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Special Ep 19: How to Live Like A European

Updated: Oct 1, 2023





I recently went on vacation in Italy as some of you may know from the photos I posted online. Ever since my first trip to Europe in 2017, I’ve been going back to the continent almost every year because I fell in love with the European way of life.


This week, I’m doing a special episode inspired by this trip in which I compare the North American way of life to the European way of life, and try to get at the root of just why is it that so many North Americans are burnt out and unhappy.


Below is a transcript of my audio essay, I hope you enjoy.

 

I love the culture and history of Europe, the picturesque landscape, strolling down old, cobblestone streets lined with colorful buildings, ancient monuments, grand basilicas and elegant shops.

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy

From 2017 to 2023, I’ve visited a total of 10 European countries, most in western Europe and a bit of eastern Europe. My favourite city in Europe, if not the whole world, is Paris. But I also really enjoyed my winter vacation in Southern Spain, and plan to visit more European countries down the road.


Compared to North Americans, I feel like Europeans really know how to live and make the most of life in a balanced and holistic way. Although their society and way of life may not be as advanced or as convenient or luxurious compared to North America, where I live, they do have a leg up on us in that they seem more content with themselves and show a knack for enjoying the small pleasures of life.

Luxembourg Garden, Paris

I remember the surprise I felt on my first trip to Europe when we stopped by the famous Luxembourg Garden and the sight of so many people lying on the garden’s lawn. Was I there to see the garden or the people? I couldn’t see a single green patch left on the central lawn as it’s completely covered by Parisians that sunny weekend afternoon, lazily slumped over each other, reading, chatting, napping. I thought, you would never see such a sight where I live. This would be a pure waste of time!


My home city Toronto is a major metropolis in North America (here I’m referring to just Canada and the United States), where everyone around me seems stressed and exhausted all the time, and depression is reported to be on the rise. We call ourselves a developed nation, but how come compared to people living in much poorer nations, we’re much unhappier despite having more than enough things to keep us comfortable and entertained?

Toronto, Canada at night

I think the root cause of our unhappiness comes down to the culture’s emphasis on work and productivity, and the consumer culture. We work too much, thinking that more money will buy us a bigger house, a more impressive ride, a fancier vacation, and that in turn will make us happy. Our culture’s hyperfocus on success when we think of billionaire business tycoons like Marc Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos make us insecure and feel like we’re not working hard enough, striving high enough, competing aggressively enough to be considered “successful” by our peers.


All this toxic focus on productivity and success no doubt causes many people anxiety and make them feel like they don’t measure up, leading to deep unhappiness with oneself. A European looking at this might think we’re deeply unbalanced and missing the point of life. They might say, “hey you North American, one works to live, not live to work!”


If you’re someone who’s burnt out, and want to know how to enjoy life again, just take a look at the many cafés in Europe. They’re packed with people leisurely nursing their coffee or biting down a croissant, while people watching or savoring a book. The secret to enjoying one’s life is to slow down so you can fully live out each moment.

Parisian café

One thing Europeans have that big city North Americans lack is simplicity. When in Europe, you’re back to a more natural state of living, without constantly being bombarded by ads to buy this or that in order to make yourself more appealing or more successful. There are no mega malls with endless selections to keep you coming back for more. People buy what they need, and spend the rest of their free time with family, exploring the outdoors, or pursuing their hobbies.


The availability and easy accessibility of products from all over the world here in North America, while convenient, I would argue it’s actually detrimental to our wellbeing. Convenience makes one lazy and those who are workaholics even more unbalanced. It takes away the experience of living a holistic life where we attend to every aspect of our life evenly by demolishing tasks that are an essential part of our life.


Take cooking for example. Why cook when you can order Uber Eats? Need a workout? Why bother getting dressed to run outside when you can use a treadmill at home? If you’re a child, There’s no point to play outside with friends when you can entertain yourself with video games at home. These so-called conveniences rid our life of our humanness, slowly transforming us into self-contained entities not needing external connections and other people to survive. It’s no wonder we’re unhappy. Studies have shown that deep social connections are one of the most important contributors to one’s sense of happiness, yet our modern world is slowly making that obsolete.


In Europe and other parts of the world, family and community are still one of the most important pillars of society and an individual’s life. Outside North America, people are deeply tied to their family, and spend plenty of time with them, beyond members of the nuclear family, but also their extended family. Family members look out for each other and the same goes for individuals of a community. There’s a sense of comradery and unity among people. You never feel lonely because you know there are people watching out for you and will take care of you if you’re in ever need of help. That sense of security help them weather through the tough parts of life and shield them from feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, meaninglessness and depression when life gets them down.


Having strong social ties also makes one more balanced. It shows you that there’s more to life than chasing after success, and that other people and relationships matter. It’s the deep connections you cultivate with the people around you that will bring you true lasting joy rather than money and status. After all, what’s the point of having everything when there’s no one to share it with?


When we stop chasing after the societal definition of success, things like money, fame, power, and formulate our own definition of success, then take concrete steps to reach those goals we set for ourselves in a balanced and sustainable way, that's when we’ll achieve true satisfaction.


And there’s no rush in getting there if we keep working at it each day. In fact, it’s important to not forget to live while we’re making our way towards our goals. Part of that means not neglecting our daily duties to focus single-mindedly on our goals. For example, there’s value in preparing meals ourselves instead of eating out every day to save time. It’s healthier for our body in the long run and the act of cooking is also therapeutic. It gives our mind a break from the unpleasant things we experience throughout our day, and forces us to focus on the present moment, lest we cut a finger while chopping vegetables. We start noticing the colorfulness and fullness of life when we embrace all aspects of our life, including the daily chores, and eventually come to enjoy them when we realize even the most mundane things when done with care can yield beauty and satisfaction as we savour that warm bowl of soup, comforting both our stomach and our soul.


In the 21st century, some might sneer at this simple manner of living, finding it too old-fashioned or backward for our digital age. But the secret to living well is indeed going back to our roots and embracing the traditional values of family and community, and basic manners and decency like showing consideration and care for others.


These values are what spawned societies and civilizations, bound people together, forcing them to work together for the greater good of the group. In contrast, North American society values individualism, in which everyone only looks out for themselves and tries to get ahead of the next person instead of advancing together. This creates a very cold and cut-throat society in which nobody is bound to anyone and there’s little sense of loyalty, comradery and unity. No wonder people in major cities are a little uptight. It’s exhausting having to compete and fend for yourself all the time.


So what’s the solution to all this if you’re a big city North American living in such a culture?

Well, I’ve gathered a list of ideas after comparing the lifestyle of a European and a North American, and here’s how you can live more like a European in North America and achieve contentment in your life:


1. Live simply: The ancient Stoics would tell you that one only needs the basics to live a good life and also to turn your back on consumerism. We should live with the attitude that the non-essential things we own are extra and can be forsaken if required. European are good at simple living and only buying what they need. They’re not sucked into the consumer culture. If you’re invited inside one of their homes, you’ll notice that it’s a lot smaller and so the furnishings are few and simple. Their lifestyle is similar.


2. Cut back on consumerism: Avoid malls and any frivolous shopping done on a whim or in boredom. In North America, malls have become people’s favourite hangout place and shopping our favourite pastime. But the so-called retail therapy is a trap. It will not bring you any lasting satisfaction except make you think you need even more stuff to be “happy.” Why not instead give minimalism a try? It’ll keep more money in your pocket, simplify your life and free up your time to pursue your interests.


3. Spend time in nature: After dinner, take a stroll in the neighborhood park or go on a weekend hike with the family. Europeans are much more fit and healthier than North Americans because they recognize the importance of taking care of our body through regular exercise. Many of them enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, running and cycling. Any time spent away from the noise and chaos of the city has been shown to help people feel more relaxed and less stressed. We also experience a mood boost and are able to think more clearly after re-acquainting ourselves with the natural world.


4. Spend quality time with family and friends: One major reason why Europeans are happier than North Americans is their tight-knit family structure and communities. Children have close ties with their extended family and pay regular visits to their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. There’s always some family event happening every weekend to keep life interesting.


Europeans also display more trust towards each other, especially in smaller regions where everyone living in the same area look out for each other. In big cities, people on the same street will also greet each other when crossing paths. All this leads to a feeling of community and unity.


Here in Toronto, everybody does their own thing. I still don’t know all the families on my street and the neighbors don’t really greet each other or hang out. It’s very much an individualist society which can be lacking in warmth sometimes.


While spending time regularly with our family and friends will certainly make us happier, we can take that a step further and try to cultivate new friendships with our neighbors and the strangers we see on a regular basis. These new connections could delight us in surprising ways if we let it.


5. Quiet time and solitude: On the flip side, I noticed that Europeans as a whole value their alone time much more than North Americans. They’re much more reserved and relaxed in their demeanor. Their better work-life balance likely leads to more time to contemplate their life instead of living on autopilot, and that clarity achieved through self-reflection is probably what’s behind their quiet confidence.


Personally, I consider self-reflection to be critically important if we want to achieve clarity in our thinking and decision making. Solitude away from outside chatters and influence is so important to good decision making, and when we make good decisions that we ourselves approve of, that’s what will give us confidence, peace and satisfaction in the long run.


6. Re-discover your hobbies: Europeans also seem to dedicate more time to their hobbies than North Americans no matter the age. Again, this might be due to cultural differences and better work-life balance. But whether it’s singing or painting, a sports activity or debating, using one’s time toward an activity that one enjoys will no doubt do you doubly good by building self-confidence and the joy that comes from doing what you love.


7. Learn about OTHER cultures: Read, watch, listen, travel, attend events, go to museums to learn as much as you can about the different countries and cultures of our world. Doing so will enrich your inner world and provide a sense of meaning and give you new perspectives on life. It makes one more well-rounded as a person and more connected to the bigger world when we recognize the similarities and differences between cultures.


This is certainly much easier to accomplish for a European given the shorter distances between their countries to travel and immerse themselves in another culture than for a North American. But here in North America, we have people from all over the world, so why not make an effort to get to know your neighbor or colleague from a different country? Ask about their home country and local traditions. And surely, you’ll come away having learned something new about the world and made a new friend.


 

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