Here is the opening chapter to my book, The Awakened Ape: A Biohacker’s Guide to Evolutionary Fitness, Natural Ecstasy, and Stress-Free Living. Available on Amazon
The happiest people in the world don’t wear underwear. If they have clothes at all, it is either a simple sheath that covers their genitals or a cloth they wrap around their body in colder climates. They have almost no possessions. They don’t eat at restaurants, they don’t use smartphones, and they don’t watch television. They don’t have money. They don’t even know what money is. What they have is more valuable — a sense of serenity and self-confidence that would astound the average person. A joie-de-vivre, an easy laugh, and an absence of stress and worry. They love freely and have a deep sense of oneness with the earth.
They are also the healthiest people in the world. They know little, perhaps nothing, of cancer, heart disease, obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, allergies, diabetes or even poor eyesight. They have never been to a doctor. They are athletic, strong and muscular. They do not gain weight as they age or show signs of dementia. Most remarkable of all — for 95% of human history, this described the life of nearly every single human being on earth. Skeptical? It’s ok, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I might not have believed any of this either.
How can we most enjoy the brief moment of time we have to be alive? This question first struck me sometime during my formative years when the finiteness of life and certitude of death became palpable and utterly undeniable. A period of existential crisis took hold, and I became obsessed with finding a solution. I consulted everyone from the ancient Greeks to the most cutting-edge science in search of an answer, mixing and matching like an alchemist working on the philosopher’s stone. Take two parts psychology and anthropology, add a hefty portion of evolutionary biology and sprinkle with a dash of Eastern mysticism. Wash, rinse, repeat, until a dozen years later I have emerged with the concoction you now hold in your hands. This final elixir is not at all what I expected to find when I first set out on this journey. Many of the recommendations to follow will seem at best odd, and at worse sacrilegious, to ears molded in the technology driven consumerist milieu that is the modern world. But it is in embracing our primordial nature that the highest happiness is found.
Since the dawn of our existence up until the advent of agriculture, we scoured the earth from Africa to the Arctic in search of wild game and fresh fruits and vegetables. Along the way, the forces of natural selection attuned us to our environment in such a magnificent way that our hunter-gatherer ancestors felt a natural unity with their surroundings, leading to a life of robust health and merriment. There are tribes of people alive today, hidden in remote jungles of the Amazon and the sprawling Kalahari desert who still live in this ancient way and enjoy the fruits of life matched to its genetic potential. Most people in modern society look down upon these tribes as relics of the stone age. How unfortunate that they don’t have access to the wonders of technology! Yet the scientists who have lived among these ‘primitives’ describe them as the happiest and healthiest people they have ever seen.
The claims I have just made fly in the face of everything that we have been taught to believe and what is considered common sense. I majored in philosophy in college and much to the chagrin of the people unfortunate enough to sit across from me at dinner, I questioned and analyzed everything — from the color of the apples on the table to the most arcane theories in quantum physics. But it never dawned on me that things like stress, worry, and heart disease are modern illnesses. I took it as a given that as I grew older I would slowly lose my mind, my stressful life would cause my nervous system to degenerate, and I would eventually succumb to cancer. Then, while in graduate school and writing my master thesis on the evolutionary psychology of health and happiness, I began poring over the anthropological literature on hunter-gatherers. What I read blew my mind. I didn’t understand how this wasn’t public knowledge. I wanted to run out on the street and grab people by the collar, yelling what I was learning to their faces, “Did you know that hunter-gatherers don’t get cavities? Did you know this? They don’t even brush their teeth!” It is partly in the interests of not looking like a madman, and saving your nicely pressed Banana Republic button-down shirt that I have written this book instead.
Luckily in the last few years, the ancestral health movement, popularly depicted as “the paleo diet” has become hugely successful, and people around the world are thinner, stronger and suffer from fewer illnesses and chronic conditions as a result. A smashing success, and for those unfamiliar with the basics of paleo eating I have devoted a chapter to it. But in this craze to get healthier, thinner bodies, people consistently left out what I consider to be the far more interesting question. Why is it that hunter-gatherers were so happy? Why did they have such great mental health?
It may surprise you to know that psychologists began seriously studying happiness — the most important question in all of human existence — only at the turn of the new millennium. Before that psychologists were focused mainly on treating mental illness, taking a person from being sick to functioning normally. That is where all the money was; people don’t pay for a psychologist when they are simply feeling what Freud called “ordinary human unhappiness”. Since the question of how to make the most of this one and only existence we have on earth has been my driving motivation throughout my entire life and was the reason I studied existential philosophy as an undergrad, I was naturally intrigued by this new development in the field of psychology. I wanted to get my hands dirty. I decided to work in a positive psychology laboratory while pursuing my graduate degree in Mind, Brain, and Behavior Research. In the last decade, the field of positive psychology has blossomed with thousands of journal articles and seemingly as many books published on the subject. The modus operandi for studying happiness has been to take a sample from our modern society and figure out the personality, social, and economic correlations to well-being. Does money buy happiness? Yes, but only to the extent that one isn’t poor. After that it doesn’t matter much. People with lots of close friends tend to be pretty happy and those who are neurotic are not. A lot of this research has been insightful and overall a great boon to our understanding of the human condition. But when asking the question, “What is it that makes a person as happy as possible?” the field of positive psychology has come up short in six key areas. These are the issues I seek to address and clarify. They correspond to the six sections of this book. Let us begin.
The Meaning of Life
How strange a thing it is to be alive! This maelstrom of conscious experience, with its sensations of pleasure, pain, thought, and vision. How different it is to be human beings, rather than the rocks and oceans we share the planet with. How did it come to be so? Why do we feel what we feel? Why do we have the desires, likes and dislikes that we do? The average man is too busy, lost in a world of click-bait ads and Walmart aisles, ever to ponder such questions. The smarter, hard-working, type A’s among us, are too focused on achieving their dreams to question why they have those dreams in the first place. Only in the aftermath of heartache do we even pay lip service to these most important ideas.
That people can live their entire lives without knowing what it means to be a human being is a great misfortune. For without this philosophical foundation, we are liable to flitter away our short lives mired in needless dramas and pursuits. This section is about steering you on course, setting you in the direction of what is truly essential. Lest you worry that I am advocating for a life of pure asceticism or self-flagellation, or that one must devote oneself to some serious cause, I can assure you I am not. This is a book about pleasure and fun, about health and happiness. Through a series of thought experiments, I will argue the attainment of such well-being is the highest purpose to which one can aspire.
Unfortunately, there exists a cabal of contemporary psychologists who believe that any deliberate attempt to improve our happiness will only backfire. Trying to be happy they say, will only remind us of our unhappiness. Even such historical luminaries as John Stuart Mill, the philosopher most famous for espousing the view that pleasure was the greatest moral good, once said, “those are only happy who have their minds fixed on something other than their own happiness.”
As a biohacker, I never understood the affinity for these mysterian views of well-being. Biohacking is the principle that the human body is like a machine, and if we can figure out how it works, we can improve the way it functions. Happiness is not some nebulous ether, but a biophysical state that functions on the principle of cause and effect. In this way, it is similar to having a healthy heart. No doctor would advise his patient to “Stop trying to have a healthy heart if you want to have a healthy heart!”. And no psychologist should be telling anyone that happiness cannot be improved directly. If your attempts to improve your happiness are failing, it is not because it is impossible. It is because you are doing it wrong.
The majority of the research conducted on the happiest people on the planet has not been done by psychologists but by anthropologists. This happened completely by accident. When the field of anthropology exploded in the beginning of the 20th century, scientists had no idea that while traveling to the ends of the earth in search of lost tribes they would inadvertently be discovering the happiest people alive. They went out to study their social customs, their ways of gathering food, the tools they use and their sex habits. The study of their well-being was only ancillary, yet anthropologist after anthropologist would come out of the jungle remarking time and again how fit, confident, and relaxed their subjects were. The public found this hard to accept as the reigning belief was that history was a progressive march towards a better culture and way of life culminating in the apex of human existence that was modern European and American society. It doesn’t matter where you are, people around the world have an innate bias to assume that their culture is the best culture, and that everyone else in the world are poor saps who had the misfortune to be born in the wrong time and place. Unlike you.
Enamored with the stories of hunter-gatherers, I traveled deep within the Amazon rainforest to see these happy tribes with my own eyes. After two days of canoeing up the river and hiking through a dense thicket of vegetation, stepping over poisonous snakes and hearing the sounds of growling jaguars, I reached a community of hunter-gatherer’s called the Waorani. I found the women and children to laugh and giggle constantly. The men were stoic, self-confident and stress-free. The anthropologists had been telling the truth all along. I have sprinkled tales from my time with the Waorani throughout this book.
The Why of Happiness
From an evolutionary perspective, it is pretty easy to understand why nature makes an orgasm so pleasurable. For our genes to live on in their quest for immortality, they must make copies of themselves. To do this, the genes of the male must escape from the body they currently inhabit and find their way into the body of the female, at which point they will bond to form a new person programmed to carry their genes further on to the next generation. This bodily exchange of seminal fluid, the crux of what carries us forwards as a species, would seem an odd and perhaps repulsive pastime that no one would indulge in if Mother Nature hadn’t designed our brains to release pleasure-inducing hormones in the process. Our genes reward us for doing their bidding by making the behaviors that propagate our genes pleasurable. Sex is easy to understand. But why do we feel love, joy, enthusiasm, and serenity? Not all animal species feel these emotions. So why do humans? What evolutionary purpose do these emotions serve? And what kind of activities and what kind of society would allow us to feel these emotions more frequently?
The flip side of happiness is unhappiness, which results from negative emotions. The evolutionary purpose of fear and anxiety is pretty simple. It’s not a good thing for our genes to wind up in the belly of a ravenous beast. So we evolved a defense mechanism against large carnivorous predators that might want to eat us. See tiger. Feel fear. Run away. But for the vast majority of us today the most fearful predator we will ever come across is our neighbor’s fenced in German shepherd. So why is it that so many of us suffer from chronic stress, anxiety, and depression? Why is our stress response on constant alert when we have relatively little to be genuinely worried about? The answer to this will be found in the dramatic mismatch between our current lifestyle and the one in which our genes originally evolved.
Training the Mind
The benefits of mind training are so extraordinary that if I were to just come right out and tell you about them, you might think I had gone off the deep end, was a gullible fool, or worse, declare me a charlatan. To win you over to my way of thinking let me first present an analogy, a fictional scenario that has a moral you are already aware of: the benefit of exercise to one’s physique and health. What would it be like if someone from a society of people who had never exercised a day in their lives were to meet someone from a society where exercise was built into the very ethos of their community? A society in which, from a very young age, all of its members engaged in physical activities like running, jumping, throwing, wrestling and lifting weights. As adults, they would resemble our Olympic athletes. Now let’s say a member of this society — we will call him Achilles— is an adventurous type and travels across the ocean to a distant land where he meets the people who are unfamiliar with the concept of exercise. All the people in this society live a desk-bound existence, and suffer the resultant maladies caused by obesity. How would a conversation between Achilles and a man from this society go? I’d imagine that their exchange would be filled with puzzlement and wonder and unintentionally offensive statements, as meetings between people from distant cultures often are.
Upon pulling his boat up on the shore, Achilles is met by a dignitary from this foreign land of roly-poly’s named Mr. Rotund.
Mr. Rotund: Well hello there! …garbled chewing noises …Sorry, sorry, excuse me, I was just eating. tosses candy wrapper to the ground… How do you do? I am Mr. Rotund.
Achilles: Hi, my name is Achilles, and I have come all the way from across the sea to observe what kind of people there are in this part of the world.
Mr. Rotund: Achilles! Ah, well that explains it.
Achilles: Explains what?
Mr. Rotund: You are Achilles! You have the muscular body of the Greek Gods we have statues of in our museums. You are only half human, your mother was a Goddess, which is where you must get that incredible physique from!
Achilles: Why thank you, but that is a silly legend. I assure you that I have two fully human parents, and there is nothing spectacular about my physique as this is what all humans look like. What I have never seen is a creature like you before. In our culture it is only the women that have protruding mammaries.
Mr. Rotund: Do you mean to tell me that you have no obesity in your society? Huffing and puffing as he waddles through the sand. That people from your society do not get diabetes and die early from heart attacks? Hold on..let us slow down the pace. I am getting winded. That they don’t have hypertension, strokes or keep their shirts on while swimming in the pool?
Achilles: Obesity? Diabetes, stroke? I have never heard of these things. Are these diseases you get due to your immense lardness?
Mr. Rotund: Yes! They are terrible conditions.
Achilles: Mr. Rotund, my friend, I do not understand. Why would you ever let your body get like this?
Returning from our imaginary meeting let me propose the following: Achilles, as depicted in our story, could very well have been one of our paleolithic ancestors. Anthropologist Jared Diamond has remarked that the hunter-gatherers he has visited have physiques that resemble miniature bodybuilders. And they don’t go to the gym! Their low fat, muscular physiques are the result of living and eating the way a wild human animal is supposed to. They move frequently, walk long distances daily, often while lugging heavy buckets of water or a large antelope leg on their shoulders. Do this every day of your life and you are going to look like an underwear model.
Contemporary life is spent sitting in chairs. As a the result of this sedentary lifestyle, we watch our bodies generate excess blubber around our midsections until the once beautiful, strong and powerful apes that we started out as, are hardly recognizable. For those of us less inclined to develop a pear-shaped corpulence, we use a technique to stimulate muscle growth and improve our cardiovascular system. We call this exercise. Modern life is so far removed from the way our natural bodies are supposed to move that without the intervention of regular exercise our physical health will rapidly deteriorate.
Now here is the important point — just as our physical health will decline from the sedentary lifestyle we have adopted in the modern world, our mental health is in equal peril from this unnatural environment we find ourselves in. The inability to pay attention, stress, worry, depression and anxiety are the mental equivalents of diabetes, stroke, and hypertension. Hunter-gatherers do not get any of these modern diseases, mental or physical.
Unlike Mr. Rotund, those of us in the modern world are lucky enough to live in a society where the benefits of physical exercise and sport were discovered long before the computer and car, and so along with a good diet we have ways to combat our poor physical health. But what about our mental health? Are there exercises to combat everyday stress and worry? If so, how often do we perform them? Are we mental Mr. Rotund’s, unaware that there is a treatment that would prevent us from getting these common maladies of the mind? Are we resigned to the idea that stress, worry, and low self-esteem are inevitable features of the human condition for which we can do little about? What would happen if we were to meet a society of people trained from a young age in the art of mental exercise, who grew to possess such great mental strength that some of us might be fooled into thinking they were divine? And what if I were to tell you that this has already happened?
One of the many hippies to travel to Tibet in the 70’s was a young Californian by the name of Alan Wallace. He had become fed up with western culture, but fascinated by Buddhism. He wanted to learn how to meditate at the feet of the greatest masters in the world and became a monk in a Himalayan monastery. It was there that his ideas of mental health were completely turned upside down.
The abbot of the monastery was giving a talk to the monks about a common psychological problem amongst Tibetans. He lamented that people have a tendency to think very highly of themselves while putting others down. At the end of the talk, Alan stood up and said, “My problem is not that I have too much pride, but that I often think negatively of myself. I often don’t like myself and don’t think I am very good.” The abbot glanced up at Alan with a sweet expression, smiled and said, “No you don’t.” The abbot didn’t believe him. He had never heard of the concept of someone not liking themselves before.
Similarly in a meeting between the Dalai Lama and American psychologists in 1990, one of the psychologists brought up the concept of negative self-talk. Since there are no words in Tibetan that translate into low self-esteem and self-contempt, it took quite a long time for the psychologists to convey what they meant. But this wasn’t a translation problem. It was a problem of conceptualization. Self-loathing? People do that? The Dalai Lama was incredulous. Once the Dalai Lama understood what they were saying, he turned to the Tibetan monks in the room, and after explaining what the psychologists were talking about, he asked, “How many of you have experienced this low-self esteem, self-contempt or self-loathing?”
Here was a psychological state of mind so ubiquitous in our culture, that everyone experiences it from time to time, if not every single day. Yet these Tibetans, trained since childhood in the art of a mental exercise they call meditation, acted like they were being told about some alien life form. The Dalai Lama turned back to the psychologists and asked, “Why would you ever let your mind get like this?”
The Nature of Reality
The final and most esoteric aspect of happiness that is left out of all those positive psychology books is talk about a deeper nature of reality. Philosophers on the other hand, have opined on this subject since the very beginning. The man who coined the term philosopher, meaning “lover of wisdom” was Pythagoras, who intertwined his philosophy into a worldview and way of life that only members of his secret sect were privy to. Concrete facts about Pythagoras’ life are few, as there are no surviving biographical sources from his contemporaries. What information we do have was written down many years later and presents Pythagoras as a nearly divine figure, saying he emanated a supernatural glow. Did he know secrets of the cosmos that have been lost to us today? Unfortunately, we will never know as Pythagoras beliefs died with him and his followers millennia ago. What we do know is that his society practiced communalism, had no personal possessions, followed a strict diet, adhered to an ethical code of honesty, selflessness, and mutual friendship. Advice very similar to what you will find in this book. While the wisdom of the Pythagoras has been buried by the sands of time, the teachings of an even more luminous figure from the ancient world remain. The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as the Buddha, which means “the awakened one.”
What is it that he woke up to? Buddhist philosophy states that in our everyday lives we are overcome by delusion, which creates attachment and aversion and traps us in a cycle of suffering. By waking up from this delusion, we attain nirvana. Nirvana literally means ‘blowing out,’ as in a candle flame. It is by blowing out the flames of attachment, aversion, and ignorance that suffering is extinguished. The result is a mind that experiences sublime peace.
Does this sound too good to be true? As scientists we will examine Buddhism from a secular perspective, focusing on the pragmatic teachings related to ending suffering and increasing happiness while ignoring the dubious religious elements like reincarnation. How does this secular Buddhism stack up to the demands of modern science? Is there truly a reality hidden beneath our eyes that would lead us to extraordinary well-being if we could only see? Is nirvana the highest happiness a human could possibly experience? Do people actually attain it? Or at the very least, do they get close? How far along the path can we reasonably expect to get? These questions will be the focus of the second half of this book.
The Buddhist term ‘bodhi’ is often translated in English as enlightenment or awakening. Bodhi refers to a special kind of knowledge, that of the causal mechanisms that lead to human suffering. Our aim here is the same, to fully understand the causes and conditions that lead to suffering and happiness bolstered by the latest revelations in contemporary science. This book seeks to integrate two separate traditions of ancient wisdom with modern science so that we can live the happiest and healthiest lives possible. By learning about the environment in which our Paleolithic ancestors evolved and how our genetics are still wired to that way of life, we can begin to organize the outer conditions (the diet we need to eat, the exercise we need to do, the sunlight we need to get and the social relationships we need to build and maintain, etc) that will give us the best chance to flourish both physically and mentally. From there we will add the most successful techniques ever developed by humans to work on the inner conditions (our ability to relax, focus, and experience states of ecstasy and compassion, etc) of our mental lives — that of Buddhist soteriology.
This book is also about integrating what we learn into our daily existence in a modern world. Obviously we can’t all live like hunter-gatherers in the Amazon or Buddhist monks in the Himalayas; We have jobs, families and responsibilities. Within the pages of this book, you will find tips on how to live in a more natural way while still waking up every weekday morning to brave the congested commute on your way to the office. As you make changes to your diet, begin a meditation practice and stop using shampoo (read on), you will gradually notice a sense of calm and mental balance replacing the stressed out habitual thought patterns that previously occupied your mind. Your waist will narrow, your sense of vitality will increase, and even things like the common cold will be a rare occurrence.
I assume most people will take their practice only this far. That is fine. There’s a lot to be said for being happy, calm and healthy. But for those who feel the calling to make the best of their time on earth and reach the highest peaks possible, this book is also a guide that will point you in the right direction. Follow this path and you may find that one day the world around you has become a dancing, playful thing, filled with a previously unimaginable serenity and bliss.