Happiness is Not a Disease

This literally just dawned on me while watching TV 5 mins ago and I felt compelled to step in here and write it up…

I think the ultimate argument against the legalization of drugs is to look at the fast-food industry and what it has done to us.

In this paper I use “fast food” to mean “unhealthy food” or “fatty food”.

This comment isn’t meant to condemn fast food as “evil” or drugs as “bad”. I’m really not passing judgement on either, I’m trying to make a point beyond that. Why are fast food or drugs even an issue? Why aren’t they just pass-time hobbies that effects very few people?

Take a step back and look at obesity in America:

What would America look like if, hypothetically, there was no fast food.

Would we still have obesity? Sure, just like we had it at the turn of the century or during the great depression, but it would be at a scale 1/10th of smaller than it is now because of scarcity; Unnaturally tasteful food wouldn’t be as accessible.

Obesity is a Disease They Say…

If you watch enough Discovery Health and “Worlds Fattest Man” shows, you hear it over and over again: Obesity is a disease. It is no longer a personal choice or the result of overeating, it’s an uncontrollable disease.

I don’t believe that.

Before you interpret that as me saying “You are a liar, I don’t believe you!” let me continue.

Obesity is the result of finding your happiness in food.

It isn’t a disease like diabetes. It’s the (unfortunate) result of humans doing something very natural: trying to find happiness.

As a human being we seem to be programmed to seek out happiness, which is good. Some of us think happiness is always winning arguments, so we argue constantly. Others think that happiness is having a ton of money and others think happiness is sitting in a tent up in the mountains meditating.

Happiness is relative.

Bogged down by day-to-day living and sometimes not thinking we have the capacity or time to achieve our ultimate dreams, we lower our expectations for what we think we can accomplish to become happy. For some folks that is drinking a 6 pack of beer after work, smoking cigarettes or eating the cheesiest pizza you’ve ever seen while watching their favorite sitcom.

The people that choose food as their most accessible means to happiness eventually deal with obesity in one form or another; diabetes, loss of mobility, stroke, etc. The point is that this person didn’t set out to be fat or not have any self control, they were merely trying to find happiness and food (for whatever physiological reasons) was the best way for them to get there given their circumstances.

Unfortunately for a growing number of people food is becoming a faster path to happiness than many other alternatives as food companies continue to engineer more unnaturally flavorful foods:

What About Drugs?

When I say “legalization of drugs” I am referring to harder drugs like cocaine, meth and so on. I don’t want to weigh in on the marijuana argument as there seem to be very compelling arguments on both sides of the fence and honestly I know more people that abuse alcohol than marijuana. Other smarter people can have that debate.

If harder drugs find their way onto the legal market that means greater accessibility.

As we’ve seen with fast food, greater accessibility of “happiness-inducing” elements eventually drives addiction in a large majority of people seeking happiness in any way they can find it. Larry might stop eating double big macs at lunch because he finds a hit of meth puts him on cloud 9 for example.

Obesity seems to be a function of unhappiness; or more specifically, people seeking happiness via food.

Drug abuse is the same thing: people seeking happiness through drugs (either through the high or escape from real life).

It makes me feel bad that we live in a world where so many people are happiness-starved that they find their sole source of pleasure from such a destructive element. Legalizing harder drugs and putting them out there to be sampled by people craving “feeling good” is a dangerous and unnecessarily destructive thing to do.

I know I’ve heard the “The government should just legalize all drugs, tax them and control them!” argument more than a few times. It sounds more like an interesting sociology experiment to me than a well thought-out idea.

In a controlled lab-experiment, yea, maybe legalizing drugs is fine. People choose healthy alternatives just as often as unhealthy ones, but the real world with our stresses and concerns is nothing like a controlled experiment.

What is the Solution?

The solution is to prove to each and every person that there are better alternatives out there for them. Unfortunately “prove” and “alternative” are two arguments in an equation that will be different for each person.

Sometimes you see an overweight person or someone with a drug problem pick up running and get addicted to it and become completely curred of their addiction. That is because they found an alternative version of their life that was “better” to them than the drugs.

Other times you see people with a problem that go to rehab for 6 months and have an entire team to help them succeed and still fail; that is because they do not see any alternatives yet that seem better than the problem they are trying to conquer.

At the root people will need to want to feel better and do better than they currently are for anything to change. That is a fact we see reiterated over and over again: you can’t force anyone to do anything.

One sure-fire way to hamstring any effort towards success though to is give them destructive alternatives that improve their happiness level that they will perceive as an improvement in their life. (“improvement” here is relative of course).

If I’m 450 lbs and work infront of my computer all day and you tell me “get up and run and lift weights and eat less!” I tell you “when I run my lungs are on fire and my arms hurt when I lift weights and I love food!” – how is your suggestion helping me be any happier?

Then if you tell me “you can lose weight by doing small amounts of meth and it makes you feel amazing” – as a pleasure-seeking being, since you haven’t shown me a positive alternative to my current problem of overeating, I might just try that and fall in love with meth. Now you haven’t solved the problem, if anything it’s much worse now even though I’ll lose weight.

The happiness-improving alternatives need to be positive; providing destructive happiness-improving alternatives we hinder everyone’s success.

How do You Know?

I don’t, no one does. I can only guess based on what I see and what I see is a growing number of people that are grabbing at anything they can get their hands on to make themselves feel happy. Unfortunately for our health, that “low hanging fruit” that is easiest to grab is food.

Our vices (food, drugs, sex, money) can really be anything. It is different for each person, but what I think makes fast food so unifyingly horrible is that we all have to eat and hey, if we have to eat, why not eat something delicious.

What do I Want?

I want everyone to be as happy as they can manage. If you are reading this and it is getting uncomfortable to read, then I imagine you have an unhealthy habit that seems to be your biggest source of happiness. What I would want for you is to spend some serious time thinking of alternatives that could potentially be better than that habit.

A lot of times you have no idea what the alternative can be. For sanity sake, I want you to forget “eating better” and “exercise” as the alternatives, because very few people actually like those two things.

Try and be creative, try and think of something random. Learn to play the violin; take a pottery class; learn to tango. You literally never know what it is that you will pick up that will feed your happiness and eventually replace your addiction until you try it.

My guess is that you already know what it is and in some cases could be a very scary answer like leaving your spouse, quitting your job and hitchhiking across the country.

I know a lot of folks get taught by Hollywood that the only way to fix your life is to do something drastic and life-changing and when you are done with that life-changing road trip suddenly everything is better.

That is crap.

You can change your life by keeping your house clean. You can change your life by learning a new language. You can change your life organizing a neighborhood bake-off.

It is amazing the change in trajectory your life can change with simple simple changes and the best part is that you feel that change relatively quickly. Sometimes in days, sometimes in weeks, but you’ll feel it none the less.

Life is really a beautiful experience. I want everyone to experience a single moment of bliss to know that feeling, to know it exists and then decide if you want to chase it or ignore it.

Update #1: Daniel Miessler makes and interesting suggestion:

I think the key is that people who don’t have creative outlets or otherwise acceptable ways of being happy are naturally sucked into certain types of activities, e.g. eating for pleasure, shopping for pleasure, etc.

I would be curious to discuss with a psychologist that deals with abusive/addictive personalities to see if creative outlets for folks have been successful treatments. I am totally on the fence about this, if there were some data to back it up, I would easily believe it. Suppressing entire portions of our brain (e.g. creative side) I imagine would manifest itself in a pretty unhealthy way and addiction makes just as much sense to me as depression.

Update #2: In response to reader Terio’s reply, I (hopefully) clarified the purpose of this article being about helping people realize that Happiness is much closer than they realize and not exclusively a piece on drug legalization. I understand that it is a hot-topic and a lot of readers are not getting past it in the article to the end without making up their minds first that I am indirectly trying to condem it. If it helps, replace “drugs” in this article with any other vice that people commonly abuse to feel happy (hoarding, gambling, etc.) and it may be easier to see the bigger point I wanted to make without getting bogged down with the baggage surrounding drug legalization.

Update #3: Something interesting to add to this discussion are the findings from a recent British study that show alcohol to be more harmful than cocaine, heroin and other hardcore drugs. I am curious if the study accounted for accessibility of the substances when looking at the negative impacts they have as well as breadth of impact. If it didn’t, then I think it’s a compelling argument supporting the points I made above; more specifically, that if a destructive, artificial “happiness-inducing” substance is made available, a subset of society will abuse it in hopes of chasing more happiness and that can be very destructive.

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23 Responses to Happiness is Not a Disease

  1. Mikal June 21, 2010 at 9:53 pm #

    Great article, Ryad! Looking at those pictures makes me want to vomit. I’m not one of those people who blame society or the fast food companies for making me somewhat over my target weight. When I stopped smoking many years ago, I looked to food for comfort and I hardly ever made the right choices. I even got hooked on meth when I was in my early 20’s but when I got down to the size of a string bean, I had the good sense to stop and get my act together…it’s GREAT for weight loss, but I do NOT recommend it. So I took to eating again. At least now when I eat something that maybe isn’t the best choice, I walk a couple of laps around my neighborhood. Obesity is NOT a disease, it’s a choice. Nobody forces people to super size every meal they get, or get the biggest coffee that Starbucks offers, you have to make a conscious decision and when it’s the wrong one, do not sit back and blame McDonald’s for making you fat. Enjoy that Big Mac and that Venti coffee, but get off your ass later on and run around the track a few times to work it off. Now if you’ll excuse me, there is a plate of brownies and a pair of running shoes that are SCREAMING my name. :-)

    • Riyad Kalla June 21, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words – what you described is exactly the right/healthy attitude that worked for me. Eat the brownies, eat the burgers, etc. but take responsibility for it in the form of recognizing you now need to go treat your body to some exercise as a thankyou for not throwing a clot :)

      And just for the record, I’m VERY familiar with making bad food decisions… I think scientifically speaking I should have died in college.

  2. Katie Mullaly June 21, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more with Mikal, and I am glad that you posted this, Riyad.

    I can’t stand watching shows that play morbidly obese people as the “victims.” Victims of what? Victims of their own inability to stop shoving food into their mouthes. We ALL had sucky childhoods. Before I get attacked, I concur that there are some disorders that cause weight gain. Fine. If you are one of those people, then obviously I am not talking to you.

    Nobody needs a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon for breakfast. NOBODY. The food you pictured makes me feel sick to my stomach. I would never eat any of that. I had a Big Mac for lunch, but only after admitting out loud that I was feeding the frustration of my day with a Big Mac (light sauce, of course) and also stating my intention to walk two laps around my neighborhood, which I also did.

    People need to just stop eating crap, starting eating fiber and veggies, and they will feel a LOT better.

    • Riyad Kalla June 21, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

      I agree, I don’t like how those shows pitch the people as victims and how it trains those people to THINK of themselves as victims — like Mikal and you are saying — be fat, FINE, but damnit take responsibility for it. Don’t act like you were forced (slowly over 30 years) to live this life you *didn’t* want, you most certainly did want it.

      Owning that is critical — as soon as you own it you remove the lies and can finally make an informed decision. Like “You know what, I love food more than life, I don’t give a shit if I’m fat” — great, that’s seriously fine by me, but I think more often than not most folks would think “I love food, but not THIS much” and try and find some healthy compromise in there between.

      A topic that I think will turn into a blog post is that I’m constantly amazed how short the distance is from “unhappiness” to “happiness” — in your head you think you won’t be happy until you have ripped abs and can run 20 miles without stopping… in reality you truck it a couple times around your block and you feel like a million bucks.

      We are weird like that.

    • Erin June 22, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

      If you can’t stand watching shows that make morbidly obese people out to be victims, then why do you watch them? In a sense, they are victims. Maybe they were constantly abused mentally, physically and or sexually during their childhood that made them turn to food for comfort. And they happen to develope an addiction to food in their early childhood that makes it very difficult to overcome in their adulthood. Do you really think that obese people want to live like that? Given that society does not tolerate them and can be downright cruel to them. The easy things that slim people take for granted, like sleeping in a bed, taking a shower or doing the dishes must be incredibly difficult for an obese person to accomplish.
      Or finding a mate, they stand no chance of ever being loved. If it is as easy as you make it sound to simply stop shoving food in their mouthes, then there wouldn’t be such a thing as obesity. You have a lot to learn about the brain. There is a chemical imbalance in the morbidly obese brain, where the single that tells a slim person to stop eating does not work in theirs. So yes, obesity is an illness.
      And not EVERYBODY has a sucky childhood. I’d like to know what your definition of a sucky childhood is. Do you mean that because your parents did’nt give into your ways all of the time, that makes for a rotten childhood? Or did you actually suffer from some kind of traumatic incident that you somehow overcame that gives you the right to pass judgement on a certain group?
      You also said that the pictures of food posted in this blog made you feel sick to the stomach and you would never eat any of it. No matter how frustrated you felt, why would you go out and eat a Big Mac if you don’t eat crap? Big Macs are fried in a lot of artery clogging fat. Oh, and don’t forget the fattening cheese. Light sauce for your Big Mac-really? I didn’t know you had that option. Usually, they are already made before you place your order. And be honest, did you really walk two laps around the block after you fed your body hip hugging crap? Sounds to me that you were copying to some degree what Mikal said, because you really had nothing beneficial to say, but to spread your hate.

  3. Riyad Kalla June 21, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    This is just a bit of humor on the subject I saw online, got a kick out of it:

  4. Katie Mullaly June 22, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    Hey Erin! Thanks for validating everything I said with your post. “Sucky” is a subjective term, because, in the minds of many, that is justification for not wanting to be accountable for your actions as an adult, whether those actions are eating your cares away, or spending tens of thousands of dollars because shopping makes you feel better.

    I absolutely had a Big Mac for lunch, yesterday. I specifically ASKED for light sauce, so YES, you can order “off the menu” even at McDonalds, and YES, I absolutely walked twice around my neighborhood.

    I wasn’t just copying what Mikal said at all, in FACT, MIKAL walked around the block WITH ME, Miss thing.

    I’m not entirely sure why you chose ME as the lightning rod for your pent up aggression and arguable self-esteem issues, but take it elsewhere. When I was 40 pounds overweight, I said, “I don’t like being fat,” and I lost the weight by eating less and moving more. I’ll even be walking again, TONIGHT, believe it or not.

    If you are too big for a bed, it is TIME to stop eating. Weight Watchers is a fabulous program. I am not passing judgement. I think YOUR statement of, “they stand no chance of ever being loved,” is FAR more judgemental than suggesting that they stop eating ten plates of food at a time. At no point did I say, “I am better than fat people.” What I am saying is that morbidly obese people have only their own actions dictating their weight.

    If you want to have a go at me, sister, that’s FINE, but don’t put words in my mouth or suggest that I am a liar because you think it’s impossible to have a special-order Big Mac and take a walk around the block.

    Bon Appetit, Sweetroll!

  5. R.J. June 23, 2010 at 6:35 am #

    I was nervous when I saw the article (very sensitive topic), but I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. Replace Fast Food/Obesity with Alcohol/Alcoholism and the article reads equally well; I think that says something about your point.

    Your point about small course corrections is well received. I think people feel like they just can’t change their life; and they want to give up because of that, or they take happiness pills to brutally paraphrase your message above. The amazing thing is that changing your life is actually really easy if you’re willing to take small steps in new directions; you just have to do something you don’t normally do. Time and again, you’ll find happiness in the change (whatever it is).

    • Riyad Kalla June 23, 2010 at 7:01 am #

      R.J. thanks for replying, I appreciate you going through the article and you nailed the message right on the head.

      Some folks read this article and get hung up on “obesity is not a disease” and don’t go beyond that; they feel attacked and the rest of the article their defenses are up and they see nothing else.

      You have that exactly right about small changes. As a reforming “life is black or white” thinker, I’m very familiar with mental process of “Why should I do some tiny thing if it’s not going to change my life? Bah humbug!” but like you said, it isn’t too many little changes later until you look back and realize “Dang, my life is way better!”

      Given that you really cut to the core of this article, I imagine you have had your own experiences with changing the direction your life has taken — I’m curious what your challenges were if you didn’t mind sharing?

      If it’s too personal, no worries. I just like hearing other people’s stories because you never know when someone will say something that clicks with you.

      Take care!

      • R.J. June 23, 2010 at 8:41 am #

        Well, my family has a history of issues, and it’s something that is always looming. Heaven knows, I have mine too – but it’s not a particularly unique story. I can say that I am still working on my personal change – walking the road can take a while, even if you know the destination.

        With regards to change, I am going through a job transition now, and I am reminded of both the fear and the effects of change. It is one of those things that drives humans, but they think they need to avoid it.

        I think of the best moments of my life, and all of them are times when I took a leap and did something I wasn’t used to doing. If only that was easier to understand when the panic of the unfamiliar kicks in 😉

  6. Mikal June 24, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

    So we go to Costco today to buy a few things and you know how they have samples of various food items throughout the store? Well don’t you know that our kids were unable to to get to any of them because the sample ladies were surrounded by very large people – all in electric wheelchairs, and not the kind of wheelchairs indicative of an injury, but the ‘little rascal’ style scooters intended for the heavy. So, even though they can’t WALK, they are still first in line for the free snack sample…maybe ya’ll could skip a few? I’m just sayin’ is all…

  7. htsh December 6, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    great article, minor correction: lose weight, not loose weight..`

    • Riyad Kalla December 7, 2010 at 6:14 am #

      htsh, my new years resolution is to remember how to spell that word correctly, thanks for the correction :)

  8. JayKay December 7, 2010 at 12:13 am #

    > In a controlled lab-experiment, yea, maybe legalizing drugs is fine.

    I completely agree with your point about finding happiness through a vice, and agree with your conclusion that we should help people find happiness through something virtuous.

    But arguing that we shouldn’t legalise and regulate drugs is basically the same thing as saying we should criminalise fast food. It doesn’t make sense.

    It also flys in the face of evidence-based policy which shows that legalising and regulating drugs actually works out very well for the countries that do it.

    For example: http://www.google.com.au/search?q=portugal+drug+legalisation

    Therefore, you should pursue the argument about finding happiness through vices vs virtues, but rethink your stance on legalising and regulating drugs.

    • Riyad Kalla December 7, 2010 at 6:30 am #


      If you agree with the point about people’s tendency to take the “path of least resistance” to finding happiness through a vice, and we legalize hardcore drugs (I wasn’t taking a stance on marijuana in this article), doesn’t it stand to reason that more people will have more destructive vices to readily choose from to find more intense happiness-es? (e.g. a meth high)

      That being said, I concede right away that I have never looked hard at the data from countries that have legalized damn near everything but find it fascinating that a lot of these countries (Netherlands) don’t seem to have a major problem with it.

      Just to re-iterate, I am talking about hardcore stuff that is categorically destructive.

      I am not approaching drugs as the big stigma-boosted thing we’ve been fighting since the 80s, I’m just approaching it as an artificially strong “happiness” experience in a needle type of experience that people might turn to if it was accessible.

      I am making the point that fast food is readily accessible everywhere, is engineered to taste better than natural food should be and the end result is that we have a major obesity problem *because* so many people are reaching for it; I think that is the red-flag indicator that a large majority of people are in a “happiness-seeking” mode and if we provide even strong alternatives (drugs) they will reach for them.

      I am using broad brush strokes here, but the point is still there.

      I’m also not standing on top of a horse right now while I write this, I do my fair share of happiness seeking in food now and assuming whatever stigma around drugs vanished (so it was thought of as recreationally as fast food) I would probably do some drugs myself.

      I am concerned that instead of working towards healthier/brighter/more productive futures and showing people how great life can be with some effort and interest, chemical alternatives to feeling “awesome” readily available are a dangerous way to derail a lot of folks into this false sense of happiness so they never try and get more out of life, as long as they have their Flerg X (the newest in designer drugs) they are happy.

      sorry, that was long winded… I think there is something valuable buried in that tripe :)

  9. adnan December 7, 2010 at 12:43 am #

    Wow. I dont have any of those problems but I say wow because it’s so hard to find people who view happiness as a very simple to achieve equation in life. Truly respect that!

    • Riyad Kalla December 7, 2010 at 6:33 am #

      adnan, it makes me happy to hear that you are happy. Just keep doing what you are doing man and maybe helping someone down in the dumps see how easy life can be when you just relax :)

  10. Terio December 7, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    I think your whole argument is flawed in more than one way.

    First, seeking pleasure in eating does not always lead to obesity. Other cultures that are more food-centric than America’s have not the obesity epidemic we have. Eating the wrong kind of food is what messes up with people’s metabolisms. Your first point that “obesity is the result of finding your happiness in food” is just plain wrong.

    Second, the analogy between the obesity problem and the drug problem does not make sense. We need to eat and we choose to eat the wrong food for convenience, accessibility, expediency, price, or bad habits formed during a life time of bad education. On the other hand, we don’t need to take recreational drugs. People choose to do drugs for fun, escapism, pleasure, and as a social activity despite its illegality. Taking drugs is not analogous to eating. It is more like drinking alcohol, and smoking.

    You are partially right on one thing when you say that you can’t force anyone to do anything. Yes you can, for a while, and with limited success, but you will fail over time and over the scale of a whole society, and that is exactly what is happening with drug prohibition.

    Although it does not sound like a well thought-out idea to you, there are very deep analyses of the drug legalization issue. For references look at the study published by Cato Institute, and the Portugal experience.

    And for a more funny view on the subject, watch the South Park episode in which they banned KFC and originated a crime network a la Scarface, while guys were microwaving their balls to get medical marihuana.

    • Riyad Kalla December 7, 2010 at 11:38 am #

      Terio, that was an awesome episode. For anyone interested that was the “Medicinal Fried Chicken” episode (you can click that link to watch it online).

      To your other points, I should have been more clear that with “obesity is the result of finding your happiness in food” I mean “obesity is the result of finding your happiness in *abusing unhealthy* food” — the assumption is that you are over-consuming it. I thought the context around the rest of the piece (fast food, the pictures, etc.) was clear that I wasn’t referring to olive-oil, pan-seared chicken breasts in a light creme sauce.

      You are correct that many people extract *pleasure* from their food (French?) but the focus of the article was on addiction and abuse of substances to find happiness, for those folks food is not some portion of a bigger formula that gives them happiness… it *IS* their happiness, that’s it. They don’t hang out with friends, play tennis or go to concerts.

      It’s those folks I am wanting to talk about — and reading back through the article I see that I am waving too general of an arm of this and not clearly focusing on folks abusing sources of happiness as opposed to who occasionally turn to food/drugs/shopping/racing/gambling/etc. for bits of enjoyment. Thank you for pointing that out.

      To your other point about needing to eat being different than needing to use drugs… you are getting too drilled down on drugs/food comparison. The article is meant to discuss:

      1. People addicted to unnaturally taste-enhanced food, using it to find their happiness (aka Why we have an obesity epidemic)
      2. The dangers of providing other unnatural alternatives on the market (hardcore drugs) that could provide even greater highs or “happiness” to these people.

      That’s it.

      I am not condemning everyone. Folks that use food/drugs/whatever casually and socially, they’ll never be addicted to anything. So even if heroin is legalized (for example) they might use it every once in a while, but it’s not going to ruin their lives. I’m worried for the growing number of people that don’t have healthy outlets and healthy balances to the vices that they employ to feel good during the day.

      It’s possible I mucked that up a bit with a bit too much focus on the food, but I’m trying to stand at a 10k foot view above the globe and look at a pattern of people abusing food, not just enjoying it. Well why are they abusing it? You watch enough obesity shows and you hear the same thing every time: “It makes me happy” or “It make me feel good”.

      Obviously we are lacking something in our lives and are trying to simulate it elsewhere, sometimes with really unhealthy results.

      You do the same thing with people dealing with addictions (e.g. “Intervention” TV show) and you hear a lot of the same reasons: “It makes me feel good” or “It helps me cope” — essentially the same thing… people just trying to chase happiness or feeling good.

      Given that pattern I tried to tie the article up with ways for folks having a hard time to try and realize that “happiness” isn’t always as far away or impossible as they think, and little changes go a LONG WAY to making you feel better, appreciate yourself more and enjoy this journey we are on.

      I blame my hands for not writing the article better to communicate my point clearly. I apologize if it came off exclusively as a piece weighing in on the drug-legalization issue, I did not want it to.

  11. Joy December 11, 2010 at 5:45 am #

    Well, people have their choice to be happy or not. We always want to be happy! I remember one of my fave burger when I saw the photo. But that one looks messy!


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