‘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. As always, looking to our ancestors and modern-day hunter gatherer tribes has thrown up some interesting lessons on the subject of stress and the importance of play.

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’ 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 complete union with the world. For some it is listening to music, for others it is the feel of soil between their fingers. 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 but for now I would like to focus on the features of hunter gatherer societies and the notion of play as a way of mitigating stress in our own lives.



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 features of hunter gatherer tribes:

  • Individual autonomy
  • A sense of equality
  • Sharing
  • Consensual decision-making
  • Good humour – joking, good-natured teasing, and laughter
  • Social responsibility
  • Shared child-rearing
  • Emotions are shared and expressed – no repression
  • Respect for neighbours and fellow people
  • Very playful!
  • Live in the present
  • Very little addiction
  • 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’. However both Bruce Parry and Daniel Everettt – two people who have spent much time with hunter gatherer tribes – both agreed that there are lessons to be learnt from such societies that can translate to our own lives and alter our definition of what it is to be ‘happy.’

‘I have changed the way I live in response to my experience with hunter gatherers’
Bruce Parry 2014


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

The !Kung placed a huge amount of importance on what we would regard as ‘play’ or ‘leisure activities’ such as:

  • Dancing
  • Singing
  • Story-telling
  • Making music
  • Painting or drawing
  • Fighting
  • Other leisure activities


What we regard as ‘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. Play is a useful activity! 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

There is ample time in hunter-gatherers’ lives for leisure activities, including games of many sorts, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, traveling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying around and relaxing. The life of the typical hunter-gatherer looks a lot like your life and mine when we are on vacation at a camp with friends.’

Professor Peter Gray, Research Professor, Dept. Psychology, Boston College

Hunter-gatherers’ work is playful because:

  • It is varied and requires much skill, knowledge, and intelligence
  • There isn’t too much of it
  • It is done in a social context, with friends
  • Each person can choose when, how, and whether to do it


In view of all this, what steps can we take to overcome stress? Obviously sound nutrition, sleep and exercise are all important. But if we look at some of the lessons from hunter gatherer societies – and presumably Paleolithic societies – we can begin to think of potential methods to mitigate stress.

  • Reconnecting with the importance of play
  • Making time for leisure activities as a priority
  • These can be in a social context
  • Doing something that you enjoy
  • Doing something that that is a learning process (but be careful how you define ‘learning’ here – do not restrict it)
  • Such activities should re-connect you with living in the moment
  • Go back and look at the features of hunter gatherer societies above and ask  ‘How can these influence my life?’


For hunter gatherers – and our cavemen ancestors – there is no concept of:

  • Eating for health
  • Exercising to get fit
  • Sleep disorders
  • Stress reduction techniques

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 weights, enjoying play…

For more, read my blog post Thinking and Evolving

The Island Where People Forget to Die by Dan Buettner



For a list of Paleo-friendly suppliers and products see the Resources and Suppliers page.

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