Growing up, I remember being told that agrarian farmers in the United States around the time of the depression had a very small number of stimuli in their daily lives. I don’t know why I remember it being around the time of the Great Depression or limited to just farmers in the United States, but I had a teacher at one point who compared the number of stimuli in the lives of kids in the 1990s and early 2000s (kids like me) to farmers of the early 1900s. This was in a pre-smartphone age, but I still had a Gameboy, watched too much TV, and even in Reno, NV had plenty of billboards competing for my attention as I was driven to and from sports practices. A farmer of the 1900s had a tractor, some farm equipment, rows of corn, and blue skies with a few clouds here and there. By the time I had played a few minutes of Gameboy, watched a cartoon before school, and ridden the bus, I had experienced more stimuli competing for my attention than a farmer would have experienced their whole life – so my teacher suggested.
The implications of the lack of stimuli for early farmers was that their lives were boring. I had electronic games, interesting TV shows, and thousands of distractions every day to keep my mind occupied. But early farmers had very little to keep their mind engaged throughout the day. This idea is echoed by Yuval Noah Harari in is book Sapiens. He writes, “the forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.” This seems to have been true about early human agriculturalists and industrialists, and is in many ways still true today.
Ancient hunter-gatherers had a lot of interesting things to do each day. They would move around, travel about the landscape looking for different edible foods, try to stalk an animal to potentially kill for dinner, and look for resources and materials that could be useful for some sort of shelter. Their days were like our treasured weekend hiking and hunting trips, and for many of them, they were likely out with a small group of trusted tribesmen, not off by themselves.
Early farmers had a lot of work to do, but it was routine and dull compared to exploring the land looking for good food. In the end, farming seems to have been able to provide more calories for more people, making it pay off for society as a whole, but the individual farmers had less interesting lives than the foragers. Industry is similar. Humans within industry and factories are viewed as essentially biological machines, and they often have to do the same repetitive tasks for hours on end in industrialized economies. Certainly being a hunter-gatherer who goes on hikes all day and then hangs out with kids, plays games, tell stories, and gossips after a day out exploring would have been much more interesting and enjoyable than waking up early, making the same daily commute, and working the same tedious job 5 or 7 days a week.