Survival of the (Too) Fittest
Have we lost the ability to relax?
Posted Jul 15, 2020
Guest post by Jenna Weinstein
Scientific evidence has early human ancestors living between 5 million and 7 million years ago. Homo sapiens came into existence around 200,000 years ago. While 200,000 years is not an enormous amount of time geologically speaking, it's not exactly chump change; evolutionary changes within this timeframe are possible (see Gerbault et al., 2011).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of evolutionary science is figuring out which traits and behaviors are most adaptive and help organisms best fit to their environment. It really makes you wonder which traits were best fit for the changing world and how humans have focused (and favored) those select few traits.
The Good Old Days
Let’s rewind the clock: It’s 200,000 years ago and you are an early Homo sapien living in what is now Ethiopia. You are part of a small tribe/group of hunters and gatherers. Which traits and behaviors would have been advantageous at this time?
Let’s consider the traits of creativity and competitiveness.
Creativity: to help with designing tools for hunting and fishing.
Competitiveness: to display sexual prowess and courage when presented with a dangerous situation.
There is a third characteristic that was also very important for survival: laziness—knowing when to slow down and rest. Hunting and gathering for food was an exhausting process, and early humans knew that it was important to manage their time resources. If you did not take care of yourself, you would not have the energy, or strength, to hunt large animals and spend hours foraging for food.
Then What Happened?
All of the creativity and competitiveness certainly paid off. Homo sapiens transitioned from smaller tribes of hunter-gathers to larger settled agricultural groups. Now, we have farming. Then more complex tools were created. Irrigation systems, political hierarchies were created. Humans continued to advance and push themselves in new areas. Again, leveraging traits such as creativity and competitiveness, so that more energy can be conserved.
“Hey Phil, why should we go out and hunt for hours, or days? We can raise our food on a farm and grow our own crops, so we don’t have to spend hours foraging either.”
What creative thinking! And a great way to be more “lazy.”
Let’s Build Industries!
Fast-forward tens of thousands of years and the Industrial Revolution is sweeping across the world. People are praised for being inventive—can we build a machine to do the work for us? Can we build a machine that will work faster than us—making us more productive—making us better than everyone else? These traits of creativity and competitiveness continue to push humans forward and to do more.
Yet, somehow, along the way, we forgot how to relax.
People focused more and more on producing and setting ourselves apart from the competition.
And what impact has that taken on us today?
All Work and No Play
It is no secret to people living in Western societies suffer from a number of health issues and conditions.
- We are tired. According to the Center for Disease Control, the average person requires between 7-8 hours of sleep each night and only 1 in 3 adults is actually getting enough sleep.
- We are stressed out. The American Psychological Association states that money is one of the top causes of stress for adults. Seventy-two percent of adults reported feeling stress about money.
- We are overworked. According to a 2014 report from the Center for Disease Control, Americans (specifically) state that their jobs are the number-one cause of stress in their lives.
But aren’t we supposed to be happy to work? We have been evolving and favoring creativity and competitiveness. That means we should be wanting to work more. But we have forgotten about our innate desire to be lazy—to relax and recover. We have put ourselves on the backburner.
We have become a culture that cares more about how much we are doing instead of how we are doing.
So What Do We Do, Quit?
The solution to this enigma is not to encourage people to quit their jobs and just sleep all day. Our society has negative perceptions of people who are “lazy” or don’t work and contribute. But our society is also becoming more aware of the need for self-care. The self-help industry is an 11 billion-dollar industry that teaches people how to take care of themselves. We have become so focused on valuing creativity and competitiveness that we have forgotten how to take care of ourselves and manage our resources.
There are a few simple strategies that a person can integrate into their daily lives to help them enhance their self-care and the quality of their life.
- Disconnect from devices. Thanks to our innovation, we have devices that we can’t imagine leaving home without. These same devices are interfering with our ability to sleep and turn our minds off. Set an alarm for yourself each night for when you should disengage from technology and get your mind and body ready for sleep. This will stop us from scrolling through social media, which tends to spark comparative thinking — leading to overthinking and insecurities. Pick up a book or magazine instead and help your brain unwind.
- Remember to breathe. Obviously, you’re breathing. How often do you practice diaphragmatic breathing? There are many different types of breathing exercises that can relieve stress and anxiety, as well as improve sleep quality.
- Practice gratitude. There are many ways to practice gratitude. Journaling each day about what you are thankful for is a popular strategy. Another way is to be more present-minded and acknowledge when something good happens throughout your day. Humans are conditioned to notice and remember negative events more easily than positive events. This can create additional stress overtime. If we can recondition ourselves to notice the good things and reflect on why they are good, we will boost our gratitude and alleviate our stress.
So, as important as it is for humans to continue pushing themselves with creativity and competitiveness, we cannot forget to take care of ourselves as well. Give into your lazy desires once in a while. Allow yourself to take care of yourself. Be proud of how much you have done and what you will continue to do. And remember to, every now and again, pause to think about how you are doing. Wellness matters.
Sports psychologist Jenna Weinstein, the owner of Ripple Effect Performance. Jenna provides consulting to athletes and professionals in the fields of Sport and Exercise Psychology to help them accomplish their goals and achieve higher levels of success.
1. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Paying with our health. Published February 4, 2015.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Stress...at work. Updated June 6, 2014.
3. National Geographic Society. (19 August 2019). Hunter-Gatherer Culture. Nationalgeographic.org. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/hunter-gatherer-culture/
4. Webwire. (15 October 2019). $11 Billion Self-improvement market is growing, but has its critics. Webwire.com. https://www.webwire.org/viewpressrel
Gerbault, P., Liebert, A., Itan, Y., Powell, A., Currat, M., Burger, J., Swallow, D. M., & Thomas, M. G. (2011). Evolution of lactase persistence: an example of human niche construction. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 366(1566), 863–877. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2010.0268