‘Stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 15.2 million lost days last year – up from 11.8 million in 2010’ Source: Office for National Statistics 2014
‘UK needs four-day week to combat stress’ says top doctor Professor John Ashton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, Source: Guardian newspaper 1st July 2014
‘Stress causes damage to the heart study finds’ Source: NHS News 2014
‘A study, involving 29 doctors working on intensive care wards, found that stress causes the body to produce an excess of white blood cells, which can cause inflammation of the arteries.’ Source: Times newspaper June 2014
Countering the effects of stress could take a website in itself and more. It is an area that we all need to improve upon and yet so many of us find it excruciatingly hard – myself included. Looking to our ancestors (even relatively recently), as well as modern-day hunter gatherer tribes throws up some interesting lessons on stress and highlights the need for communal structures of support in order to prevent – or at least mitigate – the negative effects of modern living.
This section of the website will no doubt change in the years ahead. In many ways it is the most important section both practically and philosophically. Learning how to just ‘be’ – to momentarly divorce ourselves from sometimes overwhelming feelings of pressure, stress or sadness – is one of the hardest tasks of all and as with all such subjects, there is no quick fix. Meditation helps some, for others it is the ability to ‘lose themselves’ in a practical activity that focuses the mind beyond the self and towards a form of union with the world/nature/the divine. For some it is listening to music, for others it is the feel of soil between their fingers. The religious or spiritual aspect of our existence, together with the social bonds of our family and ‘tribe’ and the feeling of our place within the world in relation to both our ancestors and future descendants cannot be over-estimated. We are tribal beings and yet the increasing atomisation that we experience in the modern world can only accelerate feelings of stress and negativity.
There is a myriad of ways to counter stress and what works for one person will not always work for another. Philosophy has much to teach us regarding being and happiness. Looking at contemporary hunter gatherer societies may also help us to reflect on some very basic things that we require as human beings for our practical and spiritual well-being.
NOBLE ANCESTORS AND MODERN SELVES
How the Light Gets, Hay on Wye, 2014
Panel: Bruce Parry: BBC Documentary Film Maker, Daniel Everett: Anthropologist, Sarah Chan: Bioethicist, Janet Radcliffe-Richards: Oxford Philosopher, Chair: Sean Curran: BBC
I have written in detail about this amazing discussion which we happened upon purely by chance here. For the purposes of our current topic, the panel discussed some of the following features of hunter gatherer tribes:
- Strong communal bonds
- Individual autonomy within an overall group structure
- A sense of equality
- Consensual decision-making
- Social responsibility
- Shared child-rearing
- Emotions that are often shared and expressed with the group
- Respect for neighbours and fellow people
- Living in the present
- Very little addiction
- Good humour – joking, good-natured teasing, and laughter
- DE: the tribe he lived with did not show any desire to acquire technology but when other tribes have, it has caused unhappiness
- BP: exposure to technology caused insecurity
Such societies no doubt suffer instances of stress and no one would suggest that their lives are in any way perfect. They dwell in radically different environments to ours but both Bruce Parry and Daniel Everettt – two people who have spent much time with hunter gatherer tribes – agreed that there are lessons to be learnt from these societies that can be translated to our own lives and that may alter our definition of what it is to be ‘happy.’
‘Self-sufficiency and confidence in their own ability is very important.’
‘I have changed the way I live in response to my experience with hunter gatherers’
‘…Bruce then talked about groups that had been on the verge of changing and that had employed people to destroy the forest around them (a tribe in Brazil). However, suddenly they had a ‘wake-up call’ and stopped. It’s not to say that they do not want comfort and luxury in their lives, but they realised that in order to change the price was not worth it and that there would be no security for their children’s future. ‘
‘…Daniel then told a story of a tribe he was staying with. The people were sitting around the fire and they had all taken it in turns to bring firewood. Daniel spotted a very old, stooped man who was struggling to bring a few small sticks of firewood to the group. When he did this, one of the men gave him a large piece of meat to eat in return for the wood. When Daniel enquired of the man why he gave him the meat as the pieces of firewood were so small, he replied: ‘When I was a little boy he put meat in my mouth and now he is an old man, I put meat in his mouth.’
‘There are a number of points of animism that offer satisfying personal choices in life, but can I justify them all scientifically? No. Do I try to reconcile them with science? No. And do I care if they are reconciled? No. If we are going to hold mutually inconsistent beliefs, just admit that they are mutually inconsistent.’
WEALTH & WORK: A TEN THOUSAND YEAR OLD PATTERN BY THOMAS J. ELPEL
This fascinating study took place in the 1960’s and involved the !Kung people, a hunter-gatherer society in Africa. The following discoveries were made about the !Kung:
- They worked roughly half as much as people in industrialized societies
- They worked only about twenty hours per week, or three hours per day, for their subsistence
- Other chores, such as building shelters, making tools and cooking,added up to around another twenty hours per week for a total of 40+ hours per week
In contrast, industrial cultures work about 40 hours per week at a job (Britons work 43 hours a week,while one in 25 toils away for over 60) + 40 hours more at home and after work (commuting, shopping, cooking, washing, cleaning, fixing), for a total of roughly 80 + hours per week
This allowed the !Kung to engage in activities that we would normally regard as ‘leisure’; but which held enormous importance to the life of their tribe:
- Making music
- Painting or drawing
THE IMPORTANCE OF LEISURE ACTIVITIES AS PRODUCTIVE TIME
What we regard as ‘leisure activities’ or ‘play’ is in fact a much wider social and cultural phenomenon with a range of uses as outlined in the work of Professor Peter Gray:
Play Makes Us Human I: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature by Professor Peter Gray
Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers’ Work is Play by Professor Peter Gray
The functions of play actually serve as learning processes. Professor Gray explains the following about play:
- It is a means of suppressing aggression and promoting cooperation
- It is a basis for art, music, literature, theoretical science, religion, and all that we call “higher culture”
- It is a basis for productive work
- It is a basis for education
WHAT CAN WE DO?
In view of all this, what steps can we take to overcome stress or just make positive changes to our lives? Obviously sound nutrition, sleep and exercise are all important. But if we look at some of the lessons from hunter gatherer (and other traditional) societies we can begin to think of potential areas of change:
- Making time for leisure activities as much as possible, yet seeing ‘leisure time’ as constructive, creative and essential for mental well-being rather than as a ‘waste of time’. These activities may be as part of a group or as an individual.
- Doing something that that is a learning process (but be careful how you define ‘learning’ here – do not restrict it).
- Connecting with your social group – family, friends, neighbours. Renewing those bonds and structures.
- Sharing the benefits of your creativity or knowledge with others in your ‘tribe’/community.
- Helping others where possible , feeling part of something bigger within your ‘tribe’/community.
- Where desirable, reconnecting with religious or spiritual values; either as part of your group or as an individual.
- Reconnecting with your history and heritage – through music, food, literature, dance, history, religion, spirituality – to find your place in the world once more.
For the hunter gatherers discussed there is no concept of:
- Eating for health
- Exercising to get fit
- Sleep disorders
- Stress reduction techniques
Although atomisation/social isolation was not unknown, it was rare. There was a cohesive sense of group belonging; something that we continue to lose in the modern world.
These things are naturally a part of their lives. There is – or was – no distinction. That is the way we can emulate them.
When we eat rather than ‘diet’, when we move with pleasure rather than ‘exercise’ out of duty, when we take time to just ‘be’ rather than strive for elusive happiness, when we acknowledge our circadian rhythm… these things will change us.
It is the little changes that make the big differences – going for a gentle walk each day, making time to learn something new, seeing friends, eating nutrient dense food, taking time to sleep properly, lifting some heavy things, enjoying a hobby…
For more, read my blog post Thinking and Evolving