I recently read Go Wild: Free Your Mind and Body from the Afflictions of Civilization by John Ratey, a professor in clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The book proposes that while civilization has evolved very quickly, our bodies have been unable to keep up, resulting in a number of “diseases of civilization” that also happen to be all the diseases associated with the highest mortality rates worldwide. Diseases like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, asthma, cirrhosis, arthritis, and osteoporosis are not only preventable, they are things we are largely causing ourselves through our lifestyle choices.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about lifestyle choices, particularly over the last couple of years. Back in NY, when I was coming home from the office every day exhausted and suffering splitting headaches, I started thinking about all the choices that we make—individually and collectively—that are fundamentally antithetical to anything resembling a healthy, sane, balanced life. When I gained fifteen pounds in a period of 8 months and started having panic attacks in the subway, I had to think seriously about my lifestyle choices because I somehow felt like I had aged thirty years in only 2 years and I figured at that rate I was significantly shortening the years in which I would enjoy good health, if not life itself.
I knew what was not working: a long commute underground, lack of daily access to natural light, a sedentary job, restriction of mobility and lack of intellectual variety. And compounding these was the feeling that I’d never be able to make a living outside of these circumstances—that I was trapped (hence the panic attacks).
So what’s the alternative? If our lifestyle is estranging us from our biological needs, how do we change that? (And even more fascinating, why have we set up a civilization that would do that? We have created with our minds a reality that is physically harmful to us, the reasons for which I devote an inordinate amount of time speculating about—but that’s another post altogether). Ratey takes a look at pre-civilized hunter-gatherer societies, including a few examples still in existence today, explaining how the organization of their lifestyles around movement and adaptation contributed to societies entirely devoid of the afflictions that a huge percentage of our society is currently plagued with.
If what we need for health are essentially these things: fresh air, regular (preferably outdoor) exercise, unprocessed seasonal food, and a full-night’s sleep—all things I was not capable of regularly attaining in NYC and suffering mightily for that—what lifestyle would allow for those things?
For me, the answer has turned out to be freelancing. Working for myself means that I get to dictate the priorities of my own life, which are mental and physical health above all, including making a lot of money, or even having security. The amazing thing I’ve learned is that security (beyond a feeling of immediate safety from harm and access to the basic needs of food and shelter) is not required for good health—and too much of it can even be detrimental.
My experience with freelancing got me thinking about the nature of this kind of work in comparison to that of a steady job, and prompted me to realize the analogy, in regard to mental fitness, to Ratey’s hunter-gatherer research on physical fitness.
Freelance work is hunter-gatherer work. A traditional office job is agricultural work: you get up early every day, you tend your plot. You’re tied to that land, but—barring any catastrophes—you can expect it to reliably yield sustenance in the form of a steady salary and probably benefits.* As a hunting-gathering freelancer, however, you do not possess a steady source of sustenance (income), and must constantly be on the hunt for new work. It can be exhausting and stressful at times, but it’s never boring. You are constantly encountering new information, experiences, and people.
This simultaneously keeps you mentally sharper and also requires you to keep yourself healthier in order to be equal to the task. It means you’re driven to exercise, eat more nutritiously, and get enough sleep—and since you’re able to decide your schedule, you’re able to do those things.
As an office worker, you’re paid for your time. They pay you to sit on your butt in front of a computer for however many hours they can pressure you to remain there, no matter if you’ve completed all possible assignments by noon and are reading Buzzfeed and Facebook the rest of the day. Combine that with the amount of time you are spending getting to the office in either a car or a train, plus the amount of time you spend in the morning getting yourself presentable to the standards of your office’s culture and the amount of time you need to decompress when you get home in order to be functional for hobbies and recreation or meaningful interaction with your loved ones, and you’re looking at almost all of your non-sleeping hours taken up.
Supposedly, hunter-gatherers had to work only 3 to 5 hours per day in order to complete adequate adult food production. They did just enough to have just enough. Working longer hours to store food wouldn’t have made any sense; it would go bad and/or they’d have to lug it around with them, ultimately making them less effective at their lives and work. If you’re working intelligently as freelancer, you can also work much less than the traditional 40 hours per week, but that comes down to perhaps the whole point I’m trying to make, and that is the ability to recognize what is essential. What do you need, really? Not that majority of things that our society values and promotes. Having money is nice. Nice things are nice. But not when they are at the price of the essentials.
Do I miss the security of a steady paycheck? Of course. Would I sacrifice the feelings of mental and physical well-being that I have attained since becoming a hunter-gatherer freelancer? Absolutely not.
*Unless you are one of the millions of “contract” workers who, like their full-time counterparts, go to the office every day, work the same hours and do the same kind of work, but are classified differently in name only so that corporations can avoid paying for the basic human need of health coverage, all while being treated as inferior, second-class citizens by managers, which I would like to make clear is UNACCEPTABLE and emphasize the need for immediate legislative action to be taken to prevent this bullshit from continuing.