Americans, the Marlboro People: Self-reliance (& comfort) in abundance

Is it a wonderful life when social well-being is missing?

Posted Jul 04, 2010

Isn't odd how we give away our liberty so easily by letting others with their own designs plant in our minds ideas about what a good life is? .

There seems to be two competing ideas that preoccupy American minds--first, that we should be independent and self-reliant and tough-minded (with the flip side that being dependent, needy and soft hearted are bad). This is the Marlboro Man of tobacco company fame. And a second idea, contrarily, is that we don't want to put out more effort than is needed--we want a comfortable life.

From a modern perspective, our ancestors who lived in small foraging bands had it rough. Most of the time, they were outside and exposed to the elements. They fasted regularly and ate infrequently. They made considerable efforts to obtain food through gathering and hunting. They had little clothing and slept in lean-to shelters. They ate mostly the same things. They lived with insects and in proximity to predators.

From this perspective, many of us in the Western world today have a wonderful life. Westerners typically have houses, clothes, plenty of food choices. We are protected from the elements and wild animal predators. Many of us cannot imagine spending our lives "camping," living outdoors and eking out a living from the natural world. We cannot imagine putting up with the physical inconveniences.

In fact it seems that over the decades we have gone "all out" for physical comfort. In an effort to decrease our labor we purchase ‘time-saving" machines that cook our rice and our burgers with little attention. We go to fast-food joints in droves and eat TV dinners at home, remote in hand. We make smart machines or robots that take over jobs that humans used to carry out. In the US we spend less time on food preparation than anyone else in the world.

We have established as commonplace the physical comforts that only royalty enjoyed in the past. We sleep on comfortable mattresses, have plenty of food choices. Other people do the hardest labor for us (e.g., making our homes, furniture, clothing and raising our food). And, through many media, we are (now constantly) entertained by others.

It's a very comfortable life, compared to that of our ancestors.

But, what about social comfort?

Based on what the anthropologists and explorers have documented regarding hunter-gatherer communities (where we spent 99% of our human history), our ancestors had social lives we can only dream about. Our ancestors spent their lives in kin-related groups who relied on each other for provisioning but also for enjoyment during leisure time. They were closeknit generally (although conflicts could lead to groups splitting up). Their daily life was group oriented. Hunting and gathering, child rearing and food preparation were communal events. Individuals were rarely alone and isolation was avoided (although individuals left for solo ventures into the wild at will). There were high amounts of and pleasure from group social leisure, as indicated to observers by frequent smiling, laughing, dancing, singing. (See below for some references.) Even at night, they slept in groups next to or on top of one another.

It seems like we in the West have made a tradeoff between self-reliance and physical comforts and social well being. So, which is more important?

It turns out that physical hardship seems to be less damaging to well being than social hardship.

Social hardship comes from inadequate relational support. For the young, this means physical separation from key caregivers --odd, isn't it, that we do this to human babies as a matter of course, starting right after birth? Lack of (ongoing, frequent) positive touch is linked to depression and anxiety. Social hardship also occurs when a child is reared with little mutual co-relating with caregivers--the pleasurable reciprocal give-and-take that good relationships exhibit--which tunes up the brain for social pleasure.

For adults, social hardship means not having loved ones in the household who are emotionally resonant ("in tune") with one. It means not having extended family members near by to help rear offspring. It means social isolation at work or at home. A quarter of Americans admit that they have no confidant. Isn't it strange how we have come to think living alone is normal and good? Loneliness pervades the life of many Americans, leading to all sorts of mental and physical health problems.

But somehow (for lots of historical reasons I won't go into here) we put up with social isolation that makes us sick and miserable. As Lewis, Amini and Lannon said in their book, A General Theory of Love, "A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most." I concur.

But culture is malleable. We can change ourselves.

Let's get back to enjoying one another. Let's sit on the porch. Let's hang out with our neighbors (first, learn their names!). Let's slow down our pace of life to face-to-face relational speed, learning to be patient with that "old-fashioned" way of being. Slow being, like slow food.

If you have learned to not get pleasure from people, as is the case for many of us, you may need to re-train your brain. Awakening the right brain with the arts (e,g,, dance, painting) can help. Some people participate in cuddle parties. My husband and I "huggle" everyday and sit forehead to forehead to "recharge." It makes for a wonderful life.