When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck. Paul Virilio
Ever since humans started rising up the food chain, our progress as a species has made our lives both easier and harder.
Sure, we have electric tin openers. But how many giraffes forget to buy batteries for their child’s toy cherry picker on Christmas Day?
Take the invention of farming roughly 12,000 years ago, suddenly we were able to support much larger families, and a huge explosion in population followed.
But farming was also a trap.
Compared to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle it was harder work with longer hours. But with more mouths to feed there was no going back…
Language is another example. Perhaps the great human invention, it allows cooperation at scale and turned us from frankly quite puny apes into the planet’s most deadly predators.
Yet at the same time language is a double-edged sword.
Unlike say, wombats, language allows us to ruminate on the past, to worry about the future and to compare ourselves unfavourably to others.
Language allows me to write this post in the conscious certainty that one day I will have to leave everything and everyone I love in this world.
Wombats don’t think like that, or if they do they’re being very stoic about it.
Finally, let’s take modern inventions like smartphones, videoconferencing and social media.
These are all astonishing achievements that bring many benefits. But on balance, would you say these inventions have made us happier necessarily?
When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck.
The point is that our progress as a species has not always been good for us.
And this is why improving mental health is so often about going back to basics…
Five mental health basics
Most of us know this stuff, but the problem with knowing something is that this is not where the battle is won.
Like it or not, humans evolved with a basic set of needs which we need to make happen. And unless we do them, we will not be happy, healthy, or perform at our best.
Here’s the 5 most important:
1. Social relationships. The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness month is loneliness. And quite right – our ancestors simply did not survive without the support of a group.We’re wired for connection, and that’s the real, face-to-face, full-fat kind, not the online, semi-skimmed kind.
2. Daylight. Our internal body clocks require daylight in order to recalibrate each day. Without this daily recalibration from light, we start to slip out of sync with our own biological rhythms and we become less happy and healthy (this is a great 3 min video on the subject).
3. Movement – our ancestors only rarely got stuck at their desks for 10 hours a day. In fact, it is estimated they walked around 15,000 steps a day (according to Fitbit’s early data). We evolved to solve problems on the move, not sitting at a desk. (I like this clip about the perfect anti-learning environment).
4. Work in pulses – our hunter-gatherer ancestors rarely engaged in frenzied, all-out continuous berry hunting. Humans work best in pulses; activity followed by rest. A bit like, err, everything else in nature.
5. Set boundaries. Our ancestors weren’t being messaged at 11pm about this amazing berry tree their old school friend just found in Italy. Unless we can find a way to place some boundaries around our working hours or commitments, none of us is going to be happy or healthy.
I know you know this stuff.
But knowing is not where the battle is won.
So now I’m off to take that walk, and I hope to see you there.