Mankind is a smart bunch. We´ve learned how to put a man on the moon, how to build skyscrapers as high as mountains, and we have access to all the knowledge in the world via small devices in our pockets made of plastic, metal, and some microchips. We can travel back and forth between the continents in a matter of hours. We´ve developed sophisticated treatments for all kinds of human ailments, helping us to become as old as some of the trees. That´s impressive and utterly admirable.
Yet, all these upsides of modern life seem to take a toll on our bodies and minds. In most Western societies, the level of obese people is growing steadily, as is the pervasiveness of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety-related conditions. Is this the price society has to pay for the comforts of the modern life? And more importantly:
Could we reverse these effects by turning to a more “primitive” lifestyle?
Here´s the thing: I´m sure, on the whole, we´re a lot smarter than our Neanderthalian ancestors. But being smart does not automatically lead to making smarter decisions. Let´s look at their way of life for a moment. Born in 1978, I´m not a contemporary witness – yet I´m an avid reader and watch a lot of documentaries. Here´s how I imagine life must have been for them:
- They lived in tribes of several larger families with close bonds between the members of their group.
- They had to toil hard in order to survive, but when their work was done (having enough food to sustain the tribe), they relaxed, played, created art, and made love.
- The men hunted in small groups, sometimes for several days in a row. When doing so, they walked or even ran a double-digit mileage per day.
- While chasing prey, they didn’t talk much. Instead, they focused on their immediate surroundings, the animals´ smells, sounds, and their tracks.
- When the hunt was successful, they returned home, shared their game with everybody, and also shared their hunting lore by the fireside.
- The women also walked long distances several time per week while searching for fruits and nuts. Some of them stayed home to take care of the tribe´s offspring. When not searching for food, they created tools, pottery, and clothing.
- Whenever possible, they all slept long, especially in winter. They also took several naps over the course of the day whenever the environment was save.
Now let’s take this narration and transfer into more modern terms. What we have here are people who…
- spend a lot of time with their friends and the ones they love (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of bonding);
- finish the equivalent of a half-marathon three or four times a week (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of intense physical exercise);
- spend most of their time in natural green environments (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of biophilia)…
- …and practice an intuitive form of mindfulness while doing so (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of staying in the present moment).
Depression and anxiety as the body´s warning signs?
Compare this to what most Westerners are doing:
- We eat too much food that we don´t have to struggle for.
- We sit too much and walk too little.
- We work insane hours, yet don´t sleep and play enough.
- We spend too much time alone or among people we don´t really care about.
- We get lost in cyberspace instead of staying with what´s at hand.
- We focus too much on promoting ourselves instead of promoting the common good.
Put in simple terms, I think this is what our bodies are trying to tell us:
Hey man, you’re doing this wrong. You’re spending your time doing the wrong things, and I don’t feel safe and sound in these places you’re taking me. And where are the familiar faces that I love? But hey, I can’t explain this to you in a straight way, I don’t have words. That’s why I make you feel anxious and miserable. This is my wake-up call.
Let me close by saying that I don’t argue we should all return to an aboriginal lifestyle. I’m a city-boy all the way through. I like my work at the office, I love going out for dinner, and having a grocery store and a hospital in close proximity. But I also try to take care of myself and my body, I try to create meaning by helping people live more significant lives (e.g., via this blog…) – and ever since being married and having kids, I stay home a lot.
I guess, as ever so often, it comes down to finding the right balance.