When you hear a line like, “It’s all over but the screaming,” you’re curious. But when you hear it at the meeting of the world’s super-elite at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, it really gets your attention. To be sure, it was said in jest. At least sort of: the basic point to which the comment referred is real. We are on the brink of seismic structural and social change.  And we’re not ready.

The overarching themes of the meeting have been widely talked about. Pretty much every journalist snickered that the Davos “Mountain Few” (as Jon Stewart put it) talked a lot about the worrying rise in income inequality, but when 85 people have as much money as the poorest 50% of the world’s population, well, how could they not talk about it? “Extreme science” is reshaping life, death and the very idea of nature (spider genes spliced into goat’s so that there’s spider silk in the goat’s milk, anyone?). Privacy and security are on everyone’s mind in a post-Snowdon world. And, underpinning all of this, as Thomas Friedman pointed out, is the convergence of globalisation and the IT revolution. The two new technologies most up for discussion were 3D printing (we’re already printing human jaws, next it will be houses) and cognitive computing which could replace entire industries.

Taken together, these trends represent fundamental shifts in how our world works. They probably won’t feel like science fiction as they start to unfold – every change builds on one before so we become habituated to them. But they will be profound. The difference isn’t just machines doing our work for us and displacing certain kinds of labour. That trend has been around since the Industrial Revolution. And the difference isn’t just even that the so-called knowledge economy will collapse around us because knowledge per se won’t have much value anymore. Rather, the most significant difference will be in the way these trends could impact deep values like social inclusion, democracy, social stability and a belief in individual growth and potential.

On the threshold of the structural changes we’re in for – and mindful of the potential screaming – it’s more important than ever to be asking some big questions. The ones I heard repeatedly in Davos were where the jobs of the future will come from when whole industries are transformed or eradicated? And how do we avoid winner-take-all economies and the civil unrest that might go with them?

These are important. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee said, societies that don’t think about the future don’t tend to do well there. And there’s no doubt that the world’s governments will need very good policies and practices indeed to manage the coming changes.

But there are other important questions that we need to ask too. And for the most part, I didn’t really hear them in Davos. I was left wondering what it will mean to be human in this new world? And what will we need to flourish? Setting policy aside – what should we as individuals be seeking to nurture in ourselves through the coming transitions?

Considering not just the wealth of data on well-being but also its consistency, I’d venture that the things we’re most going to need to cultivate is connection. Not just social connection through smart phones or Skype or maybe even virtual reality. God knows these have their merits, but we need to think more deeply about the sorts of connections we need to be happy, healthy and (because I think we’ll need it) grounded.

We’re going to need meaningful connections to our own bodies. This means remembering that we’re not machines to monitor and measure (one delegate on a healthcare panel, referring to the wearable device Jawbone, said, “We wouldn’t dream of driving a car without a speedometer, so why are we trying to manage our health without these?”), but rather living animals who need to play and move. We need to walk long distances, dance, jump in puddles, skip and play. We need to be connected to our bodies through the use of them, not just through machines that read back our vital signs to us.

We also need meaningful connections to the world around us through our bodies. We need to touch and feel things with our hands and skin. We will need to gasp at the shock of cold lake water, pull away from the clingy fabric of spiders’ webs, feel comforted by the warm skin of a beloved’s body, and savour the richness of a tomato picked from the garden.

We’re going to need – more than ever – a connection to where we’ve come from, to the traditions that have shaped us and the human skills that are so awesome and beautiful that they’re worth cultivating and keeping even when they’re technically redundant: penmanship, stonemasonry, pottery, baking, needlework and so on.

And we’re going to need connections to a creativity that isn’t defined by or directed to technology alone but rather is valued in whatever form it takes, whether it’s the community spirit of a street musician or the social observation of a novelist.

These comments aren’t a romantic lament for a lost world. In a time in which people seem to be defining themselves as technological optimists or pessimists, I see myself simply as a realist. As it stands, we’ve got a whole lot of evidence that while the material benefits that technological innovation have brought are real and need to be acknowledged, we’re also grappling with unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression, obesity and so on. But there’s plenty of research out there that suggests what humans need to thrive. And it’s not technology, or at least, not just technology. It’s the connections that remind us of our very natures.

As we venture into what Thomas Friedman calls this ‘Gutenberg-scale moment’ let’s keep the notion of the good life front and centre. It should be guiding not only the policy choices with which we’ll be managing these structural changes, but also the daily choices (and refusals) we make.

 

 

After watching my four year old son attack his great-uncle the other day, then play tag on the lawn with his twenty-something cousin, I thought about writing a short blog on why connecting across different generations might be part of the new good life.

But then there was the episode with the flamingoes.

And I realized that I was observing something in the children that was equally true for all of us.

We were at Jungle Gardens in Sarasota. Jungle Gardens is a sort of glorified petting zoo for alligators and the like. They have this shtick going where you can buy food for the flock of flamingos that live by a pond on site. Up close, flamingoes are really rather wonderful creatures. They’re a gorgeous shade of pink, with black feathers underneath their wings like some sort of haute couture inspired fashion accent. They have long, bendy necks that they contort into improbable twists and loops when they tuck their heads into their wings to sleep. But they’re also kind of goofy: they have big beaks, beady eyes and they honk when they call.

We did a first pass round to feed the flamingoes (going past, I might add, the religiously-inspired “Garden of Christ”… “Well,” my daughter Mira said when we’d passed it, “that was unexpected”) but the flamingoes were arranged around their pond, fast asleep. Despite Jamie’s enthusiastic calling (he’s four), they just ignored us and snoozed on. We admired them for a while, including their ability to sleep whilst standing on one foot, then gave up and went to see the reptile show.

Half an hour later, we returned and found the flamingoes just waking up. At least their leader was, and his cross-sounding honks roused them all. Whether it was too early, or that they were simply overfed, they didn’t seem interested in our food. But Jamie was unwilling to give up and, quivering with excitement, he stood there with his hand outstretched. Finally, a haughty looking flamingo strutted (there’s no other word for it) over, turned his head, and peered at Jamie out of one eye. Jamie cooed at it, and it finally disdained to nibble some of the food from his hand. The bird, which easily bigger than he was, was surprisingly gentle as it picked at its little pellets. Jamie almost levitated with delight. I don’t know if the flamingo got much out of it, but for Jamie, it was clearly meant a lot to be touching (or rather touched by) something so wonderful and alien.

It would be reasonable to wonder what playing with extended family and feeding flamingoes have in common.

I think it’s the sense of being fully in one’s body and connecting to other things through one’s body. Florida was beautiful, and it was fun to be on spring break. But it was also striking that we were all so physical. Not just active, but moving through the world in a way that connected us to other things, especially each other and the natural world. We walked at the shoreline, put our hands and feet in the same water in which we’d seen dolphins swimming, played with each other, fed the flamingoes and dug in the sand. By contrast, in our normal life, we spend an awful lot of time in cars and at desks and computers.

For sure there’s a “what I did on holiday” aspect to this observation. But the holiday was really just the opportunity to see the larger point. Our bodies are the fundamental vehicle through which we connect with the world. The people, animals and things we touch; the elements in which we immerse ourselves; the food we eat…these are the things that reveal the world to us. And through the plain and fundamental action of touch, we understand – in the truest way possible – that we’re connected to the world.

Jamie and the Flamingo

The irony:  I’m in my paper gown, waiting for my physical.  To while away the time, I’m re-reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.  The doctor comes into the room, and I slide the book back into my purse, my mind still on Louv’s argument that spending time in nature makes us healthier.  In fact, in the last sentence I read before putting the book Louv points out that, in 1699, “the book the English Gardener advised the reader to spend ‘spare time in the garden, either digging, setting out, or weeding;  there is no better way to preserve your health.’”

Then my physical begins.  My regular doctor is off on maternity leave, so I see the locum.  She’s a warm, respectful woman with a ready smile.  She shows she cares by answering questions thoughtfully.  We review the blood work that I had done the previous week.  Triglycerides good, blood sugar good, cholesterol fabulous, iron a little low.  We review the nurse’s exam:  weight good, BP good.  In other words, it’s all about the numbers, and my numbers are fine.

Other than asking after my children, she doesn’t ask me any personal questions, and, after years of experience doing health-related ethnographies, I don’t really expect her to.  I’m aware that she may well be doing some sort of assessment of my overall demeanor, but if she is, I “pass” without any further exploration of my thoughts, feelings, experiences or lifestyle.  We part, and I agree to watch my iron, and to update my tetanus shot in a few years.

All in all, it was a perfectly normal physical, one that I was lucky to have in a world of unequal access to health care.  But it also highlighted that, officially anyway, we still have a narrow vision about what matters when it comes to health and wellness.  We know things other than cholesterol etc. matter, but they’re time-consuming for physicians to take on in the clinical encounter, and more to the point, they don’t fit comfortably into the prevailing scientific discourse.

Here are 10 questions I would have loved to hear my doctor ask:

  1. Do you know where the food you eat comes from?
  2. To quote Michael Pollan, do you eat food, not too much, mostly plants?
  3. Do you regularly spend time in nature and know the native species of your neighbourhood?
  4. Do you feel your life has purpose?
  5. Is there human touch in your life?
  6. Do you have the chance to interact regularly with people who different than you – older, younger, of different backgrounds and abilities?
  7. Do you give?
  8. Do you give thanks?
  9. Do you move?
  10. Do you regularly eat with people you love?

The vision of health that lies behind these is completely different than the one captured in blood tests and weight measurements.  Health here isn’t just about risk minimization and calibrating the chemistry of the body to mitigate the crappy things we do to ourselves.  These are important, but shouldn’t a vision of health also be about living?   These questions would have asked me whether I’m connected to people, to the natural environment, to what I put in my body, to a spirit of life.

This isn’t just some Romantic sentiment:  there’s no shortage of evidence that the behaviors interrogated by the questions above contribute to better mental and physical health.  We don’t always know why they do.  Sometimes it’s straightforward:  if you put healthy, unprocessed food into your system, your body will be better off.  Sometimes it’s harder to pinpoint:  for example, we know spending time in nature can reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels – elevated levels of which are linked to any numbers of chronic illnesses – and improve feelings of well-being, but we don’t know why that happens.

My doctor probably won’t be asking me those questions any time soon.  But I can ask them of myself, and raise them more broadly, along with one of the most important questions overall:  what’s the culture of health that we want to create?

The only way we should be assessing our health?