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From hunter-gatherers to modern society and the work place : some thoughts from the respected psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

By Matthieu Ricard on August 17, 2014

Recently during the ‟Happiness and its Causes” conference in Australia, I had the opportunity to spend a few days with the respected psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. Mihaly is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writings on the topic. I took some notes during a workshop with him on the ‟What makes life worth living?” He made very interesting comparisons between our modern society and the traditional culture of hunter-gatherers.

Nowadays, many people complain about the problems they encounter at their work place. Included among the causes of suffering they experience, are ‟having little control over their activities”, ‟clashes of values”, ‟frustration”, ‟self doubt”, ‟anger”, and suffering from ‟uncertain boundaries”. These inner conflicts can lead to professional burnout.

Csíkszentmihályi pointed out that all these issues seem to be specifically relevant to the modern work environment.

In hunter-gatherer communities, people mostly were in control of their activities: they could decide when and how long to go to hunt or gather food, when to rest and play, etc. There were almost no opportunities for clashes of values, since tribes were constituted of a limited number of people whose values were quasi identical.

Some sense of frustration and self-doubt might occur when someone was hunting with little success, but this was not such a big issue since those who were not very good hunters naturally became involved in other tasks such as preparing the arrows and doing other useful work, and were not held in contempt by others or isolated.

There was very little envy too, since hunter-gatherer societies were extremely egalitarian and based on sharing. One of the reasons for people to share everything and own nothing superfluous, was that no one wanted to carry an extra load of hoarded stuff to the next camp.

Boundaries were clearly defined and people were well aware of the prevailing social norms. ‟Ethos” in Greece meant to accept the rules and the customs of the village. Anger was very much under control, because people had weapons: to become over angry was clearly dangerous.

In farmer cultures, where most people are not armed, self-control became much less needed because the risk of fatal clashes was much smaller. Conversely, a hierarchical society was then put in place and since only few make it to the top, anger and frustration became common among those who did not make it. Concerning envy, the emergence of hierarchical societies, which came along with the advent of agriculture and the accumulation of property, has spawned many frustrations since everyone cannot be at the top of the pyramid of an unequal society.

Sydney Happiness And Its Causes 44