How Civilization Broke Our Brains

What can hunter-gatherer societies teach us about work, time, and happiness?

illustration of person in hammock with clouds shaped like inbox icons
Seb Agresti

This article was published online on December 13, 2020.

Several months ago, I got into a long discussion with a colleague about the origins of the “Sunday scaries,” the flood of anxiety that many of us feel as the weekend is winding down and the workweek approaches. He said that the culprit was clear, and pointed to late-stage capitalism’s corrosive blend of performance stress and job insecurity. But capitalism also exists Monday through Saturday, so why should Sunday be so uniquely anxiety-inducing?

The deeper cause, I thought, might have something to do with the modern psychology of time. Imagine the 21st-century worker as accessing two modes of thinking: productivity mind and leisure mind. When we are under the sway of the former, we are time- and results-optimizing creatures, set on proving our industriousness to the world and, most of all, to ourselves. In leisure mode, the thrumming subsides, allowing us to watch a movie or finish a glass of wine without considering how our behavior might affect our reputation and performance reviews. For several hours a week, on Sunday evening, a psychological tug-of-war between these perspectives takes place. Guilt about recent lethargy kicks in as productivity mind gears up, and apprehension about workaday pressure builds as leisure mind cedes power.

If only we could navigate our divided lives with seamless ease—except what if ease isn’t what most of us really want? In 2012, the University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson reviewed more than 40 years of happiness and time-use surveys that asked Americans how often they felt they either were “rushed” or had “excess time.” Perhaps predictably, he concluded that the happiest people were the “never-never” group—those who said they very rarely felt hurried or bored, which isn’t to say they were laid-back. Their schedules met their energy level, and the work they did consumed their attention without exhausting it. In an essay for Scientific American summarizing his research, Robinson offered a strenuous formula for joy: “Happiness means being just rushed enough.”

Despite the headline focus on happiness, Robinson’s most unexpected insights were about American discontent. We may constantly complain about our harried schedules, but the real joy-killer seemed to be the absence of any schedule at all. Considerably less happy than the just-rushed-enough, he said, were those with lots of excess time. He found, as other workplace studies have shown, that Americans are surprisingly fretful when not absorbed by tasks, paid or otherwise. And at the bottom of his rankings, registering an “unparalleled level of unhappiness,” were those whose plight may sound puzzling: people who, though they almost always felt underscheduled, also almost always felt rushed. Such is the psychological misery of an undirected person for whom an urgent need to overcome idleness—to find purpose—becomes a source of stress. This always-always condition struck me as the most peculiarly modern anxiety: It’s the Sunday scaries, all week long.

This bizarre need to feel busy, or to feel that time is structured, even when one is sprawled on the couch on a weekend afternoon—where does it come from? Is it inscribed in our DNA, or is it as much an invention of industrialized culture as paper clips and microchips? To answer that question, we would have to understand the texture of human life for most of our history, before civilization and workweeks edged their way into the picture. We would need a participant-observer from our era to live among hunter-gatherers and experience their relationship to work, time, and joy.

The anthropologist James Suzman has done a version of that, devoting almost 30 years to studying the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen,” a tribe whose members lived an isolated existence in Namibia and Botswana until the late 20th century, when incursions by local governments destroyed their way of life. In his new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots,* Suzman describes the Ju/’hoansi of yore as healthy and cheerful, perfectly content to work as little as possible and—not coincidentally—ingenious at designing customs that discourage competition and status-seeking. Combining careful anthropological research with excursions into sociology and psychology, he asks how we’ve come to find ourselves more harried—and seemingly more unhappy—than the small-scale communities from which civilization emerged. If there is some better way of handling modernity’s promises and pressures, perhaps the Ju/’hoansi can light the way.

Work, Suzman observes, is what distinguishes animate organisms, humans above all, from inert matter: “Only living things actively seek out and capture energy specifically to live, to grow and to reproduce.” Yet it is the million-year history of labor’s counterpoint, leisure, that holds the key to humanity’s exceptionalism—its record of remarkable progress, and the discontent that seems to have accompanied those strides.

From what we can tell, our Australopithecus ancestors of roughly 2.5 million years ago closely resembled modern primates, such as chimpanzees, who spend about eight hours a day foraging and eating. In between chewing and digesting all that raw pith, stalk, and root, gorillas and chimps sleep nine to 12 hours. Such a routine doesn’t leave much daylight time for leisure activities more energy-intensive than lazy grooming.

Fire changed everything. Anthropologists don’t know precisely how humans first marshaled fire for their use roughly 1 million years ago, but it’s obvious how fire formed humans. By softening meat and vegetables, fire predigests our food, allowing us to eat and retain more calories in less time. By warding off predators, fire allowed our ancestors to climb down from their tree beds and sleep soundly on the ground; more REM sleep sharpened their memory and their focus. Fire also allowed humans to grow huge, energy-greedy brains that gobble up about a fifth of our calories, a far greater proportion than other primates’ brains consume.

By expanding our minds and our free time, fire sparked humankind’s capacity for boredom, amusement, craftsmanship, and art. And from what we can discern, our Homo sapiens ancestors celebrated the gift of free time with gusto.

The Ju/’hoansi spent an average of 17 hours a week finding food—2,140 calories daily—and devoted another 20 to chores, as Suzman gleaned from other ethnographies and firsthand research. This left them with considerably more downtime than the typical full-time employee in the U.S., who spends about 44 hours a week doing work—and that doesn’t include domestic labor and child care. In that downtime, the Ju/’hoansi remained strikingly free, over centuries, from the urge to cram it with activities that we would classify as “productive” (or, for that matter, destructive). By day, they did go on walks with children to teach them how to read the canvas of the desert for the footprints of animals. But they also lounged, gossiped, and flirted. During firelit evenings, they sang, danced, and told stories. One anthropologist studying another hunter-gatherer tribe, the Hadza people of northern Tanzania, described its members in the 1960s as habitual small-stakes gamblers whose days were filled with one particular pastime: winning and losing arrows in games of chance.

So how did we move from that world to a culture in which leisure exists for the sake of work—in which downtime activities (such as using social media) are strewed with performance metrics, and childhood play (such as team sports) has become a résumé enhancer? Suzman does not answer this question in a very organized way. But his discussion highlights at a macro level what the Sunday scaries signal on a personal level: Modern life has made it harder for Americans to forget about their work.

Suzman calls attention to the changing nature of work. He draws on the writing of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who pointed to a crucial difference between “primitive” and complex societies called interchangeability. For hunter-gatherers, chiefs and shamans could, and did, moonlight as foragers and hunters. Overlapping duties preserved a strong sense of community, reinforced by customs and religions that obscured individual differences in strength, skill, and ambition. Shared labor meant shared values.

But in industrial economies, lawyers don’t tag in for brain surgery, and drill sergeants don’t harvest wheat—and the different jobs people do, requiring different skill sets, command (often vastly) different pay. As specialization spread and superior performance was rewarded, a cult of competition emerged: High achievers believed they could and should always toil harder for a fatter raise, bigger house, higher honor, or more wondrous breakthrough. Where rest once beckoned, now restlessness did. The productivity mode thrived—and it just might deserve credit (along with luck) for almost all scientific progress and technological ingenuity. But it also bears the blame for what Durkheim called a “malady of infinite aspiration,” which by now we’ve discovered is chronic. When a recent Pew Research Center survey asked about the secret to happiness, most Americans, of all ages, ranked “a job or career they enjoy” above marriage, children, or any other committed relationship. Careerism, not community, is the keystone in the arch of life.

You might say that leisure mind never had a chance. But Suzman emphasizes another fundamental change to help account for that: our relationship to time—specifically, to the future. Small hunter-gatherer groups in tropical climates rarely stored food for more than a few days, Suzman writes. Trusting in the abundance of their environment, the Ju/’hoansi worked to meet their absolute needs, and then stopped to rest, rather than planning ahead.

By comparison, modern civilization is a shrine to the future. The shift goes back to the agricultural revolution, which subjected humans to farming cycles that separated planting and harvest by many months, and continued with the rise of finance. But a fixation on the future by now goes far beyond crop cycles and long-term loans. It is at the heart of our concept of education and corporate development, which presumes that young students and workers will gladly spend decades honing skills that they will be well compensated for only years later. The least controversial values in America today—the importance of grit, the hope for progress, the dream of social mobility—assume that the future is always changing and that our inclination is always to wish for better. Meanwhile, excessively negative future-oriented thinking is the most common feature of anxiety disorders, which afflict almost 20 percent of Americans.

At the aggregate level, high expectations for the future have surely made the world a better place. Despite routine complaining from the 21st century’s inhabitants, modern civilization has produced quite a lot to be thankful for. Slow cookers, Venmo, and internet kittens; vaccines and aspirin, heat lamps and mittens; Amazon, hand soap, air-conditioning—these are a few of my favorite things, at least. But at the individual level, Suzman offers the tantalizing promise that the Ju/’hoansi have something to teach those of us whose brains have been dizzied by the vertigo of civilization.

Even the present-oriented hunter-gatherers, it turns out, had to develop communal strategies to quash the drivers of overwork—status envy, inequality, deprivation. When a Ju/’hoan hunter returned with a big kill, the tribe perceived a danger that he might think his prowess elevated him above others. “We can’t accept this,” one tribesman said. “So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” This practice became known among researchers as “insulting the hunter’s meat.”

It was not the only custom that aimed to discourage a destabilizing competition for status and avoid a concentration of power. The tribe also “insisted that the actual owner of the meat, the individual charged with its distribution, was not the hunter, but the person who owned the arrow that killed the animal,” Suzman writes. By rewarding the semi-random contributor of the arrow, the Ju/’hoansi kept their most talented hunters in check, in order to defend the group’s egalitarianism. A welcome result was that “the elderly, the short-sighted, the clubfooted and the lazy got a chance to be the centre of attention once in a while.”

Reading about these strategies, I felt several things at once—astonished by their ingenuity, mind-blown by the notion of ridiculing exceptional achievements, and worried that my failure to imagine taking comparable pains to protect leisurely harmony meant that my own brain had been addled by too many years in productivity mode, too many twitchy Sunday evenings. But what Suzman’s foray into humanity’s past reveals is that leisure has never been the ready default mode we may imagine, even in the chillest of cultures. The psychological cost of civilization, the scourge of the Sunday scaries, and the lesson of the Ju/’hoansi converge in an insight worth taking to heart: Safeguarding leisure is work. While progress depends on pinning our hopes on a world that doesn’t yet exist, those who cannot stop planning for the future are doomed to labor for a life they will never fully live.

* The print version of this article used an incorrect subtitle for the American edition of James Suzman’s book. The full title of that edition is Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. We regret the error.

This article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline “How Civilization Broke Our Brains.”