In part 1, part 2, and part 3, I described the problem of depression, the extent of the problem, and why our current approach is misguided and ultimately ineffective, why focusing on men can help men and women, and the beginnings of a new approach for understanding what causes depression and how to cure it. Here I will describe the origins of many of our chronic health problems, including depression, and offer a new approach that can actually cure depression and many of our other health problems.
From the time I was a little kid I was always interested in indigenous cultures. When we played cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be one of the Indians. I remember reading the book, The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper, when I was a young boy. It was set in 1757 when the British and French were fighting for control of North America and I was entranced with the brave Mohican warriors, Chingachgook and Uncas.
I was also interested in our hunter-gatherer roots in the evolutionary history of humanity. In my third book, The Warrior’s Journey Home: Healing Men, Healing the Planet, published in 1994, I delved deeply into our human history and examined what we could learn that would help us overcome many of the problems we face in our modern, civilized, world.
The Original Partnership Societies
In The Warrior’s Journey Home I say,
“We generally refer to our early ancestors as hunter-gatherers or gatherer-hunters, since it was the gathering activities of the women that brought in most of the food. A broader, more comprehensive name of this arrangement is ‘affluent partnership society,’ since equality, cooperation and abundant leisure are such key elements of its success.”
In 1988, I met the historian and systems scientist, Riane Eisler, shortly after the publication of her monumental book, The Chalice & The Blade: Our History, Our Future, and her ideas resonated with my own. Eisler contrasted two models that described social systems throughout our human history. She described them this way:
“The first, which I call the dominator model, is what is popularly termed either patriarchy or matriarchy—the ranking of one half of humanity over the other. The second, in which social relations are primarily based on the principle of linking rather than ranking, may best be described as the partnership model. In this model—beginning with the most fundamental difference in our species, between male and female—diversity is not equated with either inferiority or superiority.”
Unlike many feminist scholars of the time, Eisler didn’t blame men for the problems in society, but recognized that both men and women were wounded by a system of domination.
“The underlying problem is not men as a sex. The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the Blade is idealized—in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and dominance and to see men who not conform to this ideal as ‘too soft’ or ‘effeminate.’”
True partnership between men and women is more likely to eliminate the adverse childhood experiences that have become so prominent in our modern world. We don’t have to go back to becoming hunter-gatherers to have societies based on partnership, we see many examples in the modern world.
In her recent book, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, written with anthropologist Douglas P. Fry, Eisler and Fry describe childhood practices in modern-day Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. “In the Nordic countries education emphasizes cooperative learning and teaches skills for nonviolence parenting,” they say. “Children get free nutritious lunches; most children go to daycare and preschool, which receive strong government support.”
In my book, The Warrior’s Journey Home: Healing Men, Healing the Planet, I have a chart that contrasts the two different systems. Here are some of the features I highlighted:
A Unified Theory For Healing Male Depression, Mental, and Physical Illness
Remember one of the clues to understanding depression and how best to treat it was to recognize places where it didn’t occur. In part 2 I quoted psychologist Dr. Stephen Ilardi, from his book, The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs.
“Modern-day hunter-gatherer bands—such as the Kaluli people of the New Guinea highlands—have been assessed by Western researchers for the presence of mental illness. Remarkably, clinical depression is almost completely nonexistent among such groups, whose way of life is similar to that of our remote ancestors.”
Although many researchers have concluded that humans are uniquely suited to the way of life that we lived for more than 99% of human history as hunter-gatherers, they conclude that it is too late to go back and humans are destined to suffer from all the “diseases of civilization.”
But I don’t believe that is the case. As Riane Eisler has so clearly recognized, we don’t have to become hunter-gatherers again, we just have to live in ways that are Partnership-based rather than Domination-based. Fortunately, there are many modern communities where Partnership practices are the rule, rather than the exception. They are called “Blue Zones.”
Blue Zones: What We Can Learn From the Places Where People Live Long and Well and the One Place in the World Where Men Live Longer Than Women.
The concept of blue zones grew out of the demographic work done by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain outlined in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology, identifying Sardinia as the region of the world with the highest concentration of male centenarians. Pes and Poulain drew concentric blue circles on the map highlighting these villages of extreme longevity and began to refer to this area inside the circle as the blue zone.
Dan Buettner learned about the research and took notice. Dan is an interesting man. He is an explorer, educator, author, producer, storyteller and public speaker. He, and his brother, Nick are also an adventurers who has led expeditions to interesting places throughout the world. In 1997 Dan approached National Geographic with the idea to research longevity hotspots and was given support to move forward. He then connected with Robert Kane, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota, who introduced him to top demographers and scientists at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Washington, DC. He was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Aging. Previous research identified the longevity hotspots of Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, and Loma Linda, California.
In 2003, Buettner began leading trips to these destinations while collaborating with a variety of experts, including anthropologists, historians, dietitians, and geneticists to reverse engineer longevity, in a sense. That year he formed Blue Zones LLC. Buettner reported his findings of communities with increased longevity, identified as blue zones, in his cover story for National Geographic Magazine’s November 2005 edition, “Secrets of Long Life.”
In April 2008, Buettner released a book on his findings, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, through National Geographic Books. It became a New York Times Best Seller. In September 2009, Buettner gave a TED talk on the topic, titled “How to live to be 100+”, which now has over two million views.
In 2010, Buettner created Blue Zones Project dedicated to creating a nation of Blue Zones Communities where people learn to live longer and better. In September, 2021 the hospital in the community where I live in Mendocino County partnered with Blue Zones. We are just beginning to take what has been learned in other blue zones and apply them here.
Buettner not only found places where people lived long and well, but identified the one place in the world where men actually lived longer than women. This longevity Blue Zone located in the provinces of Ogliastra and Nuoro in the mountainous region of Sardinia shows a value of the Extreme Longevity Index (ELI1) computed for the newborns between 1880 and 1900 that is more than twice as high as that of whole Sardinia. Strikingly, generally wherever long-lived populations are found, most of the centenarians were female. Yet, in this region 47 male centenarians were found and only 44 female centenarians.
In doing research for her book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, developmental psychologist Susan Pinker visited Villagrande and met with Dr. Gianni Pes, who had done the original studies on longevity.
“Almost everywhere in the world,” says Pinker,
“men die an average of five to seven years before women do, leaving nations of widows to populate their gown squares, supermarkets, and seniors’ homes. The residents of the rugged hilltop villages of central Sardinia are the world’s only exceptions to this rule. Almost everywhere else, including on the Italian mainland, there are six female centenarians for every male.”
Pinker goes on to say,
“Elsewhere, most men don’t make it to eighty, but once Sardinian men in this region have lived through their dangerous, risk-taking adolescent and young adult years, they tend to live as long as their wives and sisters—well into their nineties and even beyond. Currently, ten times as many men in Villagrande live past the age of one hundred as men who live elsewhere.”
Clearly, we can learn a lot about how to live long and well from these healthy and long-lived men and women. In the final part of this series, I will share what we can all do to take the wisdom of the blue zones like Villagrande, Sardinia, and put it to practice in our own communities.
In part 5 of this article, I will detail what we are doing locally and the program that is now being used around the world and throughout the U.S. to help prevent depression and other diseases of a world out of balance to create “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” as my colleague Charles Eisenstein puts it.