A.J. Jacobs Can Solve All Your Modern Problems


The phrase “the good old days” is, at best, three-quarters true. They were old. They were days. I’d even spot you the ‘the.’ But good? Not so much.

Modern life is filled with annoyances and hurt, but compared to yesteryear, most of us live in an earthly paradise. Nostalgia can suck it. The past was a mind-bogglingly dirty, painful, fetid, smelly, sickly and boring place.

Imagine surgery without anesthesia. That’s enough right there. But even mundane life was unpleasant: Instead of toilet paper, think about having to settle for a corn cob, a stick, or if you were lucky, a reused piece of cloth. When you get dressed, imagine squeezing into a corset so tight you can barely breathe, or donning a wig teeming with nits.

The point is, we need to be thankful for the admittedly flawed life we have now.

That’s the idea behind the advice column I write for mental_floss magazine. I encourage readers to write in with their problems. They hate the dentist. Or hotel beds are uncomfortable.

And then I (very gently) tell them to shut the hell up and quit whining. Get some perspective. They are facing Modern Problems (a corollary of First World Problems), and should be thankful.

Because 100 years ago, a dentist might squeeze your head between his knees and pull your tooth out with sharp tongs. A “bed” in the Middle Ages often meant a pile of straw on the dirt floor, which was also home to an astounding variety of bodily fluids, garbage and vermin.

I use many sources to give you a taste of the bad life. There are great books such as If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley and the classic The Good Old Days Were Terrible, by photo archivist Otto Bettman. I scour newspaper stories and old diaries. By the way, most of these resources I can access from my computer. Which makes me grateful that I don’t have to shlep to the library and dodge horse-drawn carriages on manure-filled streets. See? It works for almost everything.

Got a Modern Problem for A.J.? Email it to letters@mentalfloss.com, or leave a comment below. If he responds to your problem in the magazine or here on the site, we'll send you a free mental_floss t-shirt.