Finding Health, Happiness, and Hope

Finding Health, Happiness, and Hope

by Anna Peterson Macsalka

When astronauts travel to space, they often describe a sense of awe that has been coined “The Overview Effect.” From above and beyond, many describe a profound sense of interconnectedness, unity, and responsibility. Struck by Earth’s beauty and vibrant energy against a sea of darkness, they are forever changed. Spanning out, busy city streets, swirling oceans, and jungles teeming with life appear to be one and the same. Our divisions, labels, and borders blend together to reveal one distinct truth: we are all pieces of some vast, mysterious puzzle. We are one.

The quest to discover the meaning of life is as old as humanity itself. Throughout the centuries, philosophers, artists, scientists, writers, priests, and people from all walks of life have pondered this age-old question. There is an inherent desire built into all of the 8 billion people on this planet to find their purpose, live long, fruitful lives, and achieve inner peace. We chase fancy titles, paint the sunset, raise children, and fall in love. While the manifestations of this pursuit may vary wildly, the instinct behind it does not. 

Between 4000 and 3000 B.C., the first known civilization appeared in Mesopotamia. Daily life revolved around family. Most often, both parents worked and many families kept pets and enjoyed local festivals and gatherings. Children helped out, and in their free time, jumped rope, played board games, and told stories. The Mesopotamian Oikos model revolved around the family unit and was broken down into 3 central units: the family, the family's property, and the house. In this society, people developed writing, math, medicine, the zodiac, astronomy, and law, and even brewed their own beer. 

In some parts of the world, industry and technology have taken us far away from this model. We live alone, socialize on touchscreens, and pay people to deliver our groceries without ever even seeing their faces. Modern conveniences have changed the structure of our societies and our definition of family. We have grown more inclusive in some aspects and more isolated in others. Caught up in busy schedules, people often feel as if their journey is a solitary one. But way up high in space, we are all still a part of that swirling blue and green. 

In our modern world, the quest for happiness and health continues to be a driving force. In The Journal of Experimental Gerontology, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal, Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain identified Nuoro province of Sardinia as the region of the world with the highest concentration of men over the age of 100. Drawing from their work, National Geographic Fellow and multiple New York Times bestselling author, Dan Buettner, is known for discovering five places throughout the world called “Blue Zones” where people live the longest, healthiest lives. 

In these communities, longevity and quality of life differ considerably from the rest of the world. These differences have been broken down into the “Power 9,” a set of distinct traits that define the Blue Zones. The Danish Twin Study established that only about 20% of life expectancy is determined by genes, leaving much of our lives subject to our behaviors, choices, and environment. In these unique societies, movement, connection, diet, purpose, and outlook prove to be the missing variables. Not only do those factors make us tick, they might also determine the length of our time here on earth.

The Okinawan term “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans “plan de vida;” translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” With a focus on health, community, and purpose, most experience less stress, inflammation, and disease. They move naturally while maintaining their homes and gardens, take naps, and drink wine. They eat until they’re full and belong to faith-based communities with no discernible denominations. They keep aging parents close and raise their children with patience, commitment, and love. 

With no human cast aside, everyone belongs, participates, and celebrates in unison. In these communities, the divisions many modern-day societies cling to appear to dissolve. Okinawans created “moais” or groups of five friends that vow to support each other for life. Many say “putting family first makes life more fun.” As it turns out, their joy, fulfillment, and connectedness may just be the key to life. After all, it appears to boost their health, economic development, and even improve their cost of living. They are not chained to car payments, cubicles, status symbols, or screens.

Perhaps, when community drives our sense of purpose, we can lead longer, happier lives. Our children grow up with a sense of belonging and use their bodies and minds to create and contribute rather than escape. Being grounded and present is a luxury many dismiss as an impossible goal as they navigate their busy, disconnected lives. In this infinite pursuit, we teach our children to follow in our footsteps. We teach them to strive and conform. Those who can’t or won’t adhere are dismissed and discounted.

In the 1930s, biologist Hans Selye discovered that rats subjected to long-term stress became chronically ill. He noted that “Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” He injected the rats with a wide variety of different chemicals, yet the symptoms were always the same. From this, General Adaptation Syndrome was discovered. Negative or positive, when the body is exposed to any kind of stress, it reacts with alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.

With the rise of social media, there comes a perpetual fear of missing out. We curate our experiences into attractive snapshots and pour over the lives of others without ever really knowing their truth. There is a need there, in children and adults alike, to connect, find joy and beauty, and achieve a sense of community. Research has shown that screen time inhibits young children's ability to learn social skills, read social cues, handle frustration, and develop empathy. In the world as we know it, how do we save our children and ourselves?

Maybe the answer is simpler than we think. Maybe nature isn’t some remote place we go to get away and ditch our screens. Perhaps, from a different vantage point we can access that interconnectedness some find from billions of miles away. Approximately 275 million people across the globe seek refuge in meditation. 3.1 million children in the U.S. are learning mindful meditation in school. Sure, screen time is up and anxiety and depression are higher than ever, but there is also something primal bubbling below the surface. There is hope.

Stress may be an inevitable part of life. There is work to be done, children to be fed, and deaths to be mourned. It is prolonged stress that is the true culprit, robbing us of our health, vitality, and possibly even years of our lives. So, what is the lesson here? Do we escape to some remote community in search of a better way? Do we shelter our children from the world as we know it?

At Zenimal, we believe that we all possess an inner power that can be accessed at any time. No matter where you’re from and what you’ve been through, you can lead a full, happy life on your own terms. As parents, it’s easy to feel like there’s so much beyond your control and so much to fear. We want to shelter our children, to armor them with everything they need to take pride in their piece of the puzzle and live an authentic life. There’s so much to learn from taking a pause to process the world around us. 

Our distraction-free, screen-free devices can help anyone create their own personal oasis. We can honor each breath and truly experience the present moment. Learning this at a young age gives us a nourishing dose of what people all over the world are searching for - a way to revel in the mystery of being alive. Our bodies and minds are wiser than we give them credit for, and when we connect with ourselves we tune into a vast, limitless space where everyone belongs.

In David Yaden’s study of The Overview Effect, he describes how seeing the earth from afar inspires an altered state of consciousness. These “self-transcendent experiences have long-lasting, persisting positive effects” that often last “for weeks, months, years, even decades.” We have a body and a mind that’s capable of so much. While purpose may feel personal, we’re all rowing the same boat with 8 billion people navigating the same streams.  We have a finite time here on earth and a long, winding journey ahead. We might as well pause and enjoy the view. 

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