Are Germans Incapable of Happiness? Do they have a Defective “Joy Gene?”

Years ago, I was on an airplane traveling from Frankfurt to Singapore. Due to a mechanical problem (they thought one of the engines might be on fire) we turned around mid-route, dropped fuel over Poland and made an emergency landing. The pilot got on the intercom and announced we were emptying the plane’s fuel tanks “so fewer people on the ground would be killed when we crashed.” 

Hang with that thought for a moment. Not “if” we crashed, but when. And by the sounds of things the German pilot had no expectation that any of us would make it to the ground, alive.

Now, I’m assuming something may have gotten lost in the translation of this information, but then again—I was on the German airline Lufthansa, and the pilot was German. I looked around for the reaction of the other passengers to the pilot’s announcement—but no emotion seemed to be resonating. No panic, no anxiety—nothing. We all sat there, quietly, stoically, Teutonically, waiting to land. Once we landed safely, the German passengers sat in a lounge, patiently waiting to re-board the same Lufthansa flight that was nearly our death missile. I headed to the nearest airport bar, and called United Airlines to catch a flight on a different carrier.

The German people, as stereotype would have it, are stoic, precise, detailed-oriented people who like order, and fear change. Not panicking at the thought of a fiery death is one thing, but who knew their Teutonic mentality was so well-steeped that they were practically incapable of joy?

A Cologne, Germany-based market-research and consultancy named Reingold found that 46 percent of Germans say they are increasingly unable to enjoy anything due to the stress of everyday life and the feeling of being perpetually “on-call” due to technological advances in communication. Even among the Internet native younger Germans claim to feel they have lost their ability to feel good (55%). And although 91% of participants say that joy is worthwhile, only 15% could recall moments in which they were able to forget their worries and feel truly happy.

Even when eating, drinking alcohol, while on vacation, or even during sex—Germans apparently don't feel they have the capacity to enjoy things. According to the researchers, the bottom line is: "Our joy gene is increasingly defective -- we've forgotten how to enjoy ourselves.” 

Can a “joy gene” be defective?

Well of course not. I don’t believe that there is a genetic predisposition in the German people to be unhappy. It must be culturally bread—to not be able to leisure.

Let’s face it, the German’s, despite their current economic prosperity, they’ve had a rough time of it over the last few generations. From Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, and Stalin (for East Germany), they’ve been a people with not a lot to celebrate. But more likely, this “defective joy gene” comes from a level of overachievement—of being perfect, that is simply unattainable, and leads to a sense of profound joylessness. And, as a society, they feel a sense of obligation, and responsibility.

If one can’t ever achieve expectations, how can one revel in the joy of success? Apparently, the German psyche even feels burdened by the pressure to enjoy things.

"People often told us that they would come home after a stressful day, but were unable to even say what they'd accomplished," Rheingold psychologist Ines Imdahl reported. "And then the people around them say, 'Hey, just relax.' Enjoyment then turns into an obligation."

During the course of the study, the researchers managed to unlock a typically German sequence of steps to enjoyment, which they named "pleasure DNA." The first step involves the feeling of having earned something. This is followed by preparation for the longed-for pleasure, such as booking a day of wellness treatments. But then comes the biggest hurdle: letting go and clearing the mind. Only when a surprising positive moment supervenes can a fully integrated sense of enjoyment follow.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of Germans apparently lack crucial components to this "pleasure DNA."

It seems there might just be a defective “joy gene” after all.


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