Natural Born Cooperators

How returning to our original human nature can help combat stress

Today’s younger generations may be better educated, more travelled and best placed to make the most of the digitisation trend, but life is not all rosy for them. The pressures of ‘996’ working hours, unattainable housing prices and the ever more evident impacts of climate change are leading to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Dr Alfred Chambers, a psychologist with United Family Hospital (Guangzhou), says the effects are made worse by our modern lifestyles, which pull us away from our natural human inclinations.

Modern life is fast and overloaded with information, obligations and stimulation. The world seems in an ever more precarious situation, with political, cultural, economic and environmental turmoil on the rise on every continent. Nothing is certain, and there is increasing chaos and disruption as computer algorithms and far-off decision-makers take more and more control over everything – from our children’s educational options to our air quality to our choice of dog foods.

Increasingly, all of these processes and situations are becoming ‘natural’. From African villages to Singapore bars, from boardrooms to bedrooms, from kindergarten classes to all of the millions of overcrowded streets – money, speed, information, production and especially competition have become our human mantras (and I haven’t even mentioned social media, ongoing personal and political violence or the (un)sustainability of the environment for future generations). And we are not only moving faster and faster, we are isolating ourselves more and more.

As a result, what happens to us as precious and fragile human individuals? Well, we have increasing fear, worry, anger, isolation, health issues, stress, suicide, insomnia, divorce, violence, addictions and various other symptoms we could loosely call anxiety or depression. All of these human reactions are on the rise around the world, and very few individuals or families are untouched by at least one of these troubles.

Why have we evolved such a situation—to what advantage, or imagined advantage—and how can we stop this precarious decline in the quality of our lives?

Of course, many people will read this and think; but my life is better, I have air conditioning, my kids have access to better education, I eat every day, and so on. That may be true; however, in psychology we find no correlation, let alone causation, between happiness (life satisfaction) and various factors such as income, education, attractiveness, status, health, age or race. If we all have the basics of food and shelter, then we all have the same potential for a meaningful and fulfilling life. But the vast majority of humans struggle just for the basics.

Human animals seem to have been naturally designed over hundreds of thousands of years for a simple life of small communities co-operating to ensure the wellbeing and survival of all its members. Without sharing, generosity, empathy, communication, togetherness, support and working for the betterment of all, the human species would not have survived.

The idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ is a misleading and not very useful metaphor. We survive and thrive together, or not at all.

We are not fast or big enough to have survived for millennia if being the fittest was the basis of living, but we do have the mental capacity for working together and cooperating, which is natural for us. Competition is not natural.

(I would also suggest that anger is not natural. Aggression is, and aggressive feelings are, but we have the brain power to decide if we want to turn aggressive energy into a manipulating anger or violence, or let it play out naturally as it does so simply in the animal world. A fleeing antelope is not angry, nor is the pursuing lion. If a rugby player uses anger as a motivator they will not think clearly; the same for a parent who chooses to use anger as a tool, rather than hugs, support and gentle education.)

Sharing food with our neighbours is a natural act, as is helping a stranger struggling with their load. Greed, winner-takes-all, turning our back on others and zero-sum games are not natural. These latter behaviours have been learned, become habits and then taken for granted over the last few thousand years or so; however, again, we were not designed for this world of speed and avarice and isolation. If you do not trust my word on this, then check the works of the great philosophers from both East and West.

Humans have a wonderful triple combination of mind, body and the capacity for caring relationships. These three enable us to experience life, to feel, think, create, love, and also to imagine a different world. Our minds can fly into a bright future or back to a happy past, yet we often use our imaginations to stress about things in a future we cannot predict or change, or obsess about a troubled past we also cannot change. We are blessed and cursed with our amazing thinking minds.

In depression and anxiety, one of the most telling and troubling symptoms is the inability to refocus our thinking from the negative to the neutral (positive is not even necessary!). Our ancestors could probably flow with the ups and downs, good and bad, births and deaths and the turning of the seasons of life in a much smoother manner than we can. But aren’t we supposed to be smarter today with our computers and airplanes? Maybe, maybe not; actually, we are living in a world that we are simply not designed for. The most prevalent creation of our modern societies seems to be the production of self-loathing and fear – two of the most important ingredients that help to make up depression and anxiety and their various accompanying symptoms. And where do self-loathing and fear come from? Competition and isolation.

Imagine a world without mirrors where there are no reflections to judge or evaluate ourselves with. What would happen to your stress then? However, in our modern world everything has become a mirror – and sadly mostly negative ones. We are pushed and pulled and pressured and told to win at all costs. Everything is measured and compared and found to be wanting, especially us. And this pressure seems to be increasing for children as the world spins forever faster.

An alternative to all this is to be congruent with our true natures and live a life of cooperation, kindness, gratitude, sharing, openness, self-compassion and the acceptance of the precariousness of all life. I would like to be powerful enough to save all the fishes and trees; however, as an individual I feel very helpless in that endeavor. But one thing perhaps I can do is to make myself a more kind and loving person, and hold the door open for a stranger; that is good for my heart and it makes the world a better place.

Participating in life with grace and expressing who we are with mindfulness ensures a balance between honouring others and being true to ourselves. This makes the world a better place and helps maintain our lives with as little trouble as possible in these confusing times.

Dr Alfred Chambers is section chief of the Mental Health Department of United Family Hospital (Guangzhou). He has over 25 years of experience (18 of them in Asia) as a psychologist, teacher and group facilitator. Dr. Chambers was also a trauma responder for the Asian tsunami, the Bali bombing, SARS in Asia, a Singapore Airlines crash, and a major earthquake in Taiwan. United Family Healthcare is a pioneering, international-standard health system providing comprehensive, integrated healthcare in China in a uniquely warm, caring, patient service-oriented environment since 1997.