It is the 22nd month since the beginning of the pandemic. The often referred-to ‘new normality’ has been quite normal for some time. Covid-19 has shaken up the way we used to live. And the virus is not the only modern plague: Dramatic changes to the earth’s climate and to human living conditions overburden us in their complexity and concurrency. The deluge striking the Ahr Valley in Western Germany in July 2021 has probably just been a harbinger of worse to come.

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Now this peculiar year is coming to a close. In between Christmas preparations and our stressful daily routine, some questions come to the fore more than ever: What is the meaning of life? What do I need to be happy? And what should I avoid?

The Apotheken Umschau has asked these questions in a representative poll. The result: Our ideas on what you need to lead a happy life have stayed pretty constant in Germany over the years. In 2011, the Apotheken Umschau had also asked a representative group of Germans what happiness meant for them. Back then and today, good health – for oneself and one’s family – is the most important precondition for happiness and a good life. Most people also hope for financial well-being and to avoid having to be reliant upon external care in old age.

Happiness Factor Real Estate

In one aspect, however, the priorities have shifted significantly. In 2011, just twelve per cent thought that a privately-owned home was vital for a happy life. Now, ten years later, 22 per cent think so. In times of dramatically increasing rental fees and real estate prices, affordable housing seems to have become existential for many people.

Another result of our survey: Men seem to have dealt better with the Covid pandemic. 24 per cent of women say that they are less happy than before the outbreak, while just 18 per cent of men say so. The reason might be that more women had to bear the brunt when schools, kindergardens, and childcare places were closed.

What makes for a good life in troubled times? Scholars in philosophy and psychology – from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud – have been thinking about these questions for centuries. The ancient Greek scholar Aristippus of Cyrene wrote that the art of life was to grasp the happiness passing us by. Sigmund Freud saw the main motive for human behaviour in the ‘pleasure principle’, that is the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Psychologist Dr Daniela Blickhan is also searching for the good life – and researching it. She is one of the most prominent German proponents of Positive Psychology – you could also call it the science of successful living.

Most people might associate happiness and content with that school of psychology: I am allowed to feel well, enjoyment is all right. ‘Feel-good happiness’ (hedonism), Blickhan calls it. She has also identified what she calls ‘value-based happiness’ (eudaimonia): ‘Our lives are on the right track, we live in accordance with our values, we can happily go to bed in the evening.’ Many studies on Positive Psychology have shown that we can impact positively upon both building blocks for happiness – feel-good and value-based happiness.

Especially when it comes to feel-good happiness, Blickhan argues, we Germans have a lot of catching-up to do. The Prussian understanding of discipline – labour first, pleasure second – has left an imprint on our cultural DNA, she says. She likes to point out that feel-good happiness – the way she uses the term – is nothing but the cognition of positive feelings. That sounds a little banal, initially. But it is a vital ability if you want to avoid stress. And it is not about crimping even more agreeable things into one’s life. Another wellness weekend, another pair of shoes, another amazing event.

The Concept of Feel-Good Happiness

‘It is all about once again observing the beauty and the good surrounding me’, says Blickhan. ‘That does not mean that I am always well. It means I am also well, despite all the other stuff.’ So, I can enjoy my coffee in the morning, I can be delighted about the smell of cookie-baking in my stairwell, the unexpected Christmas card, the sunny morning. These feel-good moments are lodged into my account of positive emotions. In times of strain, I can withdraw from that account.

But our biology is often the spanner in the works when we try to focus on the good things in our lives. ‘For evolutionary reasons, we take more notice of negative stimuli than of positive ones’, says Blickhan. ‘Things that make me fearful, angry or sad trigger our cognition more significantly, as they are potentially vital for survival.’ But positive emotions are important for our personal growth. Here, cognition works like a panorama lens, enabling us to widen our horizon, and also to recognise the beautiful moments.

The Concept of Value-Based Happiness

So, do we have to improve our ability to enjoy in order to have a fulfilled life? ‘If you always just want to feel well, it can get a little superficial’, says Blickhan. We also need what she calls ‘value-based happiness’.

This understanding of happiness goes back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle and how he described a successful life. Here, the big questions are: Which values are important to me? And what kind of life do I want to live? Today, many people are searching for the meaning of life. Studies by psychologist Tatjana Schnell have shown that over three quarters of all Germans brood about the meaning of their lives. And this search for meaning does not automatically make you happy. It can be quite brutal, as old certainties might be overturned.

Our usual daily routine leaves little room for these far-reaching questions. But maybe you have some room for thought at the moment, or make some over the holiday season? Daniela Blickhan has a little exercise for you: Imagine it’s your 70th birthday. You celebrate with many companions, and there are plenty of speeches. What would you wish for? What are the stories you would want to hear about yourself and your life?

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