matter! You’re already hot! You already have everything!” Hearing them casually mention their wives and children as occasional obstacles in the way of their preferred workouts made me feel hurt on their families’ behalf. Not that I really knew what their lives were like. On the surface, though, they were the pinnacle of what you might hope the quantified life could turn you into: a superhot regular-person athlete with friends and a family.

Yet they seemed goofy and somewhat gross. And endearing: Their obsession with exactitude seemed to make it clear that there is no finish line. There is no rest. It’s never enough. (It was also nice that, while I think they were technically competing with each other, they wanted to make sure the other was doing his best.)

Maybe quantifying our lives is a new kind of vice and we’re only just beginning to learn how to handle it. A new vulnerability in human psychology: the bottomless urge or unscratchable itch to learn one more thing, gain one more bit of numerical information. One that applies to some of us, anyway, especially those looking for something to throw into the void of loneliness. Recently, the writer Markham Heid called fixating on health and its particulars “extreme wellness,” which seems apt. I think the quantified life can be a surrogate when things in life are missing. In times of uncertainty, numbers suggest control. Even if it’s not true, quantification can feel like grabbing the wheel. Personally, I’m less inclined to quantify when I have a plan for the future, when I feel like I’m going somewhere already.

My own personal “plausible deniability” or veneer of respectability for my quantified-life leanings is that I’m doing these things to preserve or maximize my health for the life I might have later — for the kids I’m hoping to have, the husband, the family. Deep down I wonder if it’s something else: Maybe a selfish loneliness perpetuating itself, greedily grasping at straws? On the other hand, it’s also fun, when it doesn’t feel ridiculous. I’m still excited to learn my microbiome results (and I can’t believe it takes months!).

It’s weird to write about being lonely. I wish I could solve that one as easily as I can order ketone strips on Amazon. If there were a way to quantify loneliness, what would it look like? Are those numbers I’d want to know? “Girl, you are off the charts.” Thank you, lonelybot.

Me, Myself, and My Numbers