What Makes You Happy?

About a year ago, I was on a walk in Germany with another expat. We were exchanging experiences and advice on living with the natives and dealing with German spouses, and comparing life in Germany to life elsewhere. Inevitably, the question came up: “Do you think you’ll stay here forever?”

I’ve never been very good at answering that question, mostly because I didn’t have an answer. We had hoped to move abroad* for some time, but have no idea where we’ll end up long-term. Life happens, adventure is always just around the corner… unless you have a couple of kids and a mortgage. Then it becomes a little more complicated. At any rate, my friend really wanted to answer the question with “No”, but because of jobs and responsibilities, had to answer “Yes”.  So then we dwelled for a while on what could possibly be wrong with living in Germany forever. It is a beautiful country, the food is fantastic, crime is low, people are healthy and wealthy, and everything works. Trains run on time, public services are good, parks are clean and widely accessible. There is culture in the cities and adventure in the outdoors. And yet, we agreed on the sense that people in Germany are not happy, despite everything wonderful in their country. And this sense of constant dissatisfaction, that people in Germany aren’t Happy, this was the main factor for my friend in not wanting to stay. Now that I’m back in North America, having returned to my own continent and reintegrated into my home culture, I have a different view on that discussion from a year ago. At the time, I accepted this idea that Germans aren’t happy as a society.

I was wrong.

Going through my own reverse culture shock, and watching my family experience culture shock, I have realized something: what makes me happy isn’t the same as what makes Germans happy. I know, I know, really it’s all very individual and I’m no psychologist. But I have a hunch that Germans ARE Happy. They just find happiness in the things that expats don’t notice. It is very hard to notice when things always work (i.e., trains in England generally don’t run on time, unlike trains in Germany. People tend to notice the late train, not the punctual train). So for us expats, enjoying the good life in Germany and having things like functional door handles (two, TWO! have failed us in our rental house in Canada) and punctual public transport, we don’t notice. We are looking for our own happiness triggers, intrinsic to our home cultures. But for Germans, Functionality is an important part of Happiness. Ordnung muss sein! I have come to believe that many Germans actually gain happiness from things being of high quality and functioning properly. Lots of other people probably do too, evidenced by Germany’s powerhouse export economy, but I suspect that it is more deeply ingrained in German culture than elsewhere.

Of course, there are other things that evoke happiness in Germans. Good food (isn’t that universal?), routine, wooden toys, Fussball, and the local Herbstfest (Fall festival).

I watched this TED talk just before writing today, and thought you might also enjoy.

What makes you happy?

*abroad being a relative term, since I was already living “abroad” in Germany…

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