How Civilization Broke Our Brains
Thompson begins the piece by helping us reconstruct our typical psychological state on a Sunday evening – as a leisurely weekend winds down, we start tensing up in anticipation of the week ahead i.e. our mind gradually starts shifting from “leisure mode” to “productivity mode”. “Guilt about recent lethargy kicks in as productivity mind gears up, and apprehension about workaday pressure builds as leisure mind cedes power.”
Thompson then cites research which shows that most people living in modern societies actual have a psychological need for the structured pressure of a typical working week. “In 2012, the University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson reviewed more than 40 years of happiness and time-use surveys that asked Americans how often they felt they either were “rushed” or had “excess time.” Perhaps predictably, he concluded that the happiest people were the “never-never” group—those who said they very rarely felt hurried or bored, which isn’t to say they were laid-back. Their schedules met their energy level, and the work they did consumed their attention without exhausting it. In an essay for Scientific American summarizing his research, Robinson offered a strenuous formula for joy: “Happiness means being just rushed enough.””
Central to the need to feel busy is a concept which is default setting in most of our brains, namely, that we are working hard today for a better future tomorrow. So, as a teenager you are told that if you spend years in higher education, you will get a well paid job. As a professional you are told, if you work hard your kids will be able to get the best education and you yourself will have a well-funded retirement. Therefore, in modern societies we justify our need to be busy as being underpinned by our need to ensure a better tomorrow for ourselves and our families.
Whilst this need to be feel busy arguably underpins much of the progress we have made over the past million years, it also brings with it an obvious downside: “While progress depends on pinning our hopes on a world that doesn’t yet exist, those who cannot stop planning for the future are doomed to labour for a life they will never fully live.”
So when did the need to be ‘busy today for a better tomorrow’ enter our lives? Were our ancestors also afflicted by this need to be busy? “To answer that question, we would have to understand the texture of human life for most of our history, before civilization and workweeks edged their way into the picture. We would need a participant-observer from our era to live among hunter-gatherers and experience their relationship to work, time, and joy.
The anthropologist James Suzman has done a version of that, devoting almost 30 years to studying the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen,” a tribe whose members lived an isolated existence in Namibia and Botswana until the late 20th century, when incursions by local governments destroyed their way of life. In his new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots,* Suzman describes the Ju/’hoansi of yore as healthy and cheerful, perfectly content to work as little as possible and—not coincidentally—ingenious at designing customs that discourage competition and status-seeking. Combining careful anthropological research with excursions into sociology and psychology, he asks how we’ve come to find ourselves more harried—and seemingly more unhappy—than the small-scale communities from which civilization emerged.”
Suzman’s study of the Bushmen highlights several ingenious strategies used by them to reduce the need to feel busy. For example, one of the reasons we feel we have to work hard is because the trappings of hard work confer status in modern societies (via bigger houses, more expensive cars/watches/wine/clothes). The Bushmen have cleverly killed this link between hard work and status: “Even the present-oriented hunter-gatherers, it turns out, had to develop communal strategies to quash the drivers of overwork—status envy, inequality, deprivation. When a Ju/’hoan hunter returned with a big kill, the tribe perceived a danger that he might think his prowess elevated him above others. “We can’t accept this,” one tribesman said. “So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” This practice became known among researchers as “insulting the hunter’s meat.”
It was not the only custom that aimed to discourage a destabilizing competition for status and avoid a concentration of power. The tribe also “insisted that the actual owner of the meat, the individual charged with its distribution, was not the hunter, but the person who owned the arrow that killed the animal,” Suzman writes. By rewarding the semi-random contributor of the arrow, the Ju/’hoansi kept their most talented hunters in check, in order to defend the group’s egalitarianism. A welcome result was that “the elderly, the short-sighted, the clubfooted and the lazy got a chance to be the centre of attention once in a while.””