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Down on the Farm: Creating contentment

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As bizarre as it sounds, research shows that the more affluent a society, the less content its people.

In tribal jungle societies, there simply is no depression. Their languages have no word for it. A recent study of Old Order Amish in Pennsylvania found their depression rates to be one-tenth that of the general population.

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What do we do, move back to the past?

According to Dr. Andrew Weil, whose recent book "Spontaneous Happiness" explores the subject of contentment, we can tackle our discontent by changing our diet, increasing our time outside, exercising and finding ways to be around other people. Often.

Oh boy. That last one is tough. I mean, aren't other people the problem? Isn't solitude away from the irritations of other people an ideal condition?

Not if I want to be content. To be content, it appears as though we have to move back in time towards the conditions under which our brains developed.

We were made to be in clans that hunt and gather outdoors, prepare healthy food together and constantly jibber with each other. Sounds like work.

Discontent is a particularly bad problem in the Northern Hemisphere about the time of winter solstice, according to Weil.

But, he adds, that's natural! In an interview with NPR, Weil claims that our instinctive impulse in the dark times is to eat lots, sleep lots and hunker down in preparation for the rough months ahead. Part of our problem, he says, is we expect to be happy all of the time and that just isn't natural.

When I have traveled to poorer countries in sunny climes, I have noticed a lot more happiness. The people laugh, holler, hug and kiss all the time!

It is almost irritating. Don't they know how bad they have it? It sure doesn't look like it through the window of the air conditioned bus.

People who lived through hard times in our area look back and say, "We didn't know we were poor." Well, they were.

Yet, most of them have pretty good memories of those days. Neighbors helped neighbors, there was lots of good food, frequent gatherings, always people, people, people.

They struggled together. Daily. They helped each other thresh. They butchered together. They borrowed cups of sugar. They bartered and traded.

And that was just the start. Way back, when crisis hit they raised each other's kids. Neighbors and relatives delivered each other's babies, harvested each other's crops, washed and prepared the dead for burial, took care of the elderly, hosted indigent cousins for months, even years. The bulk of the communal labors fell on the women, but men worked together, too.

Tough times, yes. But those tough times created just the atavistic dependence on clan that makes many of our brains purr with contentment.

The settlers who didn't do well often were far away from other people, removed from social contact and isolated from the clan.

These days we are prosperous enough to maintain separate existences, hide in our houses, hunker down in front of our computers, munch on bad food bought ready-to-eat and turn on the gas fireplace with a remote. We barely participate in our own survival.

When disaster hits, we pull together and, for a time, at least, we have fun recovering, sawing up the fallen trees, clearing the mountains of snow, helping each other out.

It is when we pull back into our little cocoons again that post-disaster depression hits and hits hard.

According to Dr. Weil, we all can benefit from a little stress and a little tension.

But it has to be healthy tension.

A blizzard is about right. It pulls people together. But the drifts will melt. Spring will come.

Floods are too damaging, and not just to property. Our area has discovered that truth the hard way. Floods cause too many long-term scars.

My survival tension comes from the need to have firewood. However, I have so much cut that it really isn't tension at all!

So, in this time of relative prosperity, I'll have to just hunker down, enjoy my warm house, stare at my computer and wait for somebody to come over to borrow a cup of sugar.

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