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How to Be Happy: Live Like Our Ancestors

When British documentary filmmaker Bruce Parry arrived at an Akie village in northern Tanzania, he wasn’t sure what to expect. The village headman greeted him from a distance. “That’s one friendly face,” Parry said. And as everyone from the small community joined, it was clear that he was no exception. They danced and sang and welcomed the foreigner with open arms.

The Akie (pronounced Ah-key-ay) are some of the world’s last remaining hunter/gatherer peoples. They don’t have much in the way of possessions—simple clothing, some mud huts—but they have something that most modern Westerners don’t have: free time. They have enough to relax, dance, cook, and converse with friends daily. As a result, they are remarkably happy. Studies place Danish people as the happiest population on Earth. Those studies clearly never considered the Akie. From the first genuine introductory grin to the consistent laughing and embraces, their happiness put Denmark—and the rest of Western civilization—to shame.

The Akie hunting and gathering territory is shrinking so it’s getting more and more difficult for them to find game. They harvest maize, raise chickens, and collect wild honey, but the main source of nutrients comes from the diminishing wild game. At one point during Parry’s visit, he noted that the village hadn’t enjoyed large game for two weeks and everyone was hungry. Yet, despite their lack of material goods and sustenance, they were still in good spirits. Whether it be an ad hoc archery competition or spectator facial shaving of the Englishman, the Akie simply enjoy life. As Parry put it, “I’m loving it here. Even if something really bad happens, the first reaction—every time—is to just burst into laughter. It’s such a wonderful way of living life.” If it’s true what people say about happiness being the goal in life, the Akie have certainly achieved it whereas our technologically advanced neighbors living modern lives seem miserable in comparison.

By the looks of it, the Akie are also healthy. Without modern medicine or dental care, they did not look malnutritioned and all had healthy, if slightly crooked teeth. While no official data exists on the Akie life expectancy, it’s clear from observation that they have elders reaching into their 60s and it’s likely that even without a nearby hospital or pharmacy, they have equaled the longevity of at least their neighboring Tanzanians (around 63 years of age).

Granted, that’s 20 years fewer than the country with the highest life expectancy, Japan. But is the extra time in such a society worth the chronic stress and miserable quality of life they often endure? Many Japanese don’t seem to think so as the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. While Bruce Parry was dancing and enjoying life in the Tanzanian bush, 100 Japanese people were committing suicide a day—most of the time over work-related stress. How appealing would the relaxed lifestyle of the paleo family seem to these tortured souls?

And it’s not just the workaholics in Japan that would appreciate a joyful hunter/gatherer lifestyle. In 1753, the ever-observant Benjamin Franklin pondered about the lack of success in “civilizing” the neighboring American Indians. He wrote, “Almost all their Wants are supplied by the spontaneous Productions of Nature, with the addition of very little labour,” continuing, “they are not deficient in natural understanding and yet they have never shown any Inclination to change their manner of life for ours.”

Franklin goes on to note that, “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” But the converse is not true:

When white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Franklin wrote that human nature is prone to a life of ease and freedom from care and labor and that people will tend toward that lifestyle except for necessity. Only when humans are cast out of their native lands by war or crowded into inhospitable conditions through overpopulation did they make move toward what we call a civilized society today.

This probably resonates with the reader as well. The comforts of modern life may seem impossible to do without and you may wonder what in the world you would do without all-u-can-eat buffets or devices like a cell phone. But you probably still dread the system that affords you those things like your hour-long bumper-to-bumper commute and fret the mindless work that awaits you on Monday. There is an undoubted appeal to a carefree life in nature ingrained in our very souls. If we haven’t experienced the joy of living as we were designed to live, we certainly have felt the anguish of living counter to how we were designed.

Technology has allowed the human race to proliferate far beyond anyone’s dreams in just a few hundred years. But, paradoxically, they have the potential to make that extra life miserable, even to the point of death. The entire modern world is paradox, from food to electronics to health. We don’t need to worry where we’ll get our next meal; now we have to worry that we most certainly will and that it will be full of delicious toxins. We can communicate with people around the world in an instant, but we avoid our neighbors. We live in some of the safest communities in the history of the world yet there are more panic attacks than ever. We’ve learned to cure almost any disease, yet healthcare is the number three killer in America. We have hundreds of time-saving devices and measures in place, yet we’re busier and more stressed than ever. We are the wealthiest we’ve ever been but we’re also the most depressed we’ve ever been.

This modern paradox is most apparent in children. Modern Western children are the most educated and skillful in the history of the species. But they are oftentimes disrespectful, unappreciative, and chronically depressed. They have all the health care they could ever ask for and yet they increasingly suffer from ear infections, allergies, obesity, and debilitating autoimmune diseases. On the other hand, the Akie children have an increased risk of dying from diarrhea, for instance, but are generally well-behaved; they help with the chores; and they are genuinely happy. There is no depression or ADHD in Akie kids, and they all have a healthy sense of self-worth.

It seems that there’s a dichotomy of existence between wealth and happiness, between life expectancy and quality of life. But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if you didn’t have to give up health, wealth, or happiness? What if you could have the life expectancy and conveniences of the Japanese and the joy of the Akie? We’re here to tell you that it’s possible through the modern paleo lifestyle.

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