The time travelling answer to better mental health

…and why your ancestors think the future is messed up

In the evolutionary blink of an eye we have gone from hunting and gathering to working in a world of stunning technological sophistication. We fly, we cure diseases, we clone sheep, we take it for granted that we can video chat with people on the other side of the world and immediately get agitated if the picture breaks up.

On just about every measure we are doing far better than our hunter gatherer forebears. We live far longer. We live far more comfortably. When we get a toothache, we have far better options than opening wide and asking someone to smash that painful molar out with a rock.

One area where we may not be doing so well is mental health. Why is that? To answer this question, I stepped in a time machine, hit the ‘back’ button and had a chat with my (insert a large number of greats) grandad about work and life.

Our chat went something like this.

“Hi there. I’m your time travelling relative from the future.”

“Nice to meet you. I see you inherited that big nose of mine.”

“Yeah, thanks for that. Have you got time for a chat?”

“Of course, I’ve got loads of time. Typically, I spend a few hours hunting, then the rest of my day I am just chillaxing with the tribe. How do you spend their days in the future?”

“A lot of us wake up and turn the news on the television (it’s like this big magic box with pictures). We then watch stories about wars, environmental catastrophes, gruesome murders and stuff like that.”

“That sounds full-on. What do people do next?”

“A lot of men will then get dressed up in a shirt, a neck tie and a woollen suit.”

“Isn’t that really uncomfortable and hot?”

“It is, but it is far worse for women. People expect them to paint their faces and wear these weird torture devices on their feet. Anyway, once we are all dressed up we get on the train (it’s this big magic rolling thing which carries lots of people and goes really fast).”

“That must be fun. Does everyone get really excited, have a chat and sing songs together?”

“Not really. Usually everyone is pretty miserable and regards each other with something between cold apathy and abject fear. Most people just stare directly at their smartphones (they are these kind of miniature magic boxes) whilst trying not to make eye contact with anyone else.”

“What does everyone do with these smartphone things? Does it make them happy?”

“Mainly we compare ourselves unfavourably with other people. We also like to ridicule our leaders and look at cats.”

“Sounds weird…. I imagine with all your technological innovations, you can just swan about living a life of amazing leisure. Is that what you do when you get off the train?”

“No, we go to work.”

“But you must only work for fifteen minutes or half an hour, right?”

“Actually, it is supposed to be eight hours, but generally it is more like nine or ten, because everyone is too afraid to leave on time.”

“Hmmm… and what do people do at work?”

“It’s pretty hard to explain. Some people make things, but a lot of us just sit in front of these other magic boxes called computers and press buttons all day.”

“I can tell you don’t spend your days chasing after animals. You have a big belly and your shoulders are all hunched over. Why do people spend so much time sitting in front of these computers?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s mainly so they can afford an occasional holiday where they don’t have to do any work at all.”

“People from the future don’t sound super-motivated about work. Here all our tribe works together for a common benefit. Is that how you guys do it?”

“It’s not really like that. We don’t really have tribes. We just have lots of casual work acquaintances. Some of them are nice, but some we can’t stand. We basically all work really hard so the big bosses can afford to drive Aston Martins.”

“What’s an Aston Martin?”

“It’s a very fancy rolling machine which people buy when they have too much money, are tragically insecure and want to compensate for… other shortcomings.”

“I see…. so, what exactly do people do after spending ten hours at work?”

“Then we squeeze back on the train and fiddle with our smartphones again, before we eventually get home and zap some food-like substance in the microwave (it’s basically a magic heating box). At this point a lot of us will be pretty tired so we will just slump on the couch and watch television again.”

“And do you watch something happy and inspiring?”

“Generally not. Sometimes I watch Law & Order: S.V.U. which is about heinous sexual crimes. I’ve also been watching The Tunnel, which is about people who have been murdered and cut in half. Then there’s Game of Thrones which basically just involves a whole lot people getting sliced up with swords and other medieval torture instruments. Everyone loves that!”

“That all sounds pretty disturbing. Do you all manage to get a good ten hours of sleep after that?”

“Not even close to it. Most of us are terribly sleep deprived.”

“Hmmm… this future is really not sounding as amazing as I had envisaged. Tell me, do you have some sort of plank of wood that you can just fly about on, a few feet in the air?”

“You mean like a hoverboard?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“No. Sadly, we’re still waiting! They are really taking their sweet time developing those… anyway, do you feel like coming back to the future with me in the time machine?”

“Uh, no thanks. Frankly, the future sounds weird and messed up! You all clearly need to get some sleep and some exercise and eat some real food, which hasn’t been zapped in a magic box! You need to stop looking at such full-on depressing stuff all the time! You need to develop better human connections and stop comparing yourself with others! You need more joy and a sense of purpose! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”

I stepped back in to my time machine and by habit I started fiddling with my smartphone. Unfortunately, in the distant, distant past it’s really hard to get Vodafone reception, so I was forced to think about what my big-nosed relative had to say.

It turns out he was completely right. Like many modern workers, I spend far too many hours hunched over in front of a computer. I need to sleep, exercise and eat better. To cope with this completely crazy modern world, I also need to change my media diet, build better relationships and stop comparing myself with all those people who have dainty little noses and “perfect” lives.

Thankfully I at least have a great sense of purpose. I love writing about mental health and this keeps me incredibly motivated. Sure, I still have my worries. I worry that if I want to be taken seriously, I should stop quoting imaginary conversations with my incredibly great grandfather. I worry that it’s probably not wise to be telling the entire world I time travel. But then I think “stuff it” and hit ‘publish’ because I know I shouldn’t let my worries hold me back from what’s truly important.