People are desperate for something more optimistic to aim for, a version of life with hope for a peaceful and fair future. If enough people want the same thing, I wonder what would happen if we started talking about a future that considers the biological story of our people and planet, not just the political one, which is what history really is?
We’re a product of our environment
For some time, I’ve been looking at the world differently to the way that I’ve looked at it in the past.
It started with the pandemic, which coincided with several other things going on in my life. I had a husband who was seriously ill in hospital, and healthy children who needed to learn from home because our public health guidelines said it was safer. For the first time, I experienced shortages of food and basic supplies in supermarkets, and later that year a catastrophic bushfire destroyed the homes and properties of several friends who live in our neighbourhood. These events added a sense of anxiety to an already busy life running a full-time business and managing a property and horses, one of which had just been diagnosed with a serious metabolic disorder.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was my horse’s illness that probably had the greatest effect on my thinking at the time. I’d bought my mare, Daisy, on the day she was born 13 years earlier and she’d always enjoyed good health. The vet who diagnosed the metabolic disorder had a lot of experience in this area and had access to all the latest research and drugs. But although we discussed all the elements of her recommended management, there didn’t seem to be an overall framework to tie them together and help me make better decisions for her.
I take a lot of care in managing my horses and had always followed the recommendations of experts. As I dealt with this situation, though, it occurred to me that I was to blame for the problems Daisy was now experiencing. It occurred to me that combining the how-we’ve-always-done-it mindset (a hallmark of the horse community) with what-clever-facts-we-know-now, still wasn’t giving me a complete picture. Historical knowledge and new science wasn’t enough so maybe I needed to take a more philosophical approach and reconsider what I thought I knew about Daisy in the context of how horses live in the modern world?
These questions led me to a book called Paddock Paradise by Jaime Jackson, and an online group of horse owners around the world who were applying his research on one of the last groups of truly wild horses. For years, Jackson had observed the way they lived, ate, and moved and he reached conclusions that could easily be applied to a domestic setting. His recommendations didn’t just have the power, alongside science-based drugs, to resolve the symptoms of metabolic disorders like Daisy’s, but they had been found to resolve behavioral issues, digestive issues, and hoof issues with no additional drugs required. A group of around thirty thousand horse owners all over the world had tried and tested Jackson’s recommendations, improving the health and contentment of every horse who was kept in this way.
I’ll come back to Daisy’s story later.
How we live makes a difference
As the full impact of Jackson’s approach became clear to me, I couldn’t help thinking about how, if I could engineer the environment for my two horses in line with how nature had designed them to live, we couldn’t apply the same concept to humans?
Over the last couple of hundred years, the life of the average horse had changed about as much as the life of the average human. Horses used to spend most of their days working or moving constantly to gather enough low-quality food to stay alive. Even the most active horses now spend 20 out of every 24 hours standing in a small stable or yard or wandering around in a small paddock eating highly nutritious pasture or hay.
How were humans designed to live?
I started seeing what was happening around me in the human world in a similar context. I began applying what I was learning about the way our brains work from people like developmental psychologist Bruce Hood, which helped me explain my feelings and other people’s behaviour. I discovered that change, even welcome change, only happens after disruption, and I think most of us would agree that the pandemic is the biggest disruption that the world has experienced in a long time.
From here, I considered what might be keeping us stuck in our current patterns of behaviour. It wasn’t long before I concluded that wealth – or power, which is what wealth gives people, businesses, and governments – was the source of most of our problems. This isn’t news to anyone – including me – but I decided that if economics is the study of the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth, then that’s where I needed to go first to look for answers. Specifically, I decided to look at small business economics. I’ve worked with small business owners in my marketing agency for nearly ten years so it’s fair to say I understand something about this group.
Just as there was a disconnect between the veterinary knowledge that could diagnose my mare’s metabolic issues and the common wisdom that described how she should be kept to avoid them in the first place, another was clear to me. There was a vast gulf between the top-down, theoretical economic and political frameworks that regulated our lives and the common-sense grassroots solutions that these frameworks could incentivize if we looked at them more intelligently. One way of exploring these ideas is through the eyes of people like US economist Steve Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, co-authors of the popular Freakonomics book and hosts of various podcasts under the same brand.
As uncomfortable as things have been, I felt sure that the pandemic, as the first universal disruption we’d experienced in a long time, might be the shove that many people needed to get out of their current, unfulfilling orbit. It was universal because it threatened the one thing everyone, everywhere had in common, survival. For the first time, we were like a global village, working together to fight a common enemy and I wondered what else we could accomplish if we took the same approach. I wondered how it might be possible to apply a similar village analogy to other groups we were part of, like our communities, cities and countries, by changing the way we think of ourselves and the role that each of us could play in making things better.
It occurred to me that other people may be feeling this way too and that they might be able to build on an idea that I couldn’t stop thinking about. This idea was about where they could look for answers if they were feeling like I was, or how their small business could be part of the solution. The idea centred around three main elements – identity, purpose and choice.
I called this idea the global village theory and this is how it works. (Note: I’ve since become aware that the phrase was used in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan in relation to mass communication)
How we see ourselves matters
We share the earth with nearly 8 billion other people.
Those people are divided into groups. By age. By gender. By the colour of their skin. By the 195 countries they live in. By the 7,117 different languages they speak and by the 4,200 religions, denominations, religious bodies, faith groups, tribes, cultures and movements that they belong or subscribe to, to make sense of the world.
There are even more groups than that but the biggest group by far is the collective of our species, human beings who are all united by a single goal, survival.
The power of the group
According to developmental psychologist Dr Bruce Hood in his book The Self Illusion, “Most of us believe we know our own minds and whether we decide to identify with a group, or not, is really up to us to decide. But if anything has emerged in the field of social psychology it’s the revelation that we are all susceptible to the power of the group – whether we like it or not.”
Dr Hood goes on to say: “Some group membership is relatively fixed and independent of what we want – age, sex, race, height and nationality, for example – though sometimes we try to change even these: we might lie about our age, cross-dress, have surgery, wear elevator shoes and become a nationalised citizen. And there are other groups we may aspire to join throughout our lifetime – the in-crowd, the jet-set, the highfliers, the intelligentsia or the seriously wealthy. Some of us are assigned to groups we would rather not join – the poor, the uneducated, the criminal classes or the drug addicts. People do not normally choose to be any of these but we are all members of groups whether we like it or not. Furthermore, it’s in our human nature to classify each other into groups. Even those who don’t want to be characterised are a group unto themselves – they are the dropouts and the outsiders.”
Can you think of some groups that you belong to, that you’d rather not?
Despite being divided in so many ways, people everywhere are united by some common goals that include survival and the need to be with other people.
Humans have adapted to overcome virtually every threat to our existence by sticking together and sticking to what we know. Even our personality is a response to the environment we grew up in. Our need to be part of a group is so important to our survival that it’s wired into the primitive and subconscious parts of our brain.
According to Dr Hood, “Whether we are distancing ourselves from the herd, or ingratiating ourselves as part of the herd, it is the existence of others that defines who we are.”
Other people give us labels. Woman, black person, helpful person. Labels become part of our identity and play a part in the way our lives unfold. Partly because of the way those labels, or the groups that those labels assign us to, are treated by others and partly because of how we choose to feel about them ourselves.
We can take advantage of this powerful built-in feature of the human brain, the need to be with and like other people, by offering people membership of groups with more constructive purposes, like the welfare and survival of the human race or the planet.
When we try to understand the cause and effect of our own and other people’s behaviour it’s worth considering Dr Hood’s thoughts on what it looks like when we feel threatened. “As soon as it looks as though we are in danger of being ostracised, we become hyper-vigilant to those around us, looking for clues in the way people are interacting and opportunities to re-engage with the group. Excluded individuals engage in behaviours that increase their likelihood of being reconciled back into the group. We are more likely to mimic, comply with requests, obey orders and cooperate with others who don’t deserve it. We become obsequious to the extent that we will agree with others who are clearly in the wrong. If these ingratiating strategies fail, then ostracised individuals switch tack and turn from being likeable to being angry and aggressive: ‘Look at me, I’m worthy of attention. I am not invisible, damn you.’ Individuals no longer care about being liked, but rather want to exert their influence on others to take notice. People who have been ostracised are less helpful and more aggressive to others, whether or not the others are the perpetrators of the ostracism.”
Does any of that sound familiar?
The lack of connection and inclusion that so many people seem to be feeling has a logical explanation. Our identity is in question because so many of us don’t know where we fit into a changing and illogical world. Groups we’ve previously identified with as being a member of – someone with a good job in a big company or someone from a particular political party – don’t seem to make sense to us anymore but we don’t have anything to replace those groups with that holds any meaning for us. Where we previously lived in small communities or large close-knit families, we now live relatively isolated lives in big cities.
What if we had to focus on how we can all play a part in all humans everywhere, surviving the next iteration of our society? What if we could do this by disregarding all the ways we’re different and focusing on all the ways we’re the same? By considering who benefits from us doing the things we’re currently doing and not questioning whether it could be any different? By realising the value of collective action and by thinking logically about what everyday people have to gain by holding fast to identities that divide, isolate and keep subordinate? By bringing people together rather than pushing them apart?
Behaving more compassionately or confidently literally starts with you deciding you are someone who acts or behaves the way you’d like to act or behave. And if you tell yourself that often enough, it starts to happen.
People in Sydney, Seoul and San Jose want the same basic things from life, and their brains, nervous system and toenails all work the same way. If we think of ourselves as people who are smart enough to look beyond the ways of the past, with their origins in ignorance and fear, toward the future informed by science tempered by philosophy, we could get a fair bit done.
It might seem like the world around us has suddenly started changing for the worse, but the truth is it’s been changing constantly since the beginning of time and mostly for the better.
Human beings now are largely the same as they were when they emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. Since then they’ve been subject to many predicaments that they could be forgiven for thinking of as apocalyptic. Moving land masses, weather patterns shifting through dramatic cycles, and diseases killing large numbers of people kept them mostly on the move to stay ahead of the next looming threat.
Fast forward to today and, for the most part, we have a pretty sweet deal. Some of our biggest gains are our understanding of the natural world and our advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) which make it possible for us to travel vast distances in person, communicate over vast distances virtually and live a long and healthy life, relative to the people of the past. There has never been a safer time to be a human thanks to science and organisations like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, which for the most part, maintain order around the world.
One of the gains we don’t seem to be talking about enough, is our understanding of why we do the things we do or the motivation behind actions or ways of living that aren’t doing us or society any favours.
American Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs which consists of five hierarchic classes. According to Maslow, people are motivated by unsatisfied needs. The needs, listed from basic (lowest-earliest) to most complex (highest-latest), are as follows:
1. Physiology (hunger, thirst, sleep, etc.)
5. Self actualization/achievement of full potential
We know from Maslow that once someone has the basics covered it’s important for them to have a purpose, or the motivation to get out of bed every day. For many people in western countries, that’s usually to keep working in exchange for money to pay for things. But what happens when you’ve got everything you need? You go on holiday to get away from the monotony of a life without purpose? Change the way you look to become more like someone else who appears to have a purpose?
How do you work out what your purpose is supposed to be, if you don’t already know?
We know that people need a purpose beyond the superficial to be satisfied. Some of the most contented people are ones who have a clear purpose beyond their own comfort or success. Farmers or anyone who is responsible for the health and welfare of animals for example don’t really have weekends, but that doesn’t seem to bother them. Their animals need to be fed or tended to regardless of what day of the week it is. People like that have a purpose. The kind of purpose that humans have always had.
We weren’t designed to sit around all day expecting life to be blissful. Life was never meant to be perfect or untouched by suffering even if that’s the dream we’ve been sold by people who have something they want us to buy. Trading our waking moments just to have a bigger box made of bricks to live in or a better box made of steel to get us around, doesn’t seem like much of a purpose when you think of it in the abstract.
According to a 2019 article by Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian, our disconnection from what people need to be healthy and factors like unemployment, housing debt, social isolation and culture has resulted in an estimated one in five patients consult their GP for what are primarily social problems. Traditional medical interventions and treatments don’t help, so doctors and other professionals are increasingly interested in suggesting, or prescribing, non-clinical activities and services to improve wellbeing which is now being referred as social prescribing. “Examples of social prescribing schemes include cookery classes and healthy eating advice, volunteering, sports and exercise groups, gardening, arts activities and group learning.” The article references a study by the University of Westminster, which “found that social prescribing was associated with a 28% reduction in GP appointments. It also helped to cut A&E attendances and outpatient referrals.”
Imagine all the possibilities for small business owners who could meet some of those needs, like teaching people to cook or grow vegetables or learn more about nature?
It starts with our environment
The people, animals and natural world we’re part of, form part of an intricate network with a more direct link to our purpose than we give it credit for. The natural world, in particular, is deeply connected to our sense of wellness and purpose. Many studies have explored the effects of what the Japanese call forest bathing on our physical and psychological wellbeing, and there’s plenty of research that demonstrates the benefits of us spending time with animals and getting our hands dirty in the garden. Most horse owners are living proof of this. We often do without so our horses want for nothing in exchange for the feelings of satisfaction and calm they have when they’re around them.
The point is, we have deep and invisible connections to the natural world that, if we chose to acknowledge them, could not only give our lives more meaning but could help us value the natural world as something more than an infinite supply of resources at our disposal.
Figuring out how we can do that and what our individual purpose is, starts with working out what we’re good at, what’s important to us, who we like spending time with, and what’s going on in our corner of the global village. Once we know that, we can use the information to look for opportunities to help, connect and care.
Those revelations don’t come as clearly as a job description in a wanted ad, they come as moments where we see opportunities to help that we can choose to act on or ignore. When we string enough of those moments together, they start to add up to purpose. Once we know what direction to look in, finding our purpose becomes possible, each according to our abilities and ambitions but everyone thinking about how we can make the world a better place, rather than what’s in it for us.
It’s not hard to imagine how a group of people who identify as having the power to effect change, working in their sweet spot, could achieve great things, is it?
Once we have a clear sense of identity and a compelling purpose, the next thing to consider is choice.
There is evidence everywhere that too many people feel disconnected from the people around them and from the decisions that affect their lives and that they’re unaware that they have the choice to accept or change this. To quote Dr Bruce Hood again, “Giving people choices, or at least the perception of control, empowers them to tolerate more adversity.”
Ironically, choosing how we’re going to act or feel about something is probably the only thing that we have absolute control over, though our environment can make us believe that the opposite is true.
It could be said that one of the most significant stresses that people experience today is around money, regardless of which end of the spectrum they’re at. He says, “Not all depression is the same in its origins, but it is statistically more common among the poor and deprived in our society. One theory is that it is not so much that poverty is the root cause but rather the circumstances that having no wealth entails – the inability of individuals to do anything about their lives.”
People at every level of the economic spectrum can experience the feeling that they’re stuck in a cycle they can’t get out of. Dr Hood says that “people learn helplessness, which leads to the negative fatalism that things can never get better.”
So how do we fix this? He says “The obvious solution is to empower people with choices. Some would argue that this is what wealth really brings – the opportunity to make choices and not be shackled to a life you can’t escape. If nothing changes no matter what you do, you have the basics for despair. The need for control appears to be fairly important for both physical and mental health.”
Giving people control of their lives starts with teaching them about the power of choice regardless of the number of options they appear to have. The basics of behavioural science as it applies to decision making, habits and environment should be concepts we teach every single person in an uncomplicated, actionable way, starting with concepts from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Knowing what the building blocks of success at anything are could be an effective way to empower people and communities from the ground up.
Understanding the basics of business would also benefit everyone. Not exploitative, ruthless business, but social enterprise-style business that identifies efficient ways of getting things done that need to be done without relying on someone else to approve or fund their project.
As an example, the fastest growing group in Australia to experience homelessness is women over 55. These are people who have useful skills that could almost certainly be helpful to others in their communities, like new mothers or seniors without any family close by. What if we showed those women the value of those skills and wisdom and empowered them with mentoring and basic business skills, business incubation and other facilities? Perhaps provided incentives for impact investors to develop semi-permanent communal housing for this demographic or coordinated sharing arrangements with others in a similar situation? What if we provided economic support from the government in exchange for essential services in the community? Circular solutions that leave everyone better off.
Solutions like this demonstrate what’s possible. Rather than just giving the women in that example a paltry sum of money and expecting them to sort it out, what if we created the right framework and gave them the tools to improve their own economic situation while doing something about the other things that could do with improving in their communities at the same time? This kind of thing is possible within an organisation or small business but entrepreneurial thinking is far more efficient when it’s not hindered by bureaucracy.
What if we could help people build on their sense of identity as someone who has the power to change things for the better, a sense of purpose from imagining how things could work and the choice to change the way they look at the world around them?
The world of the past encouraged people to think of themselves as cogs in a giant wheel that was smarter than they were. Jobs for life, years of study to get a job for life, waiting to be told what to do and unpleasant consequences for people who rock the boat. Rocking the boat by shouting and fighting isn’t the answer, we’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. I’m suggesting that we encourage people to think of how their unique combination of knowledge, abilities, personality and interests can be used to benefit their families, the communities they are part of and the world as a whole. Not just in the context of their occupation, but in the type of role they tend to assume in an interpersonal context. Even without an education, some people are natural leaders or cheerleaders or comforters or carers.
It’s the comforters and carers that I’m most interested in
There have been many studies and the findings of some in the UK informed the 2018 UK Government Loneliness Strategy which recognised loneliness as “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.” The study goes on to say that “both loneliness and social isolation have been found to predict premature mortality, depression, cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline and to be associated with higher engagement in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and physical inactivity.”
Whether we like it or not, the fate of every resident of this planet is intertwined and we’re all contributing in different ways to the problems we see around us. Overpopulation is happening where people have less access to education. Overconsumption is happening where people have less access to perspective.
No amount of top-down action can change what’s happening until it’s clear what we need the top layer of every community, city and country to do to make what’s happening at the grassroots, possible.
We know what’s motivating people’s behaviour and how powerless they feel to change it until their environment changes or perhaps until they become aware of the link between their environment and their behaviour and the behaviour of the people around them. If we want to do better as a society and feel better as individuals, the key might be to take what we know from science and the behavioural sciences in particular and apply it to our little part of the world.
Once everyday people start understanding the cause of their feelings and behaviour and come up with constructive explanations for other people’s behaviour, it may be possible to achieve significant change and understand what change is required at a macro level.
How things worked out for Daisy
In case you were wondering how things worked out for Daisy, I’m happy to report that the answer is, really good. Twelve months on, and her metabolic issues are stable with a combination of medication and management but what I’ve noticed goes much deeper than that. She now has a sense of purpose and contentment that’s obvious to anyone who knows anything about horses and if you’re interested, I talk about what this looks like at @hometrackhorses on Facebook.
The human brain is an exquisitely complex creation that helps us make sense of the world around us efficiently, if sometimes irrationally.
In the past, the average person didn’t have enough education to do much about their lot in life. We do now, but the structures of our past including ones that only live in our minds, like religious end-of-world and heaven and hell threats, governments and geographic borders, are still pushing us into patterns of behaviour that don’t make sense in the context of a changing present.
As our communities have gotten bigger, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be human. In particular, what some paleoanthropologists believe was a key factor in the evolutionary emergence of human consciousness, language, kinship and social organisation, which is resistance to being dominated. Everywhere we look, we see people fighting against it, without having any real alternative in mind.
People are desperate for something more optimistic to aim for, a version of life with hope for a peaceful and fair future. If enough people want the same thing, I wonder what would happen if we started talking about a future that considers the biological story of our people and planet, not just the political one, which is what history really is? A conversation that considers what we know from science about the evolution of the human species over hundreds of thousands of years (not just the meagre few thousand since BC became AD) and where the logical progression of that evolution could lead?
During the war in Ukraine in particular, we’ve seen incredible acts of altruism, compassion and generosity towards Ukrainians in need. We say that people are selfish and cruel, but the vast majority aren’t. And the ones who are behave the way they do for reasons that, to them, are logical.
For most people, helping and connecting with other people is one of the most emotionally satisfying things they can do. Every small business owner that I work with, genuinely wants to help other people or make the world a better place, and if they could be shown how they could do that, I can only dream of the results they could achieve.
We’re all part of different villages: local communities, cities, states, countries and one big global village. If we all subscribed in even a small way to the global village theory, and started thinking how we and everyone else could be part of the solutions to the problems facing the villages in our lives, imagine how that could have the potential to change things from the ground up??
How I can help
The thoughts in this article form the basis of online programs and mentoring designed to help you work out what your purpose in life is and figure out how to offer and package the things you’re equipped to do, either in a volunteer or business capacity, as a staff member, consultant or business owner, at whatever scale you feel comfortable with, in a way that will make the world a better place. To find out more, go to smallbusinessmarketingcoach.com.au.
Note: Global Village Theory acknowledges the value and importance of the many cultures, religions and individual belief systems around the world, as ways of helping people preserve the stories of their people and make sense of their world. Global Village Theory invites people to question the interpretation of any specific cultural or religious texts that seek to divide, incite hatred or de-value any one person or group of people.