A Primitive Design for Health and Happiness

If you are in any way unfulfilled, you should explore our ancestral social biology for clues that will help you to thrive.

Today we face unprecedented challenges to our health and happiness—despite rapid advances in technology and knowledge that address both! The answers to this dilemma come from an understanding of our natural design.

Armed with the profound belief that our greatest individual and societal pains come from the disruption that modern living imposes on the natural order, I found Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, a deeply compelling read.

Junger is a restless, inquisitive, adventure-seeking, thought-provoking journalist. He is best known of his insightful coverage of several modern wars—especially those recently waged in Sarajevo and Afghanistan.

His book opens with a surprising view of early settler culture in North America. Western civilization “thrived” by obliterating the more “primitive” tribes that flourished across the continent.

Despite the material benefits and security offered by their own communities, a surprising number of settlers chose to face great hardship, and crossed the perimeter to live with native tribes. Instead of understanding the romantic allure of “going rogue”, Junger chose to focus his inquiry on the reasons why their own communities were not able to retain these determined citizens.

“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.”

His gaze then shifts to modern disasters and war, which ironically lift our spirits. They appear to satisfy some primal need for unity and purpose. He noticed this first when he interviewed survivors of the bloody war in Sarajevo. As one man put it, “the world we are living in—and the peace that we have—is very fucked up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.”

The author cites many examples of the positive consequences of war. Surprisingly, the rates of depression dropped during the bombing of London in World War II. Similarly, the suicide rate in New York City dropped by 20% in the six months that followed the attack on the World Trade Center in 2011.

“What catastrophes seem to do—sometimes in the span of a few minutes—is turn back the clock on 10,000 years of social evolution. Self-interest get subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.”

I was most fascinated by the third leg of Junger’s argument. He explores the modern phenomenon of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (more commonly, but erroneously in my view, known as PTSD).

Researchers agree that the prevalence and impact of traumatic stress injury has increased dramatically, despite the fact that combat casualties are relatively low as a result of modern weaponry and its long-range capabilities. The infamous statistic that 20 US veterans terminate their own lives every day is one of the shameful blights on the scoresheet of modern civilization.

Most research and certainly public scrutiny has focused on the veterans themselves. Instead, Junger argues that it is the destruction of our tribal structures, and the disruption of identity and purpose consequent on modernization that lie at the root of this damning epidemic. He asks the provocative question: “What is it about modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to.”

Further pointing out the deep and painful irony in the new status quo, he protests that “today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.”

Sebastian Junger addresses the systematic disruption of the natural social order in a cogent, well-supported fashion. His book, replete with colorful stories and eloquent insight, is brief and to-the-point—a refreshing attribute in a world where many authors fill the last two-thirds of their books with repetitive fluff.

When I set out to define the most important drivers of health and happiness in my own book BodyWHealth; Journey to Abundance, I identified the critical roles of social engagement and purpose. Most famously, the evidence came from the Harvard Happiness Study, but many excellent research studies have come to the same conclusion. Our ancestors knew this. They entrenched both in the design of their tribes.

By abandoning ancestral tribal structure and function, we have inadvertently destroyed both social engagement and purpose, with severe negative consequences for our health and happiness. In Junger’s words, “the alienating effects of wealth and modernity on the human experience start virtually at birth and never let up”.

Although Junger’s advice is more implicit than direct, it is patently clear that we should boldly interrogate our modern lifestyle, and must restore where possible the principles and practices that kept our ancestors both healthy and happy.

Have fun,

Roddy

(Reach out if you’re interested in participating in a Tribal WHealth workshop.)

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