11 Keys To Happiness From Other Cultures

09/19/2013 07:28 am ET
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You can hoard all the shot glasses you want on your next trip, but they’re not going to guide you to a higher echelon of personal fulfillment.

Take home a cultural souvenir instead! These 11 habits from other cultures are small changes that could mean big payoffs in your happiness levels. Try one today.

1. Treat yourself
The French are famous for smaller portions, but that doesn’t mean these portions aren’t indulgent. At French breakfast, for example, a single buttery croissant or chocolate brioche replaces our smorgasbord of oatmeal and eggs.

The French have a much lower obesity rate than Americans, partly because they take time to savor small servings of rich, sweet foods. Tomorrow, don’t settle for toast-- grab a few donut holes and let yourself smile on the way to work.

2. Hang out beyond the house
In countries like The Netherlands, friends don’t socialize in the homes of friends. Instead, they meet up to talk in public spaces, like town squares or cafes.

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Besides the fact that you won’t have to stress over making your signature crab dip appetizers, hanging out away from home is a happy habit because it makes you available to surprises. When you're chatting in a café, the door is wide open for a new appetizer to jostle your palate or a new friend to join the conversation. Those things are surprises, and surprises are fun.

3. Give a squillo
Nope, it’s not an ancient precursor to the armadillo. An Italian squillo is when, if you’re late to a meeting with someone or you’re just generally thinking about them, you give them a quick phone call and hang up before they answer. It’s like blowing a kiss -- with your iPhone.

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We can’t have catch-up talks on the phone during our workday, and carrying a text message conversation gets distracting. Put some European mystery into your keep-in-touch routine by leaving a sweet little missed call to show a friend you’re thinking about her today.

4. Take a gap year (or day)
Deferring college acceptance is much more of a norm in Australia-- a recent survey found that about 15% of Aussie students take a year to travel between high school and university.

Another survey reports that 90% of American students who traveled before starting college said that those adventures influenced their selection of college major. In short, sampling a new way of life changes your priorities and your life path. Don’t have a year to toss to the wind? Spend a weekend volunteering at a soup kitchen for a mini culture shock that will reset your worldview.

5. Eat late
A number of cultures embrace late dinner times. In Argentina, for example, it’s totally normal to eat the evening meal at 11 p.m.

This habit seriously help curb pesky pangs of guilt for night owls like the Argentines. If you fuel up right before hitting the bars or hitting the books, you’ll feel a lot less munchy when your late night comes to an end. And less munchies means less overeating, which means less regret, which means a fresher start in the morning.

6. Inspect with respect
Travelers marvel at one Japanese custom more than others: Apparently, when you hand a Japanese acquaintance a business card, your new friend will “inspect” and fawn over that tiny square of paper as if it’s pure gold. They’re giving you their culture’s sign of respect.

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In a society where we network at lightening speed, it can be challenging for relationships to feel genuine. Whipping out your magnifying glass isn’t necessary, but try lingering an extra moment to show people you truly appreciate their extensions of friendship, whether that extension was a business card or a verbal compliment. You’ll be impressed how such a small exchange can grow your relationship by leaps and bounds.

7. Live near your family (physically or virtually)
Moving away for college isn’t as much of a “thing” for many cultures, and young European and Asian adults often live with their families long past the age when American kids leave. Many stick around into adulthood, setting up their own households in the same neighborhoods as their parents.

America loves independence, and that’s great. But your family provides support, which gives you confidence, which will more speedily grow you into that independent individual you want to be. There’s something to be said for living nearby to soak up your family’s love and give some in return. But if you must move out (and let’s face it, you do), prioritize Skype sessions-- they’ll pay off more than you know.

8. Take a real vacation
German employees often peace out for an entire month each year-- companies are mandated to give them 34 paid vacation days. While we aren’t necessarily allowed so much time off, muster up the guts to completely leave your work world behind for a week of digital detox.

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Hardcore co-workers might criticize your lack of participation in conference calls or projects while you’re gone. But a weeklong spurt of mental blankness will bring you back much more productive, fresher, and happier than if you had stayed semi-connected during a quicker trip.

9. Have an after-dinner sobremesa
There’s not even a word for this in English, but a sobremesa is the cluster of hours (seriously, hours) that Spanish people spend talking ‘round the dinner table after finishing their meal. Nobody’s shoveling food into their mouths, and nobody’s off doing the dishes. It’s just you, the tablecloth and a forced segment of utter downtime.

Try staying seated for just an extra 30 minutes after your next family dinner. You’ll be surprised what old stories come up and old photo albums come out when everyone’s commanded to simply linger instead of commanded to start their homework.

10. Walk
Whether it’s the French or the Swiss, the general consensus is that Europeans walk a lot more than we do and are thus a lot calmer and healthier than we are.

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Yes, their cities are typically smaller and easier to maneuver without a car. But the benefits of walking are in the walking, not in getting to your destination. If going to work on foot isn’t feasible for you, reap walking’s benefits by taking a neighborhood stroll with a pal. You’ll get a zing of happy when you discover a new café down that random side street or a new quirk in her personality.

11. Do the siesta
It’s not practiced as much anymore, but many stores in Spain actually close and some people in Spain actually nap during the hours of two and five. The way to beat the three o’clock slump is to escape three o’clock altogether!

You can easily tailor Spain’s siesta to your American work schedule. Take a 15-minute catnap (which is, scientifically, all you need), zen out to a few songs at your desk, or simply close your laptop like a churro man closes his shop. When you snap back from your reverie, the next block of office hours will feel like a whole new day.

Next time you travel, be on the lookout for cultural norms that aren't quite the same as the ones at home. Before brushing these habits off, consider adding them to your collection of cultural souvenirs!

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