In a controversial scientific experiment conducted in the 1950s it was discovered that rats would press a lever as many as 7,000 times in an hour to receive a pleasure-stimulus implanted in a nerve bundle in their brains. Later, a similar study was conducted, even more controversially, on a human patient, who would activate the same pleasure center in his brain by adjusting a knob – to the exclusion of all other cares – social, personal hygiene, and more. If pleasure it so addictive, how have human beings adapted to modulate their experience of it?
In this day and age, opiate use is rampant, depression is at an all-time high, and people seek ways to mitigate their pain and increase their pleasure, perhaps more than at any other time in history, but certainly just as their Paleolithic ancestors did.
Where we happier in the stone age? Did we have access to more pleasure when we were using crude tools, instead of wielding multiple Wi-Fi devices? We’ve experienced an unprecedented level of growth since the industrial revolution, let alone, the days of stones and sticks, so why aren’t we unprecedentedly happy?
One could argue that peasant life was no walk in the park. We used to toil long hours conducting work in agricultural drudgery: ploughing, weeding, harvesting and carrying water buckets from the river. Such a lifestyle was harmful to human backs, knees and joints, and even numbing to the human mind. Some argue this was our true break from paradise – the agricultural revolution – which preceded even the technological delusion we are in today.
As one writer, Yuval Noah Harari laments,
“The factory worker is nothing but a mechanical cog, a slave to the requirements of machines and the interests of money. The middle class may enjoy better working conditions and many material comforts, but it pays for them dearly with social disintegration and spiritual emptiness. From a romantic perspective, the lives of medieval peasants were preferable to those of modern factory-hands and office clerks, and the lives of stone-age foragers were the best of all.”
So, romanticism aside, how do we recapture the simpler life, and increased pleasure of our ancient ancestors?
The answer is staring us in the face.
Neuroscience even supports the solution. Shared experience is the key. Not virtual reality, or a few clicks on Facebook, but the age-old skill we acquired to stay alive. Shared experience also happens to increase happiness and pleasure. It dumps dopamine in our brains – the very same chemical that rats and people would hit a lever for thousands of times to feel the “high” that ensues.
In contrast to our virtually lived lives in the 21st century, friends in the stone age depended on one another for their next meal, or their safe passage through the night. Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom we did everything together – the extended “village” as family, you could say.
You survived long journeys and difficult winters together. You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of need. Friends often knew each other more intimately than many present-day romantic couples who profess undying love for one another.
We cherish our individuality yet we must realize that we live in constant relationship to others, and that other people play a significant part in regulating our emotional and social behavior.
A single hug from a friend or loved one changes our physio-biology. A single smile from a stranger can brighten our day. We make more oxytocin, which allows for an even greater level of relational maturity and compassion for our fellow human beings. A single hug can boost our immunity and protect us from disease for up to 24 hours. Neuroeconomist, Paul Zak states that we need at least 4 hugs a day just to survive. How does this happen in a virtual world, where all our relationships take place in the ether?
To regulate our experience of life, and to increase our pleasure we need to connect more, not protect our small world views in hyper-vigilance. How can you reach out to others in real time today? Can you offer someone a genuine compliment? Can you meet with a friend? Can you give your dog a big, slobbery hug? This is what is missing from the modern world. Even our stone-toting ancestors understood this simple principle of connection.