The key to happiness is recognising your inner cave woman
Forget woo-woo wellness – the key to happiness is recognising your inner cave woman: Understanding evolution will help you come to terms with your emotional angst reveals a leading psychiatrist
- Dr Anders Hansen shares how understanding our ancestors can help you
- He explains we can trace the key to wellness in the hunter-gatherer brains
- READ MORE: I’m a psychologist – here are my four life tips to make you happy
Consider your remarkable family. No, not clever Auntie Jean or your brilliant second cousin or even your 90-year-old mum — go back a bit further than that. Ten thousand generations further…
The fact is, each of your ancestors over the course of that time — a span of 250,000 years — did something quite extraordinary: they lived long enough to procreate. They must have done — otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
That makes them much luckier and stronger than most. For the vast majority of human history, as many as half of all people died before they reached their teens, normally during birth, from starvation, dehydration or from an infection.
Those who got through childhood faced any number of lethal challenges after that, and yet our ancestors overcame them all.
That we have an unbroken chain of survivors behind us, and that not one of them was killed by a lion, stumbled off the edge of a cliff or starved before they could reproduce should make us superhuman. At the very least, we should feel grateful to be here. And in such an age of unparalleled abundance too! Imagine how astonished those ancestors would be, even the relatively recent ones, by the vastly longer, healthier lives we are leading today. We should be ecstatic.
Each of your ancestors over the course of that time — a span of 250,000 years — did something quite extraordinary: they lived long enough to procreate
So why aren’t we? As a psychiatrist and best-selling author, an expert on the neuroscience of happiness, I have spent two decades trying to find out why we don’t feel fabulous all the time. Why can’t our wonderfully developed, highly evolved brains, with their 100 trillion connections, manage a simple task like making us feel happy?
For the truth is many of us feel precisely the opposite. Hardly a day goes by without a report on the rise in our collective anxiety levels. More people than ever are on medication for mood disorders: figures released last week show that 8.4 million adults in England, more than 18 per cent, were prescribed antidepressants in the last 12 months, an eight per cent increase on 2019. Everything seems to stress us out, from speaking in public to scrolling through other people’s social media profiles to buying a new house or car. We are constantly striving for a happiness that eludes us, spending millions on a booming wellness industry and yet never reaching the ultimate state of ‘wellbeing’ we seek. Why?
After diving into the research and contemplating my 20-year practice, I’ve come to a new and radical conclusion. I believe the answers lie in the emotional lives of our ancestors and in the hunter-gatherer brains that still control our behaviour. So let me take you back into the mists of time, to discover why happiness is so elusive and how you can boost yours by embracing your inner caveman.
WHY ‘HAPPILY’ IS NEVER ‘EVER AFTER’
The fact is, the brains of our ancestors, and by extension ours, are not designed for happiness. Stock image used
Congratulations! At last you’ve got that promotion at work. Now you can buy a new car and get that new kitchen and be blissfully happy with your lot.
Except, you won’t be. Not for very long, in any case. That feeling of happiness will quickly be replaced by a new longing for an even better promotion or an even bigger pay rise. As we all know, it never ends!
The fact is, the brains of our ancestors, and by extension ours, are not designed for happiness. The only motivation we have ever had as a species is to survive and reproduce, and feelings of wellbeing are well down the list of priorities. Indeed, being happy might well risk us not surviving and reproducing.
Let’s say an ancestor of yours saw some fruit high up on a tree. Her brain made the instant calculation, based on feelings of hunger and fear, that it was worth the risk of climbing the tree to get the fruit, which she did successfully. Satisfied, she sat down beneath the tree to tuck in.
But for how long could she afford to feel satisfied? As it happens, not that long. Had her satisfaction from that effort lasted a matter of months, she’d have had no motivation to seek out more food and would have soon starved to death. If feelings of wellbeing had persisted unabated, she wouldn’t have got up and found the next tree. Happiness is supposed to be fleeting because otherwise the behaviour it provokes hampers that single goal — to survive long enough to reproduce.
Wellbeing often tends to rank highly in lists of what we think matters most in life. But as a tool, it’s ineffective if it lasts too long. Expecting to always feel great is about as unrealistic as expecting a banana or an apple to keep you full for the rest of your life. We just aren’t built that way.
IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT YOU’RE LAZY!
In the same way our brain wants us to guzzle down all the chocolate in one go, it wants us to stay on the sofa. Stock image used
Study after study has concluded that exercise protects against anxiety and depression. If every day you swap 15 minutes of sitting for 15 minutes of running or an hour of walking, your risk of developing depression drops by 26 per cent.
That the pedometer does not distinguish between walking to the shop, mowing the lawn or training for a marathon is important. All that matters is the movement itself. At the end of the day it’s the number of steps that helps to protect against depression, not where, when or how you take them. But there is a big mystery here. Why, if physical activity boosts our mental health and makes us more satisfied with life, if it protects us from depression and subdues anxiety and stress, has nature planted within us the urge to choose Netflix over a running machine? Why does our brain resist doing something that is so clearly good for it?
To understand this paradox, we need to bear two things in mind. First, the brain may be evolved for exercise but its main purpose is survival. And second, throughout almost all of human history, starvation posed a huge threat to our lives, meaning we immediately pounced on any calories we could find.
We are lazy by default because our caveman brain is in charge. In the same way our brain wants us to guzzle down all the chocolate in one go, it wants us to stay on the sofa and save the energy we derive from those calories for hunting the next meal.
Our ancestors would think we had a screw loose if they found out we were expending valuable energy by running on the spot and never getting anywhere. Getting up and moving is by far the best way to feel less anxious but it seems it’s not your fault that you don’t want to!
KEY TO HEALTHY AGEING IS FRIENDSHIP
The few who survived all of the hazards and disasters that nature threw at them, — and in doing so became our ancestors — did it together. Stock image used
For 99.9 per cent of our time on earth, humans have depended on each other for survival.
The few who survived all of the hazards and disasters that nature threw at them, — and in doing so became our ancestors — did it together. All of which gave an inherent advantage to those who were equipped with a strong urge to create and nurture social ties. As descendants of those survivors, you and I have inherited a deeply rooted instinct to do the same.
Consider how attentive we are to social signals that suggest we might be excluded. Why hasn’t she called? Why haven’t I been invited to the wedding? Why have they posted a picture of a picnic when they never asked if I wanted to come along?
The difficulty we experience in banishing these thoughts from our minds stems from the fact that, for generations of humans, it really mattered if your friends didn’t have your back.
This is one of the theories behind the startling medical research showing that friends and relatives not only make our lives fuller but make them longer and healthier too. It’s why loneliness is so bad for you — as bad, it’s been suggested, as smoking 20 cigarettes a day.
Interpreting loneliness as a state of danger, the brain adopts a constant state of alertness, which results in low-level, long-term stress in the body — increasing the risk of death from a stroke or heart attack.
AFRAID OF PUBLIC SPEAKING (OR SPIDERS)?
In fact, the most common phobias — public speaking, heights, confined spaces, open expanses, snakes and spiders — all have something interesting in common. Virtually no one dies of them any more, but they all posed a threat to us historically. Stock image used
Why are people afraid of spiders? Spiders don’t kill us very often, after all. Or snakes? About four people a year die in Europe from snake bites. Why do we fear them so much?
In fact, the most common phobias — public speaking, heights, confined spaces, open expanses, snakes and spiders — all have something interesting in common. Virtually no one dies of them any more, but they all posed a threat to us historically.
Public speaking belongs on that list, by the way, because for much of human history raising your head above the parapet in a group brought with it the risk of exclusion, which would have been equivalent to mortal danger. You wouldn’t have survived on your own for long, after all.
So don’t blame yourself if you suffer from anxiety or phobias. They are natural defence mechanisms that protect us from dangers — and they’re often a sign that we’re functioning entirely normally.
INSTANT WAYS TO BEAT THE BLUES
1 Exercise for two hours a week. If you currently do very little, then you are to be congratulated. All the benefits still await you and you’re likely to enjoy the very best effects.
The biggest impacts on mood, tolerance to stress and mental faculties are observed in those who go from doing nothing to doing a little. Several major studies suggest between two and six hours of cardiovascular exercise per week is optimal.
2 Stop striving for it. Yes, forget all about it! The less we care about happiness, the better chance we have of finding it. Today we are so bombarded by pictures of happy, attractive, harmonious lives, our expectations are unrealistically high. When our inner world doesn’t match our expectations, we are bound to be disappointed.
The solution? Lower those expectations, ignore demands to ‘cheer up’ and understand that happiness is not a series of ecstatic moments but the state we reach when, having worked out what’s important to us, our life has meaning to ourselves and to others.
3 Limit social media to one hour a day. There are hard, scientific reasons for this. We are descendants of people who were absolutely desperate to ‘belong to the group’ and we never stop evaluating our position in the hierarchy.
To protect ourselves from being ousted, our brains are constantly asking things like: Do I fit in? Am I good, smart, funny or beautiful enough? Social media provides countless ways to feel inadequate and shove us down the pecking order, which our cavemen brains interpret as a source of intense stress. Get off your socials for a wellbeing boost.
4 Take a duvet day. When we’re stressed, our immune system shifts up a gear. That’s because, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, stress was often a signal of imminent injury and, without antibiotics, an infected wound would have catastrophic consequences. It also explains why, when we feel stressed or low, we withdraw, isolate ourselves and pull the duvet over our heads.
This is our brain’s method of helping us avoid an infection or conserving our energy to fight one. In today’s world, stress comes not from a fear of infection but from work, rising bills and so on. To react to stressful situations with apathy or withdrawal is not a mark of sickness; it is healthy.
5 Solve problems when on the move. Studies have shown that the brain is at its sharpest when we are taking a brisk walk. For most of human history it was when we were hunting for food that we would most need concentration and problem-solving skills.
Had the brain evolved for today’s world, it would be sharpest in front of a computer, but of course, it didn’t.
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