What German Wisdom Can Teach The Rest Of The World About The Good Life

What German Wisdom Can Teach The Rest Of The World About The Good Life
The people of Germany, with their reputation for having an industrial-strength work ethic, may not spring to mind as the happiest or healthiest people around. Yes, Germans are better known for their beer and brats than their wellness rituals. But at the same time, with their unique ways to relax, unplug, enjoy nature, and tap into the wisdom of their rich traditions, Germans have lot to teach the rest of the world about living the good life.

In honor of the launch of HuffPost Germany, here are seven things that Germany can teach the rest of the world about living well.

They take time to slow down.

germany vacation

Gemütlichkeit, a German word without a clear English translation, indicates a state of coziness and intimacy, and an unhurried pace to counter the frenetic speed of modern life. And although the Germans are known to work hard and take their careers seriously, they also make plenty of time for this gemütlichkeit.

The German “work, work, work” stereotype may actually be an outdated one — Germans actually take more vacation time than citizens of any other European country. In a 2010 European Union report on holidays, Germany tied with Denmark for the number-one slot, with 30 days of paid vacation a year. The UK, by comparison, has an average of 24 days of paid annual vacation.

They get back to nature.

germany black forest

In the German language, there’s a word, wandervogel, which can be translated as “rambling, hiking, or wandering bird.” Wandervogel was also a German youth movement that started in the late 1800s with a group of young people who wanted to free themselves from the restrictions of society and return to the freedom of nature. The movement was reestablished in the mid-20th century and has several thousand members across Germany today.

Wandervogel closely tied to the German idea of naturmensch, or “natural man.” And in Germany, it’s easy to get back to nature: There’s no shortage of untouched natural beauty in the country, from the Black Forest to the romantic Rhine.

They ask the big questions.

kant

Germany has a robust philosophical tradition that includes some of the world’s greatest thinkers, from Nietzsche and Marx to Hegel and Heidegger. The German idealism movement, which began with Kant and extended through Hegel, asked the big questions of human life and the meaning of existence. To this day, the German philosophical tradition stays strong at the country’s many top-notch universities.

We could all stand to benefit from their timeless wisdom on happiness, morality and human nature. As Kant summed it all up with his three rules for happiness, seek “something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”

They invest in holistic health care.

hospital patient

Germany has a strong tradition of holistic medical research and naturopathic healthcare. The “Father of American naturopathy,” Benedict Lust, was trained in hydrotherapy and natural medicine in Germany during the late 19th century before bringing his “nature cure” teachings to America.

Naturopathic health care is readily available in Germany to this day. The alternative medicine industry is regulated by the government, and CNN reported in 1998 that the herbal mood-booster St. John’s wort was the most commonly prescribed anti-depressant in Germany, as opposed to Prozac in the U.S.

They harness the healing powers of water.

thermal spa

Spas throughout Germany use the power of water for healing, as they have since the birth of hydrotherapy in the early 1800s. Resorts and wellness centers across the country attract tourists by offering Kneipp hydrotherapy, a type of water therapy meant to strengthen and revitalize the immune system. If you’re visiting, consider a stay at Göhren, a seaside hydroptherapy resort on the island of Rügen.

They support the arts.

berlin art

Young and up-and-coming artists are well supported in Germany. Not only do the country’s major cities (especially Berlin) have thriving art scenes, but the government also provides funding to support emerging artists. Many creative workers in Germany are eligible to receive financial support from the government.

They’re prioritizing happiness.

happiness

Happiness hasn’t always been Germany’s forte, but the government is working to change that. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently that gross domestic product (GDP) isn’t the only important marker of Germany’s success — individual and collective well-being also matter. Germany has recently been one of the lowest-ranked European countries in happiness and well-being, but Chancellor Merkel is determined to help Germany turn that around.

“We look at the stock exchange index or currencies on the news each morning and talk a lot about growth in terms of gross domestic product, but we often don’t prioritize what is really most important to people,” Merkel said at a recent forum, “What Matters to People: Well-being and Progress,” vowing to focus more on boosting well-being.

Putting Away the Phone and Being Present
Is there one place you choose to honor with your full attention? Our “Sacred Spaces” series explores where your phone is unwelcome. From the mundane to the truly unique — from yoga class to family dinner to your bath tub — we are spotlighting the environments where you are truly unplugged. Want to share your own? Send us your story here.

During the summer months, I try to work from home as much as possible and be with my kids. But I’ve noticed some changes in the behavior of my budding toddler, now 21 months old. She’s been more aggressive, frustrated, and well… just not as happy. She could be just growing up, or trying to communicate, but irritated that she can’t form the words yet. Or she could be trying to get my attention. I’ve also observed her constantly going after my phone… or pretending everything she picked up was a phone — and saying “ello?” It was like a light bulb went on when I realized, hmmm, maybe I should put my phone away. Like now.

So I have, cold turkey. And the results have been pretty substantial and a little surprising.

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Enjoying an early morning hike with my daughter in Breckenridge, Colo. this summer. Peek-a-boo! (Ironically, captured this image on my iPhone)

Now let’s not get crazy, I still use my iPhone as soon as I wake up to check email, Twitter, Blogger and Facebook. I also try to send out all of my emails before my kids wake up, which isn’t always possible… because I’m exhausted. I (try to) wake up a full hour before the littlest one to get in a work out on the elliptical, while I type away furiously on my iPad. Multitasking at its best! But once I drop my 4-year-old daughter off at preschool and return home, I’ve started to put my phone back in the master bedroom from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. This enables me to fully be present with my toddler.

What do we do on these non-working mommy days? Go to the park with friends, go for a walk, do puzzles, an art project, or chores, go to a baby class, and sometimes (like today) run errands. I’ve noticed a big change in her in the past two weeks. She’s less attention-seeking and more focused. She’s thriving with some new skills — cutting and pasting, for example — and learning new words like “crazy.” Prior to this, I noticed boredom, hitting, throwing, and sometimes even biting. Now that I’m not on the phone constantly, or texting, or completely distracted with work, she is getting the attention and praise she needs. She’s receiving more attention, conversation from me, and more one-on-one interaction. Isn’t this what all kids need? I believe this has had a huge influence on her behavior… or maybe she’s just getting older. Most likely, it’s both.

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Emylia enjoying our porch swing this morning

I also have started to put the phone away from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. as well, when my oldest gets home from preschool. It’s not 100 percent of the time, but most days I try my best to give them both my undivided attention. We sculpt masterpieces with Play-Doh, swim, feed the ducks, and swing on the swing set. I’ve also purchased them both aprons and kitchen stools so they can help me prep dinner, rather than just turning on Nick Jr. I’m even thinking of telling my employers to call between the nap time hours of 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on days I’m home, or if they really need me to call my home phone. It’s so incredibly tough to juggle my freelance work and the kids… and I totally don’t want to miss out on any other work opportunities. But I’ve found that so far, as long as I check my email and texts in the mornings, and by 1 p.m., I’m usually not missing anything urgent.

After nap time today, I ran with my girls over to the local children’s museum Young At Art in Davie, Fla. It was amazing to see all the kids playing and having fun… and the parents sitting on the side scrolling through their phones. I observed only one or two parents out of 10 or so there actually playing with their kids. Raise your hand if you’ve done this. Yeah, me too! I mean we need a break, and the kids ARE having fun. But it was interesting that the children causing problems — pushing my daughter off the slide, or not sharing — were the ones whose parents were on their phones. They were completely distracted and unaware their child was causing harm to another.

I recently stumbled upon Brooke Burke’s website www.modernmom.com and found this wonderful blog post titled “Take Time to Stop and Smell the Flowers” by Danielle Simmons. If you have a moment, please read it. It was a lovely reminder of how precious this time is with our little ones. It also made me realize how putting my phone away was my first step to being present with them, and I didn’t even know it.

Are You Comfortable Being Uncomfortable?
Have you ever had a friend who has stayed in a horrifically dysfunctional relationship, and thought, “Why doesn’t she leave him?” Maybe you’ve had a friend who has done the same with a work situation. This friend constantly complains about her boss, her coworkers and even the daily tasks. There’s nothing redeeming about the job, yet she stays.

Why don’t they get out? Fear. Humans, by nature, fear change. Once you become comfortable with any situation, it will begin to feel less threatening to you to maintain the status quo than it will to push the limits — even though pushing the limits is exactly what you need to do. In my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, I teach readers how to do this.

Most of us fear change to some degree and take steps to avoid it. The more you stay put, however, the more your fear of change will build and the harder it will become for you to move forward. Conversely, the more you nudge yourself forward, the easier it will become for you to embrace future change.

Yes, in the short term, change is stressful. It won’t be easy to leave a job with a regular paycheck or a relationship you’ve been in for years. The unfamiliar will feel scary and stressful. This will be difficult. But the payoff is huge. Finding the courage to face the short-term stress of change removes you from having to endure the long-term misery of staying stuck. In other words: short-term stress is better than long-term misery.

In addition to fear, there is probably at least one other factor that is holding you back. Despite how bad your situation is, you are probably benefiting from it in some way. For instance, people stay in unfulfilling jobs because they know the routine, are comfortable with the salary, and know how to work the system to some degree. If they leave, they must learn the ropes all over again and, for many people, that thought is daunting. So this secondary gain proves to be a huge benefit from the otherwise unhealthy behavior.

People stay in bad relationships because, in part, it allows them to avoid dating. They don’t have to worry about meeting and dealing with all of the other jerks they don’t know, and they don’t have to open themselves up to rejection. They can just deal with the one jerk already in their lives. After all, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

To get unstuck think about the following:

What type of change might you be avoiding in your life?

Why are you avoiding it?

How are you benefiting from staying stuck?

What are you gaining by giving in to your fear?

What are you missing out on by not taking a risk?

If you’ve become comfortable being uncomfortable then it’s high time to act.

For more tips on reaching your goals and leading a fulfilling life check out my new book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days.

Don’t Be Ambivalent About Ambivalence
Ambivalence is a feeling that we all have experienced at one time or another in some important aspect of our lives — I know I certainly have. But if you’re ambivalent often or in a lot of areas of your life, the feeling of ambivalence itself can actually destroy your quality of life more than you know. Theoretically, if you had everything you could possibly want going for you, but were ambivalent about the decisions you make — particularly with respect to your life direction — no matter what you did have going for you, no matter what you choose to do, you could be dwelling on the fact that you should be doing something else. Thus, no matter what kind of life you have made for yourself, being chronically ambivalent could ruin the quality of it all!

So let’s first acknowledge that we all have at least some degree of ambivalence. Since life itself is such an extremely complex process, and certain aspects of it often get more complicated as they evolve, a certain amount of ambivalence is actually normal. In fact, a tiny amount of ambivalence might even serve to protect you sometimes from being thoughtless about certain things that need to be reasoned out more carefully. But the problem is with the degree that you allow yourself to operate under the all-too-common myth — that there is one and only one absolutely right answer that will contain no shades of gray. The myth continues when you believe that by being indecisive and holding out long enough, some indisputably certain and absolute answer will come to you. And when it does — you fantasize — it will come with the ironclad guarantee that you will never have any regrets, nor will you ever second guess yourself. Since this standard is so incredibly high (not to mention cartoonishly black and white), it then follows that you will resist making tough decisions at all that you are the least bit ambivalent about.

Some people actually have a fear of making decisions altogether. If that’s you, it is likely you have many regrets about things that may have passed you by, simply because you didn’t act decisively when you had the opportunity to do so. If you think my statement that “ambivalence can ruin your life” is a little too strong, perhaps you may even take comfort in the ambivalence. But my stand on ambivalence is rather unambivalent; to the extent that ambivalence exceeds prudent caution it will generally serve to hold you back, and that can be in any area of your life. Here are a few ways to attack this problem that I have offered for people who have ambivalence about love relationships in my book Can Your Relationship Be Saved, but these simple tips can be applied to absolutely any area in your life.

Remember that just about all of your important decisions are, to one extent or another, educated guesses. And most of them have factors that would pull you in the opposite direction. After all, a decision without conflicting factors — to one degree or another — is simply a no-brainer.

Forget about certainty. The concept of certainty itself is a myth. Instead believe in yourself. Hindsight — as we all know at least intellectually by the cliché — is 20/20. There are many things every one of us would do differently “if only we knew then what we know now.” But that’s never an option. So stop pretending it is! Where do you have unlimited power (even if at times you are not in touch with it) is in making changes that will affect you from today on, and for the rest of your life — beginning right now. By focusing on your power you can start looking upon decisions not as burdens, but as empowering challenges.

Think of some significant important life choices you have made in the past — recently or even a long time ago — of which you are most proud. Make a list of them and continue to expand the list. Make sure to include those choices that may have led to major life changes. Keep this list as a frame of reference that you can refer to for a shot of empowerment, anytime you find yourself thinking that you’re incapable of bypassing that ambivalence.

Regardless of which area of your life where you find yourself most ambivalent, you won’t move forward until you allow yourself to take charge and make the best decision you can with the information you have available to you. So resolve not to waste another moment with the decision to not decide.

For more by Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

We’ve Gotten The Pursuit Of Happiness All Wrong, Until Now
Aside from basic survival, the pursuit of happiness is arguably one of the most fundamental concerns of every human being on the planet (not to mention a driving force behind the $10 billion-a-year self-help industry). But according to Cornell cognitive psychologist Shimon Edelman, we’ve been going about it backwards.

Edelman, author of The Happiness Of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About The Good Life, tells The Huffington Post that the way we tend to chase happiness is much like the way we drive our cars.

Citing a metaphor from Marvin Minsky, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, Edelman explains that, much as we don’t pay attention to the nitty gritty mechanics of how a car engine works — preferring instead to focus on the more nebulous idea of keeping our cars “running well” — we also don’t think about the specifics of our brain function. We want to be happy, but we don’t even really know how happiness functionally works.

Advice on how to be happy is everywhere — but rarely do these words of wisdom help us to actually become happier. According to Deepak Chopra, the wealth of research and literature on happiness that’s come with the explosion of positive psychology hasn’t gotten us very far in understanding our own emotional lives.

“We know very little about what it takes to be happy, and a lot of what we know is wrong,” Chopra wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle blog post. “This seems to be the conclusion of some voices in the movement known as positive psychology.”

According to Edelman, understanding the workings of our own minds can help us to comprehend not only the nature of happiness but, perhaps eventually, how to optimize the brain for well-being. Recent developments in cognitive science have shed light on how positive emotional states (including pleasure, happiness, and euphoria) occur in the brain — and why we’re hardwired for happiness.

“In the past 10 years, neuroscience has witnessed a revolution. We used to treat the brain as a black box into which very limited glimpses were available, but we are starting to comprehend the basic principles within which the whole thing operates,” says Edelman, explaining that these simple principles are accessible to anyone who’s interested in getting to know his or her own mind.

Such an understanding could yield great benefits: By Minsky’s analogy, we can understand how to better drive our cars by better understanding their engines. And by comparison “getting to know the way the brain works in an intuitive, statistical manner,” as Edelman puts, can help us to optimize our brains for happiness.

In short, the brain’s computation is all about foresight and prediction — using our memories and recollections to plan for the future. We know that the world is predictable to a certain extent based on past experiences and patterns, and so we create statistical representations of everything we experience.

“Knowledge of past experience can help an organism deal with the future,” says Edelman. “That’s the basic imperative… Emotions are basically computational shortcuts that funnel the outcome of the monitoring that organisms do over themselves.”

This process is the brain’s biological imperative: It not only keeps us alive, but according to Edelman, it’s also what makes us happy. Pursuing happiness is the motivation that drives our actions and habits, and it is in that pursuit — rather than any end goal that we think will increase our well-being — that we find joy and satisfaction.

“Happiness … is kind of the goal that makes us go,” says Edelman. “Without motivation, nothing in the world would happen. All the animals in the world would just lie down and expire. So the short answer is that this is what happiness is: The goal that makes us go.”

But that goal is constantly eluding us. Part of the reason we’re always seeking happiness is that it’s so fleeting in nature. As Edelman explains, “[Happiness] seemed difficult to grasp and hold onto… One has this compelling need to go on.”

This “need to go on” — to continue the pursuit — is one of the brain’s evolutionary advantages. “A species that rests on its laurels wouldn’t be doing that for very long,” he says.

But not all happiness is gone at a moment’s notice: eudaimonic happiness, which has to do with the way we evaluate our own lives and the feeling that we have lived well, is inherently longer-lasting than any state of pleasure, joy or euphoria (“hedonic happiness”). The distinction of these two domains of happiness goes back to Aristotle, who said that eudaimonic happiness happiness (also translated as “human flourishing,” or “living well,”) could be had by living in a way that follows a larger purpose beyond oneself. Happiness, for Aristotle, wasn’t the result of a life-long pursuit — it was the activity of pursuing.

“Eudaimonic happiness happiness is something you build up over a lifetime,” Edelman says. “In a sense, it’s a great consolation for older people — it’s nice to know that on that component, people can get more and more happy as they age if they led good lives.”

This eudaimonic happiness pursuit of the good life can also keep us in good physical health, according to recent research. A University of California study found that the two different types of happiness were associated with different gene expression. People with high levels of eudaimonic happiness happiness had low inflammatory gene expression and high antiviral gene expression, while those with high levels of pleasure-seeking happiness exhibited higher inflammatory gene expression.

“What happiness does in the short term, it also does in the long term,” says Edelman. “This [eudaimonic happiness] is what can be built and cherished and enhanced and preserved.”

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