Considering the fact that we are what we become as a result of two major influences, nature and nurture, as they are generally referred to, it would make sense if we understood how the interchange between those two could possibly result in a malfunctioning of our system. What happens exactly when it ends up with us being ill? Lots of scientific research, not least the discovery that the observer influences the observed, has shown that the existence of certain circumstances does not determine a definite effect on an organism. What “causes” the effect is an interaction between the organism and the outer environment, not the specific aspects of the environment by itself.
An organism is built in a very particular way. This is the nature part of life. Once that process is finished the organism grows and develops its specific characteristics as a result of the interaction with its environment. This is the nurture part of life. When the nurture part fully and comprehensively feeds the nature part there is harmony in the development and no disease will occur. However, whenever there is friction a disharmony results within a system of the organism. We experience this as diseases. All diseases are the direct result of conflicts between the nature of the being and the way it responds to the environment, the way it is being nurtured.
Being surrounded by a toxic or at least non-nurturing environment does not result directly in diseases for the organism. The organism makes choices about its environment and it is these choices that will alter the inner world and the balance of the organism. When it becomes very afraid of the environment, sees it as a threat, fear will slow the inner processes down and it could result in stagnation and serious disease. When, on the other hand, the organism ignores those particular aspects of the environment its inner world will hardly be affected by it. There will be no sign of any disease.
Blaming something on the outside for your inner “bad” feeling is easy but in fact incorrect. You yourself have a role to play in that process too. You do have a responsibility for how you function and how you feel. And it is using this that empowers you.
It becomes clear that the more different the environment is from the inner structure of the organism and therefore from the inner needs of the organism, the more effort and power is required by the organism not to be affected by the outside world. This means that the greater the changes in environment the more difficult it becomes for the organism not to get ill. When we then look at the effect of a seriously changed environment on a group of the same kind of organisms we note that there is a major increase in disease amongst the members of the group. This can simply be explained by saying that the environment that created the organism in the first place must have been very different from the environment the organism is now living in. From evolution we know that ultimately the species will adjust to this new environment but initially there is a high level of illness and death amongst the members of that species.
Western authorities keep repeating the mantra that we now live so much longer than humans used to, whilst at the same time these governments year by year require more money to spend on their heath care systems, have growing numbers of hospital admissions, growing numbers of people unable to work due to long-term illnesses, more sick days amongst employees. All indicators that it isn’t going well with the health of the nation. In recent years we can add to this the fact that a growing number of children don’t seem to fit into the framework of our school system anymore. They are “different”. Those children and their educational environment no longer match. This leads to serious developmental problems for the children and to serious disruption of the existing schooling system. Conflict is a direct result of two worlds not matching.
How can this possibly happen? Well, let’s consider what information is locked inside the structure of every human being.
The information that is responsible for making the human body is laid down in the genetic code. This provides all the information that is required for a human foetus to quickly run through the entire universe development, going through the plant stage, the egg-laying animal stage and the mammal stage, right up to the human stage. The up-to-date human information also makes the human specimen equipped for the living conditions his/her ancestors have known. This means that towards the equator human beings will be born with dark skins and way up north, or way down south, they will be fair skinned. Humans born from mountain people will be differently equipped from the babies of seafaring folk. Inner city people will be different from country people. These groups of people, desert or rain forest human beings, are born with different skills and knowledge, adapted to the environment they will enter. Furthermore, individual differences between families also make a difference in the makeup of the foetus. Royals, musical families, or families where particular skills have been passed down for many generations (farmers, cobblers, brewers, doctors, etc.) and so the physical and mental makeup of those children differs in their fundamental layout from children in other groups. They are not the same and cannot be expected to develop in the same way and by the same stimulation. As humans, we “belong” to a variety of groups because we exhibit similar traits. Hence, we join the athletics team or the music society or the astronomy group or the chess club. Human beings are not all the same and should not all be treated the same. If we do, then this will have dire consequences for some individuals because they will not get the kind of encouragement or stimulation they require in order to be able to grow properly and develop the kind of person they really are.
The kind of person we, in essence, are is fixed. We add to that a lot of learned behavioural skills and responses, and these come from our immediate environment ranging from our direct family to the culture we live in. Those messages mainly confirm the information we got from the DNA and result in a fixated human being. And they are all different, and they all belong to different groups with different needs for their development. So all of that information comes from somewhere, is connected to something that went before, has a history. Let’s have a look at what happens when we no longer can lean on that history, when we get disconnected from our ancestral roots.
The Natural World
One of the things more and more people find more and more difficult to remain connected to is the natural world. Not only do most of us live a life where we are hardly bothered by the seasons. Our environment is always the right temperature, never windy or wet. We are well separated from the plants and animals that used to share the same space with us. Our food does not depend on the seasons either. We can eat whatever we want, even if it isn’t the harvest time for that particular crop. Lots of studies confirm that not eating local food and seasonal food is detrimental to our health and has a greater impact on our health than the content of the food itself. Manipulation of food production and preservation has a massive impact on our connection to the natural environment. We are disconnected from our natural world, the world we were designed to live in, the world that gives us sustenance and keeps us alive.
The University of Essex showed in a large study where they tracked the mental health of five thousand households over a three year period that the people who moved to green areas away from the city had a big reduction in depression, with a large increase in depression for those who made the opposite move. This result was further modified by another large study showing that people in inner city areas with green space had lower stress levels and less despair than people in similarly deprived areas without green space. Scientists have found that, comparing people who regularly run on a treadmill in the gym with those running in nature, the ones running in nature have a far greater reduction in depression rates than the gym goers. All animals have a natural sense of the landscape they have lived in for most of the existence of the species, and so do humans. Our senses are geared for the environment we are meant to live in. Rain forest people see and hear different things than Eskimos do. Removing us from that innate connection has a profound effect on our wellbeing.
Other Human Beings
Within the framework of the natural world connection for a human being to other human beings is also very important. Professor Sheldon Cohen showed that people who had few friends and few healthy social connections were three times more likely to come down with a common cold than people who had lots of connections to other people. Lisa Berkman even showed in a nine year study of isolated and highly connected people that lonely people were up to three times more likely to die. A neuroscience researcher named John Cacioppo proved that lonely people are indeed more anxious, have low self-esteem, are pessimistic and are afraid other people will dislike them. In a clever group experiment he was able to show that loneliness was not merely the result of depression but that loneliness actually causes depression. Isolating people, making people feel more lonely creates depression. In another experiment in a part of Cook County, just beyond Chicago, he confirmed that loneliness precedes depressive symptoms in the great majority of cases.
Looking at the history of mankind it is obvious that survival depended on the strength of the entire group. It was as a group that human beings were able to survive and individuals by themselves, being evicted or lost, in the outside world stood very little chance of staying alive. This means that being left alone creates a lot of fear in the natural human being, which was an urgent signal to get back to the group as fast as one could. So, this human instinct is honed for life in a tribe, not to be left alone, isolated from other human beings. Besides having the effect to urge one to join the group this knowledge of “needing” the group also results in an attitude that radiates more respect towards other within the group. It encourages people to live together and to tolerate each other, because they know they need each other.
Social scientists have been asking a cross-section of US citizens for many years the simple question: “How many confidants do you have?” For decades, the average number of close friends an American had was recorded as three. By 2004, the most common answer was none. But even the way families function these days, there is little “togetherness”. What do we, as a family, actually do together? How many families spend their evenings together doing the same thing? How many families take holidays together? How many elderly people are finishing their life living amongst their family?
Professor Martha McClintock separated out laboratory rats and raised the members of one group alone in a cage, whilst the others were raised in groups. The isolated rats developed eighty-four times the number of breast cancer tumours compared with the rats that had a community.
Protracted loneliness causes one to shut down socially. You become more suspicious of your environment as you are scanning vigilantly for any kind of possible danger. This is a necessary reaction to being lonely as you know for sure that nobody else is looking out for danger signs for you. In order for you to be helped out of this depression and anxiety you will need more and stronger human contacts. However, lonely, anxious people are more difficult to be with and they are being met with judgement and criticism, an inability to understand their plight. What is required is a growing feeling that you are sharing something with an other person, something that is meaningful to both of you. That is the kind of connectivity that human beings require. Loneliness isn’t about the physical absence of other people; it is the sense that you are not sharing anything that matters with the people you are surrounded by.
The recent evolution we are witnessing in society is the idea that you need to make it on your own. Make sure you are not dependent, not even on your husband. You are the only one who can help you. We have turned society into a bunch of isolated individuals who are now struggling to all make it by themselves in a bid to live life alone. And pretty quickly we get confronted with the sense that this is not possible and certainly not desirable. It is killing us!
Modern times with the fantastic new means of staying connected, of having thousands of friends on face book, have isolated people at a pace never seen before. The promise of connectivity, even worldwide, aimed at a group of desperately lonely people took hold overnight. This did seem the solution to the fast growing and seemingly unstoppable problem. But the more we used it, the more we became addicted to it. The reason for this is very simple. We are desperate to find connection with other people and the more we “connect” via the means delivered to us by the internet, the more isolated we become. Our “friends” are hidden behind a screen, whilst we keep on struggling to make connections in our everyday world by ourselves. We retreat to that screen ever more and ever quicker. And the more we fail to make the relevant connections, the more the feeling of being connected keeps fading fast. The more we want it, the more we are chasing it. The escape from an anxious and lonely life leads us to a promise of meaningful virtual connections. It is an attempt to fill the hole of loneliness that is already there and following the call of virtuality it leads to the disappointment and despair of an addict. Just as alcohol or heroin is not the answer to the existing depression, internet connection is not the answer to the already existing loneliness.
Society values life and most things in it by its monetary worth. It is presented as if people who have lots of money have a better life, can “afford” better healthcare, are generally happier. Values that have been pushed into the dark are things like spending time with your family or trying to make the world a better place. This last one is a good example how authorities use the values that are close to our hearts and turn them into money. Our society is filled with projects that proclaim to be an effort to make the world a better place and your contribution is valued by the amount of money you donate. That is all these organisations require from you. Don’t try and tell them how they can spend their money more efficiently. Don’t try and tell them how they can run their operation more smoothly. Don’t try and tell them there are more worthy causes than theirs.
And then it turns out that materialistic people, who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status, have much higher levels of depression and anxiety, experience less joy and more despair.
The way humans value their life and their achievements can be divided into two categories: one are internal, intrinsic values, and the other are external, extrinsic values. Intrinsic values allow you to do things purely because you like it, not because you hope to get something out of it. Extrinsic values encourage you to do things because you actually get something for it. That can be money, admiration, sex or a superior status. These opposing sets of values are a possible reason for doing whatever. So it doesn’t really matter what you do, it is much more important why you do it. Our focus here is on whether or not your action boosts your happiness.
It turns out that people who achieve their intrinsic goals do become significantly happier and less depressed and anxious. And yet, most of us spend our time chasing extrinsic goals, the things that actually do not give us anything. Our whole culture is set up to get us to think this is the way we need to move our life forward. The right grades. The highest paid job. Promotion. Buy more expensive clothes, cars, etc. We make ourselves feel good when we achieve those outer goals. Twenty-two different studies found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be. Twelve different studies found that more materialistic people are more anxious. These kind of studies have now been done and have been published all across the Western world, as well as in India, in South Korea, in Russia, and in many countries across over the world.
Our society has made the shift from real values to junk values. Materialistic values look like real values but they fail to deliver us the happiness they are promising. They fill us with psychological trash and our mind becomes intoxicated by it.
Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan showed that the more materialistic people become the shorter their relationships will be and the worse the quality of the relationship will be. When you value someone by the outside - looks, status, wealth - it is easy to see you'll be happy to dump them when someone else comes along who has more and better of the same. And of course that works the other way too. You'll be dumped much easier too, for the same reasons. You will have fewer friends and connections and they won't last as long. They are less meaningful.
There is strong evidence that we are getting most pleasure out of what has been called "flow states". These are moments and situations where we totally emerge ourselves in something we love doing. It is like a child losing itself completely in play without being troubled by questions like "what am I doing it for?" or "is this the most efficient way of spending my time?" On the other hand, you won't be able to relax fully into the moment when you are doing something to achieve a specific effect, to reach a goal, and it is that goal that determines your happiness.
We are placing the "reward" for our actions and our life onto other people. The outside world's judgement of who I am and what I have done far outweighs my own inner beliefs. Trying to match the values we find in our environment with the inner flow that allows us to do things simply because we like it is impossible. So we either follow the inner stream which delivers consecutive moments of bliss or we chase the materialistic values of richness, more and better materials, to find that we are always falling short of the mark and the times we do hit the mark it will vanish quickly again. Even if you are the richest man in the world, start becoming anxious because you know it won't last even though you want it to.
We tend to forget that we have innate needs of feeling connected, of feeling valued, of feeling secure, of feeling we are making a difference in the world, of having autonomy, of feeling we are good at something. No amount of stuff is going to get me to sustain a good feeling about myself. And yet, the advertising industry is telling me just that every time, over and over again. The aim is to convince me that I need specific stuff in order to be able to function, to be happy, to mean something in life. It connects to our deeper inner needs and fills them up with junk. Once your mind has been filled with these thoughts as being the answers to your questions, you will fill in the rest each time yourself, out of a conviction that you know how to satisfy your basic needs. You yourself perpetuate the learned messages from your environment. You keep repeating what your environment has told you time and time again. Advertising is a most effective way of separating people from their inner voices. Repeating messages in the media fills us with what an outside power wants you to believe and we doubt our own observation, our own experience, our own feeling.
The polling company Gallup conducted between 2011 and 2012 a study about how people feel regarding their work. They studied millions of workers across 142 countries. The results were that 13% stated they were engaged in the job, 63% not engaged and 24% actively disengaged. In other words, 87% of the workers are not enthusiastic about their job. They are not committed to their work. Then the question begs, "How does your work affect your health?"
Michael Marmot studied people working in the British civil service. This group is homogenous in many respects. Nobody is poor. Nobody lives in poverty. Nobody is in physical danger. Everybody does a desk job. British civil service workers are divided into levels based on their salary and the responsibility they carry. After years of intensively interviewing people the team found that the people at the top of the civil service were four times less likely to have a heart attack than the people at the bottom of the ladder, even though they had far more responsibility and their stress intensity was a lot higher.
In a further study they compared people within the same civil service band. It turned out that people who had a higher degree of control over their work were a lot less likely to suffer from depression or develop severe emotional distress than people working at the same salary, with the same status, in the same office, but with less control over their work.
Stress at work has now been redefined as work that is monotonous, boring, soul-destroying instead of work that bears a lot of responsibility. How we live can make us depressed. Not being noticed in your work is soul-destroying. A lack of balance between efforts and rewards leads to stress and can cause depression. Meaningful work means it has to mean something to you. You need to feel you are contributing something to your environment and, by extension, your environment will show that you make a difference to it. Only then can you sustain the flow of energy from you into the environment without getting drained. It's the happiness created within you that will generate more energy in order for you to be able to continue putting energy into the outside world. You need to be engaged in your work, to be happy in your work, and your environment needs to be happy with you doing that work.
The Past and The Future
Throughout life our needs change and therefore we should consider it normal that we change our environment accordingly. That means that in a different phase of our life we may want to connect to different people or have a different job. Certain things in life can be changed relatively easily but other things it seems we are stuck with. How do previous events shape the way we feel about ourselves today?
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, set up by Dr Vincent Felitti and Dr Robert Anda, showed that for every category of traumatic experience a person goes through as a child, he or she is radically more likely to become depressed as an adult. If you had six categories of traumatic events you were five times more likely to become depressed compared with an adult who didn't have any. If you had seven categories the odds increase to 3,100% more likely to attempt suicide as an adult. It also turned out that emotional abuse was more likely to cause depression than any other kind of trauma, including sexual molestation. These traumas also lead to physical manifestations of ill-health such as obesity and addiction.
It seems that most of us keep seeking the very thing that traumatised us in the first place. There is no logic to this as we are desperate to get away from it. Why does it lead so many people who have experienced violence in childhood to self-destructive behaviour in adulthood? As a child you have no power to manipulate your environment to what you need it to be, and anyway you have no real understanding of what it is you truly need. You are the victim of your environment. Here is the choice you have as that victim. You can either admit to yourself that you are powerless and you submit fully to the environment, or you can convince yourself that what is happening to you is somehow your fault. This will give you at least some power over what is happening to you. If it is your fault that means that you can do something about it. You can make a difference! Blaming yourself for your childhood traumas protects you from seeing how vulnerable you really are. If it's your fault, it is under your control.
But if you are responsible for being hurt then it also is true that when you do get hurt you must, in some way, have deserved it. You must have done something wrong! When you, as a child, believe you deserved to be injured you are not going to think you deserve much else as an adult either.
In order for anyone in such a state of mind to deviate from this pathway he/she must be able to put distance between the childhood experiences and the adult life he/she wants to lead. A recognition of your own contribution towards your adult experiences is necessary before one can decide not to live like that anymore.
In 2016, a front-page issue in Canada caught the attention of a psychology professor named Michael Chandler. In a single reservation on a single night eleven First Nation people (Canadian term for Native American groups) killed themselves. This was the pinnacle of a trend that had been noticed since the nineties. Professor Chandler noticed that half the indigenous nations had no suicides at all and half had an extraordinary high rate. Over decades some groups had been fighting the government restrictions put upon them and they had reclaimed some control over their own lives. Some had reclaimed control over their traditional lands, had revived their own language and had control over their own schools, health services and police. There now is a big gap between First Nation groups that are still controlled and at the mercy of the Canadian government and other groups that have been able to achieve some freedom to rebuild their own culture. The study showed that communities with the highest control had the lowest suicide and communities with the lowest control had the highest suicide. Not having any control over your future drives up the suicide rates. Having a sense of a positive future protects you.
Across almost all of the Western world people have been put in "futureless" positions. More and more people work in an environment of insecurity. Around 20% op people in the USA and Germany have no job contract but are working from shift to shift. This first became visible with people in the lowest paid jobs but gradually it has been creeping higher up the social ladder. By now, many middle-class people are working from task to task. It is called being self-employed. The dream of a stable future is slowly slipping away from us, which causes anxiety and depression in many of us.
The sense of having a future, of knowing that you will have a place in tomorrow's world, that you will have a significant role to play in the future is an essential part of your health today. Taking away a person's hope for the future destroys his/her life. So, everyone of us needs to work on keeping the hope for a good future alive. Doomsday scenarios do not create happiness!
Evidence is mounting that there is a link between our health and the circumstances of our life. In particular, the links we all have with roots of various kinds seem to be of great importance to keep a healthy balance. Some of these connections we have identified as being,
· the natural world, and in particular the kind we originate from
· human beings
· meaningful values
· meaningful work
· our past and future
The more we are able to stay connected to these the better balance we are able to maintain in our lives. For various reasons, life as we know it is disconnecting us from those roots, which directly leads to serious harm being done to our health. It is not so important for us to understand these reasons, nor is it important to know all detailed aspects of the harm that it is doing to us. The most important thing about it is the knowledge that we can influence these disconnections in a positive way.
As an individual, I can make decisions to steer my life back into a direction of reconnecting to each of those.
I can choose to have a greater awareness of the natural world and when possible to be surrounded by it in an openness, allowing myself to be engulfed by it.
I can choose to surround myself with human beings who empower me.
I can choose to subscribe to inner values rather than materialistic stuff marketed as the road to happiness and fulfilment in life.
I can choose a job or career to engage in; a job that fills my life with joy and pride.
I can choose to let go of traumatic experiences from the past and to have some control over my future.
I am not a victim of my circumstances.
I can use my circumstances to reconnect myself with the essence of life and with the nurture a living being requires.
I can empower myself through this reconnection and rebalance my life, resulting in health, happiness and prosperity, a richness of life in life.