My experience hiking the PCT in 2009 provided me the perfect setting to reflect upon basic human psychological needs. For over four months I lived a scaled-back existence comprised of simple tasks like walking (for roughly 12 hours a day), eating, sleeping, basic hygiene and gear maintenance, and basic logistics. In addition to the simple everyday tasks, I spent much time talking to other people and sharing experiences. Our conversations alternated between the mundane, the humorous, the raunchy, the social, the personal, and the philosophical.
Here is a summary of the needs I discovered through introspection and comparison with "normal" city life.
(I leave out obvious needs such as "eating, drinking, sleeping, sex")
- Physical interaction with one's environment. We have bodies that our built for physical interaction with our surroundings, and we feel better (physically, mentally, and emotionally) when we use them in this way for at least a couple hours a day. This includes large body movements (working out, physical labor, sports, dancing, etc.) and fine motor movements (arts and crafts, playing musical instruments, building things).
- Outdoor visual stimulation. It is a natural thing to want to go on a walk and look at the world around you and see what's happening in one's habitat. A stroll through one's neighborhood or a large outdoor market or any place where people congregate is enough for more socially oriented people, while others need to have more natural visual backdrops and need to take walks in parks and forests. 20 to 30 minutes a day is about the minimum.
- Friendly interaction. The basic minimum is one conversation with a friend per day (for me at least). A "friend" is defined as someone with whom you can let down your barriers and speak and act spontaneously. After two full days with no friendly connections mental fatigue sets in. Normal activities lose their allure, and one really starts to feel down.
- Superficial interaction. It turns out friends are not enough. One needs to interact with other people at different levels of intimacy. 4 or 5 superficial interactions a day with strangers or people you don't know well can fill this need (for me at least). You practice developing your social persona, being useful to strangers and receiving utility from them, and sharing information with a wider social circle.
- Solitude. Not surprisingly, one tires of continual social interaction. I personally prefer to spend about half of my time alone "doing my own thing." Not getting enough solitude leads to irritability and moodiness. Getting too much of it leads to mental fatigue and deprivation. Solitude does not necessarily mean the absence of people. If two or more people are comfortable enough with each other to not have to always talk or otherwise interact when they are together, then one may attain a state of solitude in the companionship of others. Solitude allows one to think clearly and deeply, engage in complex activity, and feel centered.
This category seems to be the weakest of the three, meaning that one can forego them the longest with the least ill-effects. They are also very hard to tease from social needs because they are usually filled through social interaction.
- Exchanging information independent of the present time and place. A long but accurate definition. One finds oneself actively discussing topics that have nothing to do with the activities and needs of today. Backpackers inevitably find themselves engaging in social and political criticism, discussing the history of religion, and arguing about how to live a healthy life -- in addition to more proximate concerns such as food, gear, inflammation, and trail logistics. These "abstract" concerns exercise the mind's ability to think generally and convey information that might be applicable to other people as well as oneself.
There were very few things besides food that I craved while hiking the PCT, and they were intellectual outlets. Despite my very frequent intellectual conversations, I craved stimulating books and the opportunity to write. While I did learn to pick up books (paper and audio) along the way and listen to or read them while I walked, I did not figure out a way of satisfying my need to write. I would have been very happy to have 2 hours a day to write about various topics that I spent so much time mulling over. Journaling can satisfy some of this need, but I simply did not have enough time and paper!
The needs described here may differ a bit from person to person, but I believe they are universal. One of the main things I took away from my experience was that I need to, and want to, organize my life in such a way as to fill every one of these needs. This realization solidified my resolve to not live a typical suburban American lifestyle, which I came to view as even more inadequate as before. Such a way of life is not nearly as good at fulfilling basic needs as a long-distance backpacking trip. Needs for physical activity and interaction are typically very poorly met unless one's work is physical. Also, 8-hour day jobs often overload your need for superficial interaction and fail to meet your needs for friendly interaction and for solitude.
Clearly, I will have to continue shaping my own counter-culture lifestyle to fill my basic needs. Physical needs can be met in an urban setting by rigorous exercise and physical activities (music, dancing, cycling & walking to one's destinations, etc.) or by taking a physical job that leaves the mind free to enjoy substantial amounts of solitude and moderate levels of social interaction. With a bit of land, my wife and I could practice some agriculture to enjoy a physical connection with our environment. Social ties need to be enjoyed more by developing connections with people who share our interests and values and have time to do things together.
At any rate, a typical urban 9-to-5 job with its ensuing lifestyle demands seems out of the question for me. Physical activity needs to be built into one's lifestyle rather than performed as a guilt-driven afterthought. There need to be many hours a day available to perform interesting, non-compulsory work. Friends need to be drawn in closer, and antagonistic elements need to be moved further away.
That is my formula for leading a happy life and filling my human needs.
I don't mean to suggest here that everyone's happiest lifestyle will be just like mine or that giving up a 9 to 5 job is a prerequisite to being fully happy (though it probably is for a significant number of people). The most important thought here is that our individual psychological needs exist and are quantifiable. In this post I have tried to quantify my own and speculate how they may differ somewhat for different people. I wish everyone could have an experience such as my own (not necessarily backpacking) where they are in near-ideal circumstances for the development of personal happiness over several months. With a bit of reflection, perhaps, this could lead to long-term changes in how you live your life.