Why do Germans and Americans—who are among the world’s most affluent—complain about life’s unfairness so much more than Colombians or Indians? It’s one of the questions I’ve been trying to answer over the past decade as both an expat and an immigrant. When we think of the key to happiness, I noticed that we often overlook something that’s an integral part of life in non-Western cultures.
A sense of community
I’ve never been more aware of my personal limits than when I had a child. On top of being sleep-deprived, my body in agony, our house looked like it imploded. It wasn’t a pretty picture. I almost spent my savings on a plane ticket to Germany to move back in with my parents. Every time someone told me “it takes a village to raise a child” I felt tempted to deck them.
“My family and lifelong friends live on different continents! Where the heck is my village?”
No matter how often people from Western cultures say “no man/woman is an island,” that’s exactly how many of us feel. It’s especially true of big cities and a side effect of globalization, that families get dispersed across the globe.
Know thy neighbor.
Do you know your neighbors? I remember when I was little, people who were new to the building would go from door to door to introduce themselves. I’ve moved 7 times the past 15 years (cities, countries, and continents) and not once has a new neighbor come over to introduce themselves. People are big on online communities. But how often do we say “hi” to, or spend time with the people living next door?
A sense of community fosters a can-do attitude, reduces loneliness, and increases one’s value to society.
Failing is an inevitable part of life. But it’s easier to dust yourself off and try again if you have a support system of people who have your back.
My mom told me that the lonely German senior citizens and the Syrian refugees in her neighborhood have figured out how to support each other. The seniors help the refugees with paperwork and office visits. And in return, the refugees help the seniors fix things around their houses. In many cases, this has led to the seniors becoming an honorary member of the refugees’ families.
I’m so convinced that a sense of community is an essential key to happiness that I’d love to build a community center in every neighborhood. I bet the demand for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications would be far less.
A body in motion
Before we let out a collective sigh, I’m not talking about exercising or going to the gym more. Dancing for fun is something I see a lot with Colombians and Indians alike. When we get together with our family in Colombia, there’s always music and dancing.
In Colombia, whether you drive through the mountains or a city on any given day, you hear loud music and see people bustling about. It’s also very common to see people sweeping the floor with a broom. I’ve been thinking about how they’d be so much faster if they used vacuum cleaners and leaf blowers as people do here in the US—until I’ve tried sweeping myself. It’s like a moving meditation.
A walk a day keeps the doctor away.
Another thing I’ve observed among my many Indian neighbors is the daily walk. To be fair, going for regular walks is also something I’m used to from my childhood in Germany. Afternoon walks were something we did at least every Sunday. European cities are very walkable, so I’ve never needed a car. When I tell people that I don’t drive in the US either, they look at me like that’s unheard of. “How do you even live?” (Someone actually asked me that.)
When I came to the US, I moved to San Francisco, which despite the many hills is pretty walkable. I walked to work every day. 45 minutes up and downhill. Now I live in the heart of Silicon Valley (the suburbs), but we chose a home that’s in walkable distance from everything I need: parks, library, supermarkets, doctors, preschool, restaurants. I walk or bike everywhere.
Walks are perfect to clear your head and mull over ideas. I conceived so many scenes for my books while I was outside walking. In my opinion, the majority of work meetings should take place outside. Sitting at your desk all day is damaging to your body and your soul. Try taking a phone call or one-on-one meeting outside. Have lunch with your colleagues away from your desk. That way you can heighten your sense of community and your body is in motion.
Movement as medicine.
I recently read a book about the importance of being outside and moving in nature. The Finnish Way by Katja Pantzar cites a lot of scientific studies. (For all the skeptics out there). One account stood out to me. The author went to the doctor in Finland to get a refill for her anti-anxiety medication, which she’d been prescribed back when she was living in Canada. But the doctor didn’t give her a refill because Finnish doctors deemed her medication highly addictive. Instead, the doctor said she should try “movement as medicine” first. Especially in combination with talk therapy, to find the underlying cause for her anxiety.
I remember when I was living in Ireland, how quick the doctor was to prescribe anti-anxiety medication. Or when I came to the US, how easy it was to get a sleep aid. In both cases, I—not the doctor—was the one who said, “I don’t want to rely merely on medication. What else can I do to get better?”
I do believe that medication can be helpful, but I think every subscription should come with an actionable plan that helps us address the root cause. I challenge you to give movement as a medicine a try. Not only because you can cure a lot of issues that way, but also because it’ll help you prevent a lot of ailments in the first place.
So this week, why not grab a person whose company you enjoy and go for a daily walk? Shake your butts to your favorite music, or get yourselves a broom and get sweeping. Sometimes finding happiness and improving our wellbeing really is that simple.
Image: Guilherme Stecanella