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Building a Better Zoo
Welcome to Stuff, the place where we explore our ideas about living well, trying our best to offer practical guidance and only occasionally drift into the indulgence of waxing philosophical. Today I want to talk about a theme that forms the foundation of much of our worldview, yet we have never spelled it out specifically. We are living in a human zoo and not the natural environment for our species. The question is not whether we can escape it, but how do we best shape our artificial environment - we are simultaneously the captives and the zookeepers. Let’s get to it!
ONE FROM THE AGES
“You will find something great in wood than in books. Tree and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.”
- Saint Bernard de Clairvaux
ONE FROM TODAY
Sebastian Junger on the mismatch between our bodies’ bio-evolutionary expectations and the 21st-century environment:
“In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”
Source: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
ONE FROM US
You don’t live a life that optimally meets your biological needs. This isn’t an attack, it’s a fact. The modern environment makes it almost impossible. Our homes and cars, schedules and work environments, habits and hobbies, diets and movement patterns are completely foreign to anyone living even a few hundred years ago and alien to our earliest human ancestors. Our lives are unrecognizable in a good way, right? By many measures, we’ve improved into realms that would seem supernatural to our great-grandparents.
However, compared to our free-range ancestors, we are captives in an artificial environment. Even though our new digs provide great medical care and the best on-screen entertainment we could hope for, we are not thriving. Sure, we continue to innovate, but our measures of mental and physical health are dropping faster than the internet speeds are rising (and no, the human decline isn’t yet another side-effect of the 5G network). We are suffering from a form of zoochosis.
Zoochosis is a host of neuroses and psychological disorders seen in captive animals. Zoo animals whose conditions poorly resemble their natural habitat develop patterns from the seemingly benign (obsessive pacing or circling) to the very extreme (pulling out their own hair, anorexia, and other forms of self-harm). There are two common treatments for zoochosis. First, the unfortunately common use of prescription drugs like Valium and Prozac. The other is much more natural—alter the animals’ environments and patterns to more closely resemble natural living conditions. Zoochosis subsides when zookeepers give the animals more access to community, sunlight, their natural diet, and habitats that allow them to move, sleep, and play like they would in the wild. The famous rat park experiments show that rats will actually abstain from addictive drugs if their environments allow for their natural forms of enrichment.
We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that animals don’t thrive in isolated concrete enclosures with poor diets and no access to any of the daily activities that their wild cousins enjoy. It’s surprising that we ever thought they would. Zoochosis mirrors the anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders, and self-mutilation that we see in the current human mental health crisis. Most of us would never dream of locking a loin in an empty concrete enclosure, yet we create equally abysmal environments for ourselves with equally dire consequences.
Shane and I talk a lot about passion, purpose, and meaning. These are vital “nutrients” that we all require in our lives. But we have basic physical needs that are even more fundamental. When we fail to meet them, we have a crisis of hope. We absolutely need to think deeply about our relationships and work. But we also need to avoid the trap of attributing undue negative meaning to these higher-order life themes until we have optimized the basics. In other words, you might need to make some big life changes, but you can never determine that with clarity if your zoo environment sucks. What feels like an existential crisis might be solved if you just drank more water, got better sleep, and exercised a bit.
You can’t go back to a “natural existence.” Even a lifestyle that slightly resembles our hunter-gatherer ancestry is impossible. You might be committed to returning to nature, but good luck trying to convince 150 others to join you to live in an interdependent nomadic band.
We are doomed to a life of captivity. But we also have the power to design our cages. I begin to feel some low-grade zoochotic symptoms after a few days of poor sleep and skipped workouts. Years or decades without a “natural” habitat create a much deeper depression.
While we aim to develop lives of meaning and purpose, we also need to shape our physical conditions to serve our biology. So, what are the basics? Here’s a list of a few key guidelines to ensure you get what you need. I’ve also included a few recommended resources at the bottom because this list is intentionally brief.
Sleep - Sleep quality is just as important as the number of hours that you sleep. Rather than think of sleep as something that you do at night, think of it as a constant pattern throughout your day. It’s a cycle and the time in your bed is only one phase of that cycle. To wake up properly, you need the right cocktail of hormones, and no, coffee isn’t the best option. Before that first cup, try any or all of the following: a few minutes of light exercise, a cold shower, and direct sunlight in your eyes (no windows or sunglasses). These all induce a natural “wake-up” state that begins a hormone cycle that will improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at the end of the day. Once it’s time to wind down, avoid screens and artificial light sources for at least an hour before bed and keep your bedroom dark and cool. It helps to build routines around these practices.
Water - Drink water. Not much more to say there. There are tons of resources out there that will give more prescriptive advice about amounts and timing. I won’t do that. But I can say for certain that you probably need much more water than you’re drinking now. Keep a bottle with you all day and drink small amounts regularly.
Sunshine - You need direct sunlight on your skin and in your eyes for a variety of reasons. The importance of Vitamin D for mental and physical health is hard to overstate and the best source is to produce it from sun exposure. Get a little direct sunlight every day. No sunglasses. No sunscreen. Expose as much skin as acceptable given the climate and social conditions.
Here are a few resources to continue these thoughts. First, you might need to be willing to receive some odd looks to optimize across all areas. Learn to celebrate this, rather than dread it. Next, you also need to eat well and move your body. I left these off the list, but here are two great articles from Shane on diet and movement (I also love animal movements share some videos here).
Finally, these two books illustrate the problems with the human zoo and the best path to correcting for its negative effects:
Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan
The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health by John Durant
In case you missed it, I published a new article two weeks ago: Act Like Your Kids Are Watching: An Ancestral Model for Modern Parenting
Thanks for being with me today. Drink some water, feel the sun on your face, and remember: life is too short to be normal!