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Go Wild and Grow Happy, Part 1

The first step

Most anthropologists agree that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not suffer the way we do today. While we are blessed with many gifts of civilization, John Ratey and Richard Manning remind us in their book Go Wild that we also pay catastrophic consequences. Inflammatory diseases, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety are rampant.

What is it that’s gone wrong with the taming of Homo sapiens? Unlike our ancestors, who depended much more on cooperation than we (think we) do, we wage horrific wars. Loneliness devastates us in more subtle ways, but is a killer nevertheless (see blog “10 Ways to Get Past Loneliness”), along with inertia and malnutrition. As in my book on happiness, Ratey and Manning try to get to the bottom of what keeps us from fully engaging in a life that is about feeling agile and attentive in the here and now. Somehow we got disconnected from our environment, feeling ourselves as separated from and even above nature. The authors are quoting psychoanalyst Erich Fromm from "The Art of Loving,"1

“The human race in its infancy still feels one with nature. The soil, the animals, the plants are still man’s world. He identifies himself with animals…But the more the human race emerges from these primary bonds, the more it separates itself from the natural world, the more intense becomes the need to find new ways of escaping separateness.”

According to Fromm, it is this separateness from nature that arouses anxiety in all of us (yes, "all", even though the pronoun “she” was underused in Fromm's time, reflecting already imbalance in most civilizations). This idea is very familiar to traditional Zen Buddhism, which rejected the extremely civilizing philosophy of Confucianism. The Chinese depended on it for unifying the region. It regulated human behavior, especially respect and kindness, to a tee. Some people felt overregulated, removed from their basic, good nature that could not, in their view, be understood or brought out with rules or even just words in general.

In Zen, to be human means to be bestowed already with a good nature, which could be experienced directly, given the courage to let go, the tranquility to simply be, and the willingness to relate to the natural flow of life (all of which is subject in A Unified Theory of Happiness). Zen became an alternative way of life that can reconnect us to our basic, good nature that feels itself One with the world. As a humanistic Zen Psychologist, I do endorse this message very much.

Interestingly, Ratey and Manning also wish to return to who we are meant to be, which is why they consider their book to be “instructions for re-wildering your life,”2 believing that we could reinstate our health and happiness. Often we would only have to take one but crucial step that sets our self-healing mind/body system in motion.

Unfortunately nobody knows what step that might be for you. I guess it comes back to the Buddhist understanding that we cannot get around following our own light. Everything hangs together though, which means when you open one door, other doors might open along with it. Also, as you learn about your mind/body system and how a little thing can go a long way, you might intuitively gravitate to what’s best for you.

Before I share the first, maybe quintessential step toward your health and happiness, let me clarify what is meant by going wild. Most of us associate a wild human as a caveman dragging a massive club, ready to hit just about anybody over the head. Or at least an unhinged person shooting from the hip with his unguarded mouth. Images like these make for good cartoons. However, they do not reflect wild or natural, but crazy and maladaptive. If our ancestors had been like that, we would hardly have made it to this point. Admittedly, wild humans were neither rocket scientists nor Frida-Kahlo-type artists. But they were certainly fine-tuned with nature; empathic with other humans and other animals; fit and graceful in order to run, hunt, gather and dance together; attentive and calm-minded to protect against predators and detect resources; musical and rhythmical to sooth each other and communicate over long distances; affectionate, ready for intimacy; well-rested due to sunset being the off-switch and sunrise the on-switch; blessed with an appetite and appreciation for a wide variety of foods.

So next time anyone says anything about your primal qualities, do yourself a favor and picture a human in accord with nature. There is a Tarzan in all of us. Plus we can speak. With poetry. And we can discover new particles. Or have coffee with a friend and discuss the meaning of life (I know I do). The wild thing to do may just be to calm your mind (we get to that) and act lovingly (we get to that too).

So the first step may just be to change our attitude toward our own human nature. Humans are not as evil as their recent modern behavior during the last 10, 000 years suggest. On the other hand, not getting what we need to thrive might be the culprit of inhumane behavior that is when our aggression is not there to protect and defend, but to destroy, dominate, and take. Humans are not the worst animal on the face of the planet as some misanthropes suggest. We are capable of crazy, unhinged, most cruel deeds since we have begun to dominate the natural world. In writer Daniel Quinn’s word, in the novel Ishmael, we have become Takers,3

“As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years.”

What we need is to change our minds about who we are and what we are capable of. I don’t like to be scolded for being a human; I like to be inspired to become a Mensch. We cannot go back in time – I wouldn’t if I could. Call me crazy, but I just don’t like to sleep with lions. But I do want to invite just enough wilderness into my life to allow me to be healthy, calm, and happy. Let’s find out just how to do this in “Go Wild and Grow Happy - 2.”


  1. John J. Ratey & Richard Manning (2014). Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Fellow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being. p. 191.
  2. Ibid., p.10.
  3. Daniel Quinn (1992). Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. p. 249.

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© 2016 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

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