Burnout: A Modern Problem with an Ancient Solution?

a caveman is burned out, tired, and depressed
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One problem that many of us face today would be very confusing to our caveman ancestorsBurnout.

Burnout can accurately be called a problem of the developed world. It exists in part because of our increased expectations and our awareness of what others are doing.

Obviously we don’t have modern medical studies speculating about caveman burnout, since no cave paintings have depicted a sad-looking stick figure sitting slumped in front of an ancient stone tablet.

On the other hand, it’s safe to assume that cave dwellers could instantly see how their work contributed to the good of the household or the village—you killed something and brought it back, producing food. Either you had job satisfaction at the end of the day or you went hungry.

Nowadays, it’s less easy to see how we’re doing on a daily basis, which can lead to frustration. Some signs of burnout are physical symptoms, like headaches, digestive problems and other manifestations of non-specific pain. Others are mental, such as sleep problems, anxiety and general fatigue.

Combinations of these symptoms create the physical and mental exhaustion that comes from a growing dissatisfaction with work or life. It often seems that no matter what we do, we’re not going anywhere and not making a difference.

This understandably causes stress. The body winds up in a constant state of alarm, producing adrenaline and cortisol. If the body can’t resist the stress, its resources become depleted, leading to exhaustion and making it difficult to function normally.

This is a legacy of our ancestors, who experienced stress in a much different way. When being attacked by a predator or faced with another dangerous situation, the fight-or-flight reaction is much more useful than when it’s a day-to-day reaction to job dissatisfaction.

The cavemen didn’t have any idea whether their counseling was helping people cope with tough times, or whether they were getting on the good side of the boss. Burning out was the least of their problems; more likely their bigger worry would be avoiding getting burned up in a wildfire.

For the most part, modern individuals are secure from such concerns now. But burnout is a peculiar thing, as is the study of how best to cope with it. One interesting approach: Therapist Alden Cass attributes burnout to the quest many of us have for happiness, and tells his clients: “Happiness equals reality divided by expectation.”

So one question to ask about ourselves as we seek to avoid burnout is this: What makes you happy?

If it is something tangible, such as family and friends or a hobby that brings joy, you are much more likely to end the day with a concrete sense of satisfaction, just like a hunter-gatherer bringing in his catch at the end of the day. That’s how the cavemen might counsel us to avoid the modern scourge of burnout.

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Miko Cavemen

MIKO is a vigorous young man who can be very clever… with a spear!

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