I have been traveling with my wife and four children in Asia for almost 10 weeks. We have taken them out of formal school for a year to let them see the rest of the world. Also, since we direct a summer camp, we have missed out on years of family vacations.
We started in China and spent 25 days there. We then trekked in Nepal for a week. From there, we went to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and now Vietnam. This trip is not a luxury junket. We are living out of backpacks and staying in hostels. As a result, we are meeting local people and experiencing life as authentically as we possible can.
We have seen people worship, play, go to school, eat and work. It took us a while to notice something unusual. Despite the fact that these cultures are substantially poorer that ours, they seem to have substantially fewer incidents of certain psychological issues.
The obvious one is eating disorders. They are not as obsessed with body image. Also, many of them have been hungry or their parents were hungry, so they have an abiding appreciation for food. In the US, food is taken for granted and thinness worshipped, so the conditions are more favorable for eating-related issues.
One other malady that we have not observed is depression. They do not take anti-depressants with any frequency. Or, at least, that seemed to be the case.
After spending weeks thinking about this, we found a guide in Vietnam who speaks excellent English. Since most of our trip has been without any guides, I wanted to test our observations with her.
I asked about different medical issues, ranging form asthma to back pain to malnutrition. When I asked about depression, she gave me a blank look.
"What do you mean?"
Susie and I tried to provide a definition, "Depression is a state where the individual is sad and listless. The depressed person does not want to interact with other people and struggles to get motivated."
"Oh yes, I know this. No, we do not have this here. Except in the people who work with their brains."
In the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor describes the fact that exercise has been proven to be as effective as anti-depressants. Plus the incidence of recurrence is lower in exercisers than medication users. I know that I personally feel better when I am exercising. Nevertheless, this statement initially took me by surprise, but then seemed to make perfect sense.
The farmers from her community have no depression, nor did the construction workers. It was only the people in the offices that seemed to suffer from this condition that is so frequent in the US.
Our bodies evolved in a highly active environment out-of-doors. For hours each day, we performed physical tasks that kept us physically engaged. We performed these tasks for hours each day, not just 15-20 minutes daily.
In other words, we are meant to be active. We live in a world with fantastic laborsaving devices. Cars save us from walking. Elevators obviate stairs. In the home, we have machines that process our food and clean our clothes. These devices also keep us out of the sun and nature.
I love these devices and do not yearn for the days of yore. A good washer goes a long way in my book.
Yet we must face the fact that our bodies are designed for a different environment. These devices and our newfound inactivity are contributing factors in increased obesity.
They also are making us more depressed.
In fact, I suspect that our idle indoor existence leads to a multitude of negative effects beyond obesity and depression. When bodies evolve over time for a particular environment and behaviors, there are unexpected consequences when the environment and behaviors change.
I wish I had scientific data to back this believe, but I do not. As a result, my arguments have an ad hoc element to them. I also suspect that there is perhaps more depression than our guide noticed. Nevertheless, I have come to believe that our bodies are not adapting as rapidly as our economies and our cultures. We might hope that this is untrue, but that do not make it so.
I also wish I could be more solution oriented. I do not think biking 10 miles to work is the answer. Nor should we experiment with frontier living. Clearly, we do not respond to the "exercise daily" mantra. Frankly, I am somewhat at a loss.
I do know that the trend away from Physical Education in schools is a bad one. Habits are learned during childhood. If a child watches inactive parents and then goes to an inactive school environment, she is unlikely to develop active habits.
When we were in China, we watched as every school performed 30 minutes of daily calisthenics. When people worry about their educational system versus ours, I actually worry less about math and science and more about the discipline of regular outdoor exercise.
As adults, we need to find a way to prioritize outdoor physical activities.
While we were trekking for 5-6 hours in the mountains of Nepal, I wondered why I was not bored. Sure, the mountains were beautiful, but not so beautiful as to hold our attention for over 300 minutes. Put differently, I would not watch even 30 minutes of un-narrated mountain footage on TV. Yet we were riveted during our walk. I suspect that this is because it resonated with our bodies. Part of us awoke during these rigorous walks.
I hope this part stays awake when we return.