The Happy German
For five years running now, Schleswig-Holstein has come out on top in the Glücksatlas polls, which means it is home to the happiest Germans in the country. I get it; I live here and I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the country. But I have been thinking a fair bit, recently, about how to explain why the north Germans say they are more content with their lot than any other state in the country. It isn’t like we’re all kicking back with a chilled white wine and enjoying day after day of balmy sunshine up here. It’s windy and grey and rainy a hell of a lot of the time, and north Germans are famed for their frosty briskness (which is a lie, I think most of the time they are grimacing against the stiff breeze rolling in off the waters that sandwich their state). And while I do love a good bit of fried fish slathered in sauce and served on a fresh Brötchen, the local cuisine up here is more some sort of challenge to see how many sea creatures can be bathed in mayonnaise than sun-ripened flavours (truly, thank God for immigration, otherwise I’d be eating turnip mousse). So why are north Germans so consistently happy with their lot?
I read last week that some people say it’s because we share a border with the Danes, the happiest people in Europe. But I tend to think the Danes are happy largely because their enormous taxes go towards things like parental leave with 100% pay, and being well looked after in your old age. The Danish government removes a lot of the burden of anxiety other people live with, by genuinely looking after its citizens – a novelty. The German government, while better than many, doesn’t quite pull out all stops like the Danes and Schleswig-Holstein, after admittedly centuries of to-ing and fro-ing, is a German state, subject to German laws. We have it better than most when it comes to many things, but we aren’t quite Dane-level.
There is, however, a shared culture; Germany’s northermost tip is home to a Danish minority, and Schleswig-Holstein was Danish up until well into the 1800s. The same person who argued north German contentment is a result of the shared border, suggested Plattdeutsch and its myriad words for cosiness engenders a cultural appreciation of Gemütlichkeit, or as the Danes call it, Hygge. This love of getting cosy means Schietwetter is egal, even welcomed if it gives you the chance to crack out the beloved Wolldecke and light thirty-eight candles.
Perhaps it’s the water. Coast-dwellers have long been used to welcoming ships, having people play tourist for a day; there is an openness to those who reside by the sea, for the sea brings newness with it.
Or perhaps there is another concept we need to consider, and it has less to do with candles and throw pillows, and more to do with a sort of … sensibleness. The word to which I refer is genügsam and you can bet your bottom dollar it never appears on those tedious ‘ten words that should be in English but aren’t’ lists. Genügsam means to be content with little; to not need a lot in order to be happy. My daughter, as a baby, once played for about twenty minutes with a set of keys and my Mother-in-Law called her genügsam. The other day, a student of mine commented on how happy he was with the weather; despite it being depressingly chilly (for me), it was sunny. He shrugged, ‘I am genügsam’. As soon as he said it, I had something of an ephiphany; that is why the northeners consistently top the happy poll.
North Germans are genügsam. They aren’t the wealthiest state, nor the sunniest. Only one of their cities is truly internationally known, the rest often (foolishly) forgotten, so there are fewer claims to fame and more very well kept secrets. Incomes are reasonable, cost of living is fairly low. The state doesn’t sizzle with ambition or competitiveness, but pulses with quiet pride as people go about their business without their noses stuck in others’. There is approximately one grand castle and not one mountain, instead endless horizons and bobbing boats. The people aren’t fussed if you like them or not; they don’t need to be known for their friendliness, the fact they greet people on the street (north Germans only greet people in waiting rooms, with a cheerful ‘moin!’ and that’s that). They call a gale-force wind a stiff breeze and are outdoors walking their beloved dogs or doing some form of surfing when most other people would be cowering inside. They keep their heads down, their jackets zipped, and crack on with it, waiting for the sun each ray of which will, when it finally comes, be wrung for every moment of warmth it gives.
It’s a state that keeps to itself, adores its surrounds, cares about the environment and has an extremely low tolerance for bullshit. Lower than most. It’s a state that cops shitty weather, but knows how to fight needle rain with Gemütlichkeit. It’s a collection of people happiest with the basics; water, fried fish, and a Flensburger bier.
Perhaps it’s a combination; the inherent loveliness of coastal living, the shared Hygge culture with their Scando neighbours, and the contentment with little. Perhaps we’re the happiest Germans because intrenched in nothern culture is not only an understanding of gemütlich, but more than that, the knowledge that to be genügsam is one of the keys to happiness.