The instant reboot of our busy mind - Recipe for happiness from our primitive ancestors

Originally published on: (purposeful life)


Our minds are busier than ever. In the modern world we have created, we are always connected and always on. From the moment we get out of bed, our attention jumps from one place to the other: from news headlines to social media, from emails to conference calls, from job hunting to online shopping. Does this way of life really nourish joy and well-being? Or could it actually deprive us from satisfaction and happiness? I went on a mission to find out for myself. To a place without any modern technology, much like our ancestors lived for thousands of years. The impact it had on me was beyond anything I could have imagined. And as it turned out, it wasn’t just me.



Our nomadic ancestors (yes, cavemen and cavewomen) were fully occupied by the daily challenges of the physical world around them. Their minds were focused on meeting the basic needs of water, food and shelter. During this time, our brains were simply a helpful tool to master the daily physical world: navigating, foraging, remembering good spots for hunting, building and using tools and developing language for collaborating with the people around us1. At the end of the day, success simply meant being able to go to bed safely with some food in our belly. It has been argued that under these challenging yet simpler conditions, humans were most free of stress and anxiety2. Unless you ran into a bear, of course.

Staring over the lake while enjoying your oatmeal for breakfast
Staring over the lake while enjoying your oatmeal for breakfast

The paradox of the filled fridge

Fast forward to today and we find ourselves getting out of bed each morning with a fridge that is fully stuffed. And as long as you have paid the rent, you need zero minutes a day to meet the basic needs of water, food and shelter our ancestors had to work so hard for. Zero! That’s progress, right? Paradoxically, we work more hours a day than ever before in human history and we struggle to find relaxation and happiness2. Isn’t that strange? Wouldn’t it make more sense if we found ourselves happier than ever before?


Big brains

It would make sense, but we have long discovered that we humans are not necessarily rational and that our happiness is very relative3. Our big brains -that get loads of energy from our ever-improving diets- have the gift of imaging what tomorrow can look like and wondering how yesterday could have been different. As a result, we have started to imagine more complex goals and ideals that we feel we need to aspire: developing ourselves, finding the perfect job, the perfect relationship, doing something meaningful, contributing to the world- we all know them, right? So compared to our ice age ancestors, our definition of success has changed dramatically. And the very same brains that were once just a useful tool in the physical world, now have us work behind a desk and laptop to chase our dreams.   

Nature is a spectacle when you are outdoors
Nature is a spectacle when you are outdoors

Marathons & yoga

To add to that, the internet revolution has given us enormous amounts of information to process. When you picked your breakfast out of the fridge, your smartphone was probably already in your hand. So instead of watching the sunrise, you checked the likes on your posts and watched a video that a friend sent you. And then you read the news. About economic recession, humanitarian crises, climate change- and all this information entered your mind before finishing breakfast! All day long we continue like this, switching instantly from platform to platform. Our minds get buried with information. It’s no coincidence that by the end of the day, most of us are looking for mental relief by training for a marathon or meditating with a yoga lesson.



So if our modern lifestyle is actually the cause of our busy minds, would going back to basics and living primitively make us feel differently? About 10 years ago, my friend and I went on a mission to find out by spending a week canoeing the outdoors of Sweden. And we noticed that the minute we stepped into the canoe, our busy minds cleared instantly. We had the most adventurous flow experience of our lives. Fueled with inspiration, we started to bring friends and strangers with us. Each and every one of them reported the same effect of spending a week in wild nature. That it made them playful and joyful. That it cleared their minds completely. That they experienced a state of flow. And that mother nature put all of their modern day struggles in perspective. And their impressions lasted. Even back home, the people who joined us kept sharing stories of how fulfilling and impactful their week in nature was.

On our first outdoor canoeing trip 1o years ago
On our first outdoor canoeing trip 1o years ago

Less is more

It appears our minds are much clearer and focused when we are active in the physical world and have to deal with a few challenges to make it through the day. It’s not that I don’t appreciate my espresso machine at home. But searching for wood, building a fire, filling the pot in the river and patiently waiting for the water to boil will make your coffee taste better than ever. In the same way, I love my city apartment but there is no better feeling than finding a good spot at the riverbank, setting up your camp, cooking dinner on a campfire and enjoying that little sip of whisky you rationed over the week. The physical activity, fresh air and mental satisfaction make you sleep deeper than the best mattress in the world. As it turns out, scarcity -not abundance- is the key to a happy mind3.


Your adventure is waiting

Buddhism teaches us that every morning we are born again and what we do today matters most. If you struggle to practice this meaningful principle in your modern city life- don’t worry, we all do! Join us and spend your own week in nature with your partner of friend. You will feel reborn every day, you’ll gain a fresh perspective on life and nature will make sure to grab your full focus for the only thing that matters: today.



1 The artificial ape: how technology changed the course of evolution, Timothy Taylor (2010)

2 Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Yuval Noah Harari (2014)

3 The paradox of choice: why more is less, Barry Schwartz (2004)

Over ons

Rik Duursma en Victor Kas zijn sinds hun studie psychologie gefascineerd door de primitieve mens in ons. Ze zijn gespecialiseerd in persoonlijke ontwikkeling en hebben samen talloze kanotochten gemaakt door Zweden en Noorwegen. Hun missie is mensen inspireren om in contact te komen met hun primitieve zelf.