Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Biking in the Rain, Bildung, and German (Un-)Happiness

Yesterday in Hannover it was cold and rainy.  So, in good German fashion, I went for a long bike ride.  I used to be puzzled by German forms of recreation, which sometimes border on the masochistic.  And I always got puzzled looks when I asked, "was it fun?"

It isn't supposed to be "fun."  At least not in that word's adolescent, giggly, common American usage.  It is more about the satisfaction of doing something that should be done.  It is about Bildung, a key word in German discourse that means, roughly, improving one's self or building character.  Bildung is the hallmark of the German bourgeoisie.  Rather than seeking mere fun, it is thought, one should strive to lead a fulfilled life (the Aristotelian good life, eudaimonia).

Germans also tend to be uneffusive.  A common reply to "how's it going?" (wie gehts?) is "Muss, ja?" ("it has to, doesn't it?").  A great compliment is along the lines of "Kann man nicht meckern" ("Cant complain").  Germans also tend to think Americans are more shallow because of their happy-go-luckiness, that a focus on "fun" and "happiness" is a weak basis to build character upon. 
Perhaps this is why Germans rank relatively low in the World Values Survey's (available at www.worldvaluessurvey.org) measure of subjective well-being (happiness and life satisfaction, equally weighted):
        Denmark              4.2
        US                       3.6
        Guatemala            3.5
        West Germany     2.6
        East Germany       1.8

Germany's low ranking on subjective "wellbeing" is surprising because in so many indicators (income, leisure time, health, etc.) German does exceptionally well.  Indeed, my argument about Bildung is that the German middle class does largely strive for multidimensional wellbeing through the cultivation of a "good life."  I attribute these results to the above survey's emphasis on "happiness" and the German cultural disposition toward understatement in this context.

(Interestingly, East German incomes increased dramatically after the 1991 reunification, and yet happiness levels have not gone up.  In 2006, unemployment was still above 18%, and in some areas it topped 25%.  Germany's generous social benefits and massive investment in the former East have raised incomes, but happiness depends on more than just income.  It also depends on doing something meaningful with one's life-having hope, which implies direction, which implies moral values with we just vest our very notions of self.)

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