The Science of Happiness.

“But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” — Albert Camus

On a recent overnight flight between Los Angeles and Aukland, I beat back boredom by watching an in-flight Australian reality T.V. show on, of all things, the subject of happiness. The show took a group of eight chronically unhappy middle-class people from Sydney (seriously!) and put them together with a team of “happiness therapists”. At the beginning of the program, they took a psychological test in which each of them rated well below the national average “happiness score” for the typical Australian.

Then the team of therapists went to work, and at the end of the program these folks were tested again. All of them tested happier. What I thought was most interesting (from a primitivist perspective) were the interventions used.

First off, each of them were helped to face and contemplate death — reflecting on it in order to put their lives in proper perspective.

Then the therapists worked with each of them in five basic areas:

Mindfulness.

Gratitude.

Service.

Exercise.

Diet.

Interestingly enough, the issue of “getting out into nature” never came up. I’m sure it might have helped if it had (a walk in the woods usually brightens my day), but I’m ok with the fact that it didn’t. Because, it still struck me that even with the issue of connecting to nature removed from the equation, each of the things the therapists worked on with these folks still took them back to the “primal matrix” — i.e. back to a greater experience of things which would have been daily fare for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

I mean, think about it. All of the issues mentioned above would have been attended to naturally in the lives our primitive ancestors — their context would have nudged them toward happiness. But for these relatively affluent urban first-world people, it was pretty darn easy to slip through the happiness cracks in their situation.

Not buying it? Well, let’s flesh each one out a little.

First off, death. Most modern folks have little encounter with death, and so little reason to contemplate it, or it’s ramifications for their lives. Death is hidden away.

Second, mindfulness. Most modern folks have lives where mindfulness is rarely necessary, while rushing to get things done is encouraged, and a certain amount of obliviousness is often an asset. And besides that, we’re presented with a near endless array of distractions to occupy our time and attention: TV, movies, music from the I-pod, computer games, books (my favorite), sports, alcohol, drugs, coffee, sugar (ok, really my favorite), facebook (guilty pleasure), workaholism, whatever.

Third, service. While some form of indentured servitude (i.e. forced labor) is the norm in modern society, service is actually relatively rare. It’s something we volunteer for on the weekends, if we want to. And of course, still have energy left over for after the work week.

Exercise and diet? Exercise is usually an optional jog or gym-visit after work (if we can muster the discipline), and diet is usually processed grain + sugar + “whatever we want”, healthy or not.

And lastly, gratitude. Well, I’ll talk about that a little later.

When it comes to confronting death, our primitive ancestors had no problem. These people were hunters, after all — death was a part of daily life.  Animals were killed and butchered on a regular basis.  And when it came to experiencing risk with their own lives, they did this as well — thought nearly always in reasonable amounts.  Risk people could and did rise to and successfully navigate — which tends to give one a sense of power in relation to one’s life as well (always a good feeling for beating back depression).

Mindfulness. Primitive living requires it, and provides both the silence and leisure that encourages it. For instance, spiritual retreat centers built for the purpose of fostering mindfulness nearly always provide a quiet, natural environment, and a light workload in which to pursue that quest. Hunter gatherers were in an analogous situation — living outdoors and working an average of 6 hours a day or less, usually at a leisurely pace.

On top of that, wild nature creates both the dynamic sense experience that encourage attentiveness, and the tinge of danger that makes such attention advisable. In the woods, we tend to shut up and pay attention because: 1. we might meet a hungry bear (or even just a hungry mosquito), and 2. something unexpected (and pretty darn cool) could happen at any moment. Of course, this doesn’t keep the average person from entering the woods in a clueless state these days — old habits die hard. But it does reveal how a life immersed in nature tends to discourage such habits over time.

Service. Primitive life works because people serve each other. Living in an extended family encourages service to one’s kin, and those kin usually have little problem reminding an individual if he or she neglects familial responsibilities. However in the first world, one’s life is usually consumed with service to impersonal institutions, and so one often has to go outside normal life to “volunteer” to serve people in a way that actually feels meaningful on a personal level (moms being a notable exception, of course).

Exercise. Primitive life demands it. And it’s the good stuff — low impact, unlikely to cause repetitive stress injuries — stuff like walking or running on soft ground, swimming, carrying moderate weight objects, etc. Healthy exercise becomes just a natural part of daily life.

Diet. Primitive diet is by necessity wild, organic, whole-food, high in fiber, high in nutrients, high in protein, high in healthy fats, low in sugar, etc. And you have to exercise to get it! One would be hard pressed to find a healthier diet anywhere.

And gratitude? Well, it seems like a sense of privilege and entitlement (and therefore a sense of victimization) often goes hand in hand with life in first world countries. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it has to do with thinking that we’re above the rest of nature. “Better” than “just animals”. Or maybe it has to do with the level of comfort we’ve come to expect — i.e. creatures who can’t even crap without a sit-down toilet under them and four walls around them may just wind up demanding too much, and so are easily disappointed.

What I do know, is that every traditional indigenous person I’ve ever encountered who has described their spirituality to me has emphasized gratitude. From the first moment of awakening in the morning. And gratitude for everything — even the “bad” stuff we don’t like. Gratitude seems to somehow exist at the very core of traditional native life.

But let me be clear, I’m not saying our primitive ancestors, or primitive people today, were/are always happy — far from it. These were, and are, people — ultimately not so different from you or I. I’m definitely not saying they live(d) in some kind of continually smiling utopia. There always has been, and always will be, good reasons for people to get pissed off or sad.

I’m also not saying that modern people can’t be happy. I know quite a few modern people who are plenty happy. All I’m saying is that if you look at the kinds of experiences and ways of being that tend to foster happiness, it becomes clear that our primitive ancestors had the deck stacked in their favor.

It seems that, ironically, some kinds of luxury actually make us less satisfied with life. And some kinds of “hardship” can actually make for happier folks.

And so, we might want to really think about that. Maybe our lives could be happier if they included a little more primal experience? Heck, maybe they could even be happier if they included a lot more primal experience?

What do you think?

Wild peace,

Glenn

6 Comments to “The Science of Happiness.”

  1. Glenn,
    I’m sharing this one… with a quote for the day “creatures who can’t even crap without a sit-down toilet under them and four walls around them may just wind up demanding too much, and so are easily disappointed.” I love it!

  2. I like Albert Camus’ quote you used as an opening sentence here. This comes at a perfect time for me. We are a little group of friends coming together once a month and last month our host asked us to think about the happiest time in our life and bring food that we associated with that. I found it very giving to focus on that. We all wonder what happiness is from time to time and what can make us happier people. But I think to clearly focus on happy moments in our life is something many people don’t do until they lay down to die. I guess I pretty much knew what made me happy but it was giving to focus on it. It seemed like everybody in our group announced an experience between us and nature as the happiest time. Sometime when we just feel part of the big picture. Not in an active way but just by being and experiencing. One of my happiest moments is a long day of hiking and berry picking, my favorite times when I had my babies along and they were sleeping on the tundra. And when they woke up I quit picking berries and laid down on the tundra to nurse them. I think about this every time I drive tourists into Denali Park and watch a mother bear picking berries with her cubs. Leisurely, timelessly, totally content. I feel SO one with those bears then that it almost make me cry. One of the others happiest times were remembering waking up as a kid with the sun rays coming in her window and hitting a mirror and shining right in her face. Another girl remembered when she had been studying wolves for a few month. This was in tree country and she would just find tracks and scat and other markings. Then this first time when she heard the wolves howl and everything stands still and are just magic.
    I like the way you always bring the old ways into being the best. I have been thinking about from time to time when I feel lonely and socially unfilled how nice it would have been to have a water hole or a well where everybody from the area came and got there water and gathered and talked and laughed and cried together. I guess I should bring that up on the agenda for the next city council meeting.

  3. Thanks Marlon! As a writer looking for more readers it’s always much-appreciated when folks share my stuff with others, for sure.

    Hey Gitte, thanks for sharing that story of your experience with your kids and how it makes you feel connected to the momma bears in Denali. That’s awesome, powerful stuff. Those kinds of moments (when we realize we’re sharing an experience common to our fellow animal relations) are always so incredible to me. They make me feel connected to the world around me in such a good way. Anyway, thanks again for sharing that story — it’s a good one!

  4. Glenn, this is great, I’d like to share it too. I always like hearing about threads to primitive life. Thanks!

  5. Folks reading this post might be interested in a couple of books by Daniel Everett (who worked with the Piraha people of the upper Amazon) and a brief exchange during an interview with him the Guardian did: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/mar/25/daniel-everett-human-language-piraha

    Interviewer: “You talk about a grammar of happiness – it’s a lovely idea, but are you simply perpetuating another myth?”

    Everett: “I don’t believe I am. In my first book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, I describe them as a very happy people. That doesn’t mean everyone is happy all the time: they have struggles, they have insecurities, they lose their temper, they face danger. But it was actually a co-researcher who went with me from MIT and looked at the people and said: “These must be the happiest people anywhere” and I said: “How would you measure that?” and he said: “We might measure the amount of time they spend laughing and smiling and compare that to any other society, because I don’t see anyone around here who is not laughing or smiling most of the time.” There is a strong contentment there that I haven’t seen matched by any other society.”

    A “grammar of happiness”, (i.e. basically a way of seeing and talking about the world that fosters happiness). Interesting!

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