Back to the Roots: Have People Been Happier and Healthier Before 

By | June 22, 2021

WE DO NOT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE FUTURE , but one way or another we imagine the past: we remember recent events and can find scientific information about very distant antiquity. One can hear about “returning to the roots” in a variety of contexts: some believe that for health we need to eat as in the Paleolithic , and reduce sports to barefoot running; others are nostalgic for the “happy Soviet childhood” – when children “spent their time on the street”, not burying themselves in gadgets and not immediately responding to their mother’s call for dinner. We figure out whether previous generations were happier and how dangerous the calls to go back are.

Happiness and progress

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens. A Brief History of Humanity ”, in The Guardian, says that with regard to who is happier – ancient people or modern people – there are two polar points of view. Proponents of the first argue that since technical, economic, medical progress made people stronger and gave them many opportunities, then this is why they should be absolutely happy.

A romantic view of history assumes that the opposite is true and technical progress has completely ruined the individuality and emotionality of a person, making us all just cogs in a giant machine. Social disintegration, spiritual vacuum and zombie by computers and the media are just a few of the arguments put forward by romantics. At the same time, Harari notes that not a single point of view, taken to an extreme, can be correct, because the very concept of happiness cannot be unambiguously associated either with the material abundance of modernity, or with the relative regularity of life in the old days.

The very concept of happiness cannot be unambiguously associated either with the material abundance of modernity, or with the relative regularity of life in the old days.

For example, the European Commission launched the Beyond GDP project – the point is that GDP alone as an indicator of progress is not enough and you need to record social, environmental and other indicators in order to understand how well or badly people live. A minister for loneliness has appeared in the UK , and there are ministers of happiness in the United Arab Emirates and India (the latter, however, is now on the wanted list on suspicion of murder).

The feeling of happiness largely depends on our expectations: who was not disappointed after having dinner at a restaurant praised by friends or going to a resort, from the photo of which it was not clear on the Internet that there would be so many tourists? However, when going to a restaurant was a rare opportunity, the very fact created a sense of celebration, regardless of the food and atmosphere. Traveling in the pre-Internet era seemed like a fairy tale at all: it was impossible to imagine in advance what kinds, sounds and smells await you wherever an airplane or train is taking. Does this mean it would be great to go back? It is unlikely, because this would mean, first of all, to narrow down their own possibilities.

Internet and plastic

Even those who would like to return to a happy childhood or to the past with its calmer rhythm will not be able to do this – the time machine does not exist yet. And nostalgia for the past often turns out to be mixed not with facts, but with emotions; you can miss cozy evenings with children’s books from the library – and when you open a book republished with the same pictures, you can be horrified by the pioneer propaganda or outright sexism of the text. If the best we can take from our own past is the ability to enjoy the little things and less information, then it is worth tackling the issues of smart consumption and digital hygiene.

If shopping does not bring joy, it may be worth shopping less often and thinking about tasks better; one carefully chosen item that fits into the wardrobe in a classy way will bring more pleasant emotions than the spontaneous purchase of five items that, it turns out, have nothing to wear. Children can also be taught to consume wisely: the ability to choose the right toys from a variety of toys and the ability to give the rest to those in need is an excellent quality that will definitely come in handy in life.

It’s good that in an era of huge choice, reduction in consumption can come precisely from a deliberate decision,
and not from poverty and scarcity on the shelves.

Again, do not rush to extremes, reducing your shoe wardrobe to one pair of boots for the season. Our parents forced us to take care of our clothes, because it was not easy to buy a replacement, the torn ones had to be sewn up with our hands, and sometimes it was impossible to wash the soiled ones quickly and efficiently. It makes no sense to overwhelm children with endless new things or buy a lot for growth (stores are not going anywhere), but so many clean T-shirts and pants to have enough for a week of playing with sand and climbing trees, quite an adequate amount of purchases. In any case, it is good that in an era of huge choice, reduction in consumption can come precisely from a deliberate decision, and not from poverty and scarcity on the shelves.

There are a few things you can borrow from the past to take care of the future, such as trying to minimize the use of plastic and disposable packaging. Once upon a time, bags with photos of celebrities in contrast with string bags seemed a sign of wealth; now the reusable shopping bag is a symbol of environmental care and a responsible attitude to the world around us. It may seem that the production of less waste or a sustainable approach to cosmetics within the framework of one person or a small family will not change anything for the planet, but together we are strong, and caring for the environment affects our own feelings unambiguously positively.

Even if you are tired of the endless stream of news, it is strange to completely abandon the Internet. You just have to think about your own relationships with the Internet, social networks and gadgets: for example, researchers associate a large number of accounts on social networks with depression (although it is not yet clear what is the cause and what is the effect). The avalanche of information and constant notifications, on the one hand, are unnerving and annoying, increasing the constant level of stress, and on the other hand, they make us dependent on smartphones and computers. It makes sense to remove all unnecessary things from the phone and work out simple rules: for example, do not take gadgets into the bedroom and turn them off during a family dinner – so that you can calmly talk at the table, “like in the good old days.”

Health and longevity

Characters described in old books, including religious ones, lived for hundreds of years – and scientists continue to argue about the very concept of a year in such literature; perhaps the authors called the month or other cycle of time “year”, or for some reason squared the actual figures. Today’s applications for record longevity, originating, for example, from Nepal or the countries of the Caucasus, sound indicators like 141 or 170 years – but there are no documents to confirm the reality of this age. Now people who are at least ninety years old are considered centenarians – and in general, it can be argued that life expectancy continues to increase throughout the world. In many countries, on average, it exceeds 80 years – there were no such indicators either in the Paleolithic era or two hundred years ago.

Of course, technical progress, urbanization, and the development of medicine contributed to a longer and healthier life – vaccines and antibiotics made early death from infections a relative rarity. And although we talk a lot about that unhealthy diets and lack of exercise lead to a variety of disease and increase the risk of death from them, even office work and an abundance of ready meals in supermarkets did not prevent the average life expectancy to grow in two or even three times. Against this background, calls to return to the past in the form of home births or refusal to vaccinate seem at least inadequate. In addition, such a rejection of modern achievements is usually very selective: few are ready to become a hermit and at the same time give up transport, the Internet or the water supply.

In many countries, life expectancy on average exceeds eighty tons of years – there were no such indicators either in the Paleolithic era or two hundred years ago

In reality, for example, members of the Amish religious movement , who live mainly in the United States and Canada , have gone so far . They do not use the Internet, TV or radio, and travel on foot or in horse-drawn carriages – although some communities are already switching to ready-made (and not just homespun) clothing and even cars. As far as health is concerned, on the one hand, closely related marriages lead to a high prevalence of genetic diseases among the Amish. On the other hand , they have fewer “lifestyle” diseases: the Amish hardly smoke or drink alcohol, move a lot, protect themselves from the sun, and as a result, the percentage of various cancers they have is lower than in the general population. Among them , obesity and diabetes mellitus are much less common – although this cannot be said about diseases of the cardiovascular system.

Many Amish do not vaccinate their children – and this leads to natural sad consequences : their children are more than twice as likely to end up in hospitals due to infections that could have been prevented by vaccination. It is believed that almost the entire Lykov family , hermits who spent more than forty years in complete isolation from the outside world, also died from pneumonia ; their immunity was maladapted to viruses and bacteria brought in by doctors, scientists and journalists when the family was discovered.

Supporters of the paleo diet and “natural” sports advise to follow an example from hermits or ancient people : the author of the book ” Born to Run ” Christopher McDougal argues that running, and running without shoes, is the most organic load for a person; he tells how the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico is able to drive an antelope by running several hundred kilometers after it and causing it to fall exhausted. And yet it is wiser to be guided by common sense: no one bothers if you want to increase physical activity or reduce the proportion of fast food. But you don’t have to chase antelope.

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