What makes humans joyful?
Don’t tell anyone, but our human ancestors spent a lot of time enjoying life, rather than working.
It is a trope that people on their deathbeds are less likely to feel good about their resumes than about the quality of their relationships. Good relationships enrich our psyches or spirits whereas our bank accounts do not.
Our ancestors had a rich leisure life, spending only a few hours a week gathering and hunting, which were also highly social activities. Instead of spending time chatting around the water cooler during work breaks like us, they spent all day and night gathered around the fire or hammocks or in shelters during rain. They danced, sang, and belly laughed. They spent their energy on trying to make the people around them happier, even strangers.
Sure, we are not hunter-gatherers, but they show us our communal and cooperative nature—how it grows and is supported all life long—through responsive relationships with confidants who listen to us and with whom we play.
It all starts with the evolved nest, where babies are beloved members of the community, whose wellbeing took priority. Babies were carried everywhere by someone; they were never put down. Babies learned to promote happiness in others, just as they were treated.
You might think that this relational embeddedness is stifling, not letting you “be yourself” or “do what you want.” That’s a misunderstanding of the ancestral social environment. Anthropological observers were astounded to note that small-band hunter-gatherers were both highly communal and highly autonomous. No one coerced anyone else and individuals could wander off when they wanted, participating in hunting or gathering, or not, but still sharing the food. Yet they enjoyed being with each other so much that most everything was done as a group. “Freedom to be” was characteristic of each person’s life.
Could being forced to stay home, away from work and school be a good thing for mental health—because you are more free to “be”?
Fisher (2013), in his book Radical Ecopsychology, notes that the modern industrialized society is not designed to make us happy but instead to narrow our lives into a focus on making commodities that we then consume as substitute forms of what our bodies truly desire—deep social connection and freedom to play.
The chance to shelter-in-place gives many of us a glimpse of an alternative way to live—more slowly, relationally, and enjoyably.
By being present with family, with nature, with flow (instead of focused on work, on getting to the future), we can reach greater centeredness, become more attuned to the nature of the world, which includes our unique selves.
Fisher notes: “We are best supported to grow or physically emerge as a differentiated being when we remain grounded in that sense of wholeness that comes from being lovingly connected to others. To stand apart as an autonomous self is otherwise to risk a terrifying aloneness (p. 124). A life that goes well is one that “emphasizes relationships to others, so that intensified separateness does not maroon but establishes the self as ever more unique and yet more fully bonded to nonselves [others] by chains of interaction, kinship, dependence, cooperation, and compliance.” (Shepard, Coming Back to the Pleistocene, p. 45)
In fact, Fisher explains, “The less existentially unified we are, the less tolerant we are of ambiguity or of contrary views, and the more insistent we are that our concepts be final, or of contrary views, and the more insistent we are that our concepts be final, our world be unchanging.” (p. 121)
Anthropologist Tim Ingold (1987) describes life among hunter-gatherer as an unfolding of a life and simultaneous an en-folding of others into one’s own being—like internalizing good attachment relationships, enabling us to enjoy or tolerate being alone.
Time at home together has brought about opportunities for bonding to our family members and building thicker ropes of connection. Indeed, some families and children express greater happiness during stay-at-home orders, because they are no longer running from one activity to another in full schedules, rushing to get things done, and eventually falling into bed. Now, many families have time to eat meals together, to enjoy nature and one another.
Might sheltering in place cure workaholism—where individuals don’t feel valuable unless working? Or might it break the fever of Affluenza, where parents commute or work multiple jobs to have a bigger house? At the very least, might the slowdown of work and consumption make us rethink their priority?
What does it mean to be human? What is a good life? What is a good society? What is our responsibility to the natural world, whose deforestation and development have led to the pandemics we are experiencing (see here and here)? All these are questions that are more salient in these challenging times.
Those who cannot work remotely but are our essential workers may not have these same opportunities to enjoy family life or freedom to follow hobbies. This may be a great opportunity for the lucky families to create ways to help the families of essential workers (health care, emergency, and food workers)—by perhaps cooking meals, donating money, playing with the children online.
Children learn best through face to face social play. But online social playmay be necessary.
Some people live alone and become more isolated with shelter-in-place orders. Isolation can be a time to develop a nature connection, even looking out the window at the sky, like Anne Frank. It is also a time when people can go inward and work on self-acceptance, another source of mental health, using contemplation, journaling, or meditation.
There are signs that at least some elders are quite happy about it because they can do the things they otherwise don’t take time for—playing the piano, reading novels, cooking.
Hopefully, all of us can find a silver lining in the shelter-in-place actions that are required to keep our community members safe.
Fisher, A. (2013). Radical ecopsychology: Psychology in the service of life, 2nd ed. New York: SUNY.
Ingold, T. (1987). The appropriateness of nature: Essays on human ecology and social relations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Ingold, T. (2005). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R.B. Lee, R.B. & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 399-410). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Prescott J.W. (1996). The origins of human love and violence. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 10 (3), 143-188.
Sahlins, M. (1968). Notes on the Original Affluent Society. In R.B. Lee and I. DeVore (Eds.), Man the Hunter (pp. 85-89). New York: Aldine Publishing Company.
Sahlins, Marshall. (2008). The Western Illusion of Human Nature: With Reflections on the Long History of Hierarchy, Equality and the Sublimation of Anarchy in the West, and Comparative Notes on Other Conceptions of the Human Condition. Chicago: Prickly Pear Paradigm Press.
Sorenson, E.R. (1998). Preconquest consciousness. In H. Wautischer (Ed.), Tribal epistemologies (pp. 79-115). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.