THE BLOG
08/31/2015 11:57 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

My Summer in the Capital of Happiness (or, What We Could Learn From the Swiss)

When you ask Berners how their summer is going, they invariably refer to the number of times they have been in the Aare, the fast-flowing emerald river that passes through the heart of Switzerland's capital city. Even just the mere glimpse of it from a passing train can cleanse the hardened soul of a transplanted New Yorker such as myself.

In the colder, grayer months, Bern seems like other cities, and you often forget that the river even exists. But in the summer, when the Aare glitters like a sumptuous jewel against the snow-capped Alps, Bern seems like a fitting capital of the country that topped the most recent World Happiness index. And to me, the river somehow epitomizes just what makes this country so fortunate.

During one of my first swims, I descended the cobblestone steps of the old town into the river, swam past meadows, churches, and finally beneath an enormous viaduct while the TGV roared across. It was the closest thing I've felt to urban transcendence, or transport, if you will. But what soon ensued was a kind of addiction. Each day, I felt the physical urge to throw myself into the Aare's velvety clutches. During the recent heatwave, the streets of Bern were deserted. All transit had shifted to the river. As far as the eye could see, there were inner tubes, rafts, rubber boats, and bobbing, squealing heads.

Like most of Switzerland, the infrastructure of this city is perfectly constructed to maximize enjoyment. The Aare is lined with trails on either side, and every few feet, another set of paved stairs lead into the river. You choose a place to deposit your clothes, walk up one of the trails, jump in, and then emerge in one of the exits nearest to your belongings.

The collective physical experience gave me a fresh perspective on Bern. Thousands of bodies -- big bodies, skinny bodies, athletic bodies, pregnant bodies, young bodies, shriveled bodies -- all lined up to plunge into the same river. Normal conversation was replaced by river-talk: people yelling at each other from their rafts and boats, swapping tales while paddling along, exchanging tips on the best places to get in and out. Some waded in gingerly, others jumped off pedestrian bridges but everybody ended up emerging in one of the five exits just before the Aare hits a dam.

In the midst of this heatwave, I was diagnosed with strep throat. Taking dip after dip was hardly what the doctor had ordered. But in the feverish days before I knew why I was feeling ill, I convinced myself that my aching throat could easily be alleviated by the coolness of the water. I would feel weak and tired until I jumped off one of the bridges. Once immersed in the Aare's soft green tentacles, I felt healthy and reinvigorated and momentarily forgot my pain.

On one sultry afternoon as I watched the thunderclouds pile up from my office, I was suddenly seized by an intense, ineradicable urge to swim. But I had already made the classic rookie mistake: I had left my bathing suit at home. All self-respecting Berners keep a swimsuit and a small towel available at all times just in case they might feel the itch. So I scrambled to the tram to get home and changed before the clouds burst.

Once I had procured my swimsuit, I ran down to the river like an addict toward a fix. Many people were already folding up their towels. With relish, I thought, "Amateurs! The first burst of thunder and they're all gone." All the more my amazement when I saw the large crowd of people heading toward the river; I soon realized that I was one of the many who needed one last hit before the storm broke. "How much time do you think we have left?" I asked an elderly man who was walking up the path next to me. "Until it rains?" He shrugged, "A few raindrops never hurt anybody." He dove into the current and gave me a thumbs-up from downstream.

"This is not like the lazy river in Vegas," I overheard one American say to another from a passing raft. Indeed, it was not, it was real: sublime, beautiful, and also dangerous. And there was not a single lifeguard in sight. I had to learn to quell my litigious American voice that worried about what would happen to all these people swimming without supervision. Growing up in Midwestern pools where you couldn't run without being flagged down by a lifeguard, I was awed by these fearless Swiss kids who threw themselves off cliffs into glacial gorges with no repercussions.

After a year in Switzerland, I have come to believe that the lack of fear, along with this national penchant for swimming, might also contribute to its happiness quotient. It is not that people here take undue risks, it just seems like fear is less socially pervasive, less tangible. My doctor, for instance, told me I didn't necessarily need antibiotics. "Strep usually clears up on its own," she said. When I asked her whether I could continue swimming, she nodded as if it was the most natural question in the world.

Swiss people are very fortunate: they live in a country with a high standard of living, good social services, low unemployment, low tax rates, and low crime rates. They also have the rare luxury of unpolluted, glacier-fed rivers. Obviously that makes people happier. But as Barry Glassner points out in Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, fears are often unrelated to a society's real problems. In other words, widespread social panics about unlikely events often obscure more pressing problems. One thing I did not miss while living abroad was the incessant droning of the newscaster's voice in American airports and other public spaces, narrating catastrophes, warning us about imminent dangers, and posing alarming questions like, "Up next: Could you or your loved ones be at risk?" As a lifelong worrier about almost everything, I found my fears momentarily dissolving as I jumped into the Aare along these intrepid swimmers.

Still, every once in awhile, the Aare exerts itself just to show humans who is boss. I would be thrown out of my halcyon daze by a sudden eddy or change in the current. Having lost a relative in a drowning accident many years ago, I could never forget the river as a terrible source of danger and loss. Maybe that's why I felt such an urge to conquer it. In the Aare, fear and trust are closely intertwined; in order to stay afloat, you have to let go.