The search for happiness and a certain dissatisfaction with the world has been part of human life for as long as anyone knows. From Aristotle to Epicurus to modern self-help books, the goal of getting well has occupied the best and worst minds of every generation, and religions have thrived by offering an answer to pervasive pain. At the dawn of the modern world, it was hoped that science would rid us of the disease and deprivation that our ancestors had suffered, with real solutions and without the need to embrace unfounded beliefs. Although the progress in many material aspects has been spectacular, some data, which are the first step to correct the problems in the world governed by reason, show that the solution to the anguish of existing is not near and that it is even far away. .
In Spain, in a trend that it shares with almost all Western countries, the consumption of antidepressants tripled between 2005 and 2015, and a study published in The Lancet estimated that, during the covid pandemic, depressive disorders had increased by almost 30% worldwide. Luis Caballero, section chief of the psychiatry service at the Puerta de Hierro University Hospital in Madrid, and Francisco Collazos, head of the Vall dHebron Transcultural Psychiatry program in Barcelona, consulted for this report, agree that, in recent years, There has been an increase in cases of self-harm and eating disorders among adolescents, and also in the consumption of alcohol and other substances, aggravated during the pandemic.
With this scenario, as has already happened with diets to tackle chronic diseases caused by current lifestyles, some have looked to the past in search of solutions. Proponents of Paleolithic diets argue that to eat healthy, we must eat like humans did tens of thousands of years ago, in caveman-like conditions. Two evolutionary biologists, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, have recently published Hunter-gatherer’s guide for the 21st century. Both believe that it is necessary to pay attention to human evolutionary history to reduce the mental health problems that plague our society. According to them, technological and lifestyle changes in recent times have been so rapid that human adaptability has not been able to keep up. To reverse the problem, it would be necessary to accept the true human nature, unraveled through the study of its evolution. From that study, they extract advice from a self-help book: in addition to exercising more or eating less processed products, a way of life with more support in the community and in traditional life would be healthier for our minds.
In this line, some scholars of the less westernized cultures of the present, those that may be more similar to that of prehistoric humans, affirm that there is a lower prevalence of mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, but, as in everything that has to do with human happiness, history is full of nuances. Francisco Giner, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Salamanca, who has studied human groups with “primitive” lifestyles around the world, acknowledges that “talking about happiness in the academic field is scary”, but that his team has tried to “quantify it to a certain extent from a series of components”, and have concluded that in these primitive tribes, since they lived “less stressed”, they were “happier” and have a less competitive childhood than ours”. In addition, “they have more contact with nature, in many cases good nutrition and a richer social life, in which children are playing in large groups every day,” he adds. “On balance, mental illness is almost non-existent and for categories like depression they don’t even have terms,” he sums up.
About the social pressure to conform to the group, Giner tells the story of a man from the Hamer tribe, from Ethiopia, who had gone to university, but maintained his tribal identity. “He invited me to a rite in which he was given a wife chosen by his family, and I asked him if he would not have preferred to choose her himself,” he recalls. He gave her an answer that may seem surprising to a Westerner: “My family knows the young women of my culture better, and they will have chosen better than I would have.”
This cession of a good part of the freedom in the family, the tribe and the custom is pointed out as a protective effect by other experts. “When you talk to patients from the former Soviet republics, some of them miss those times when the script was very closely marked by the State,” explains Francisco Collazos. “In mental health it can be cheaper for someone to tell you from the outside what you have to do, because it also frees you from the bad conscience that comes from making mistakes in decisions. The large number of options that we have today comes with a great deal of anxiety”, he stresses. “In our society, the ultraliberal discourse and the crisis of traditional values bombard us with the possibility of a full life, an attractive body that we can improve, a successful job that we must achieve. But later, on a day-to-day basis, those excessive dreams are not fulfilled and that feeds an experience of failure”, he explains.
Some experts believe that lifestyle and technological changes in recent times have been so rapid that human adaptability has failed to keep pace.
“The discourse of freedom is very attractive, but it is a great challenge for which few are prepared, both to write a script appropriate to their abilities and to manage the frustration of not getting something out of that script,” says Collazos. The expert believes that, when this frustration occurs, many people go to a psychiatrist, “who in many cases has the solution of providing medication, something much simpler than proposing a change in the way of living and evaluating one’s own life”, says the doctor.
The psychiatrist, specialized in the treatment of immigrants, gives an example of clinical cases in which the acceptance of a system is seen. “Treating these people, I have seen that those who arrive in Madrid or Barcelona from a certain country and continue to live as if they were still there, isolated in their own environment, have fewer mental disorders than those who make a greater effort to integrate,” he says. the. However, Collazos acknowledges that “one who advocated a return to the past and told you: ‘resign yourself and give up your freedom’ would not be very successful.”
Maria Martinon-Torres, director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution, in Burgos, is the author of Imperfectus, a recently published book in which he explores human nature through its evolutionary history. The researcher considers herself surprised by the idea that “now there is more stress than before”. And she explains: “We know the stress that exists now, but if we had the possibility of doing a retrospective study to compare ourselves with the Pleistocene, it is possible that we would see that the stress that we now have at work would be in the face of a famine. When there is sufficient cognitive development to anticipate problems, anxiety is inherent”. The paleoanthropologist also argues that there are studies that show that some populations with primitive lifestyles did not have stress until they were helped to verbalize it. Collazos agrees and recounts her experience with patients from less westernized cultures. “It is rare that they tell me, doctor, I have depression. In many native African languages that term does not exist, but they still tell you: doctor, lately I think a lot, ”she exemplifies.
“The discourse of freedom is very attractive, but it is a great challenge for which few are prepared”
Martinon-Torres also says that many emotions that we consider negative on an individual level can be beneficial for the group. “That dissatisfaction, the fear, the anxiety, the anticipation of danger, can help us anticipate problems and solve them. Globally, it is good for the species that there are people who put themselves in the worst, who are not calm, ”he continues.
Although there are cultural traits that reinforce tendencies common to all of humanity, and it is probable that the anticipation of problems or the continuous projection of plans for the future is more frequent in a society that extols the exercise of freedom than in one where destiny mark God, tradition or family, the variation between traditional cultures themselves is also important. Giner, who told the story of the Ethiopian satisfied with the woman his family had chosen for him, also recalls the story of a young woman from the Afar ethnic group, also in Ethiopia, who married an old man, but then left him because he refused to perform ablation on her daughter. “With the keys to her culture, she spontaneously became, without the influence of NGOs or Western groups, in opposition to a traditional practice of her group,” says Giner, who also recognizes the attractiveness of many aspects of Western cultures. for members of more traditional groups.
Luis Caballero believes that talking about the greater or lesser prevalence of mental disorders in primitive or modern societies is too generic an approach and warns against the scarcity of reliable scientific studies. “They are different cultures with different pathologies. Diseases related to infections, which later lead to psychiatric problems, are more frequent in less developed societies, and going hungry or not having vaccinations cannot be an advantage. Poverty is a clear risk factor for mental disorders. But then the demands of very competitive environments in very competitive societies can cause stress for children and adolescents, ”he reflects. “The great challenge is the identification of risks associated with cultural factors and in specific historical moments”, concludes Caballero, who, like the rest of the experts consulted, considers that it is a field in which much remains to be investigated.
“The demands of highly competitive environments in highly competitive societies can cause stress for children and adolescents”
What the experts are clear about is that mental health has to do with balance, with the ability to react to problems that arise. Collazos believes that we should review the “hegemonic model” of Western developed societies, which involves consuming a lot, with many applications to make the most of time, “a system where we have the possibility of immediately and ephemerally satisfying material needs, but also relationships.
The feeling of paradise lost seems to be something inherent in the human experience. Jared Diamond wrote that the abandonment of the hunting and gathering life for agriculture and ranching had been humanity’s worst mistake. Nostalgia for the past is not new, but there is no evidence that completely happy humans have ever existed. However, little is known about how technological changes and social transformations affect beings that evolved in small bands on the African savannah. An analysis of human nature, assuming individual variations, and their relationship with present conditions, can be a way to improve mental well-being that many today consider too far away.
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Source: EL PAIS