From forest bathing to napping to belly laughing, cultures from around the world have cultivated well-being in many fascinating ways—and science agrees that they're effective! Better yet? They won't cost you a thing.
I used to hate the cold. I dreaded the coming of every winter when I lived in New York and Boston, and complained through gritted teeth through the coldest months every year. It wasn’t just the drop in temperature; it was the boredom of being holed up inside with less and less daylight. I used to wonder how the Scandinavians could possibly stand their long winters and short days.
The five happiest countries in the world are almost always cold, Nordic nations. How do they do it?
Imagine my surprise when I learned that, in 2016, Denmark had ranked as the happiest nation in the world in the World Happiness Report. Then, Finland became number one for the next three years, with Norway and Sweden never far behind. In fact, the five happiest countries in the world are almost always cold, Nordic nations. How do they do it?
Of course, there are likely many factors involved. These countries often have less income inequality, greater oil wealth, and breathtaking natural landscapes. But I wondered if there were any specific Nordic secrets to happiness and wellness—even during winter!
My exploration not only uncovered some lovely ideas from Denmark and Sweden but it also sparked my interest in how people from around the world practice wellness. I was especially curious about how people have traditionally embraced wellness before it became a consumerist buzzword to describe expensive potions in bottles or fancy supplements peddled by celebrities.
These wellness practices are based in tradition, supported by science, and best of all, available to most people.
Today, I want to share some fascinating wellness practices and philosophies I learned about. They’re based in tradition, supported by science, and best of all, available to most people.
1. Danish “hygge”
Let’s start our journey in Denmark, the country that consistently ranks among the top five happiest nations in the world.
No wonder the Danes are happy in winter!
Here, the Danish believe in hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”), which loosely translates to “coziness.” The word originated from an Old Norwegian word meaning “well-being,” and it captures all that is cozy, warm, and enjoyable. Curling up under a soft blanket while holding a warm mug of cocoa is hygge. Chatting with friends and family around a fire is hygge. And simply enjoying the glow of a candle is hygge.
No wonder the Danes are happy in winter! This concept of hygge not only gives practical inspiration for how to enjoy life—oversized scarves and hot drinks with friends—but it also offers a philosophy for how to be with one’s environment instead of fighting against it.
For example, instead of being like me and complaining about the cold all winter, you could go with the seasons and enjoy the special coziness of winter through your experience of little things like bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.
2. Spanish siesta
Now let’s go south to warmer climes and take a nap with the Spaniards. In Spain and other Mediterranean places, as well as Latin America and some places in Asia, it’s common practice to take an after-lunch nap, called a “siesta” in Spanish. This afternoon nap time is not just for kids—adults do it too! It’s taken so seriously that museums, shops, and churches usually close for a couple of hours, and everything shuts down.
Siestas are taken so seriously that museums, shops, and churches usually close for a couple of hours, and everything shuts down.
Adult nap time isn’t just a nice treat to indulge in. Researchers have found that, among generally healthy Greeks, those who partake in regular napping had a 37% lower chance of dying from heart disease within a few years of enrolling in the study. So if you have the ability to take a short nap during the day, try it out! As long as it doesn’t mess up your nighttime sleep, it may be a great way to get an extra boost of well-being.
3. Japanese forest bathing
Now, traveling east to Japan, we take a dip in the woods. Not an actual swim, but rather, an immersion in nature called "shinrin-yoku," loosely translated to "forest bathing."
Forest bathing is not about going camping, hiking, or doing any hardcore exercise in a forest.
Forest bathing is exactly what it sounds like—being immersed in nature. Importantly, it’s not about going camping, hiking, or doing any hardcore exercise in a forest. In fact, it’s not a goal-oriented activity at all. It’s simply being with nature, with your senses open and your body as your guide.
Health researcher Dr. Qing Li and his colleagues have found that forest bathing enhances the immune system and encourages the expression of anti-cancer proteins. They also found that it decreases depression, fatigue, anxiety, and unsurprisingly, heart rate.
To take a forest bath yourself, Dr. Li explains that you don’t need to seek out special destinations. You can simply find a spot of nature, even if it’s just a group of trees or a garden, and walk through the area slowly and aimlessly. Turn off your devices and simply let the forest in through your five senses.
4. Indian laughter yoga
Now let’s go from quiet to loud with some laughter yoga in India. Who doesn’t enjoy a good belly laugh? But have you ever done it on purpose? The idea of laughter yoga is that we don’t have to wait for something funny to happen in order to laugh. Instead, laughter can and should be practiced for its own sake.
There seem to be real benefits to laughter, even when the laughter is 'fake.'
Laughter yoga is often practiced in groups, where real playfulness and interaction between people can turn practiced laughs into real guffaws. And there seem to be real health benefits, even if the laughter is “fake.”
A recent meta-analysis found that simulated laughter may be even more effective than spontaneous, humorous laughter for improving mood. So why not give it a try—do a belly laugh like no one is watching. Or better yet, get together with others and laugh with them!
5. South African Ubuntu philosophy
Speaking of being with others, perhaps nothing captures our social human nature better than the South African philosophy of Ubuntu. This term from the Zulu language can be translated as “humanity towards others,” and it's part of a phrase that means “a person is a person through other people.” This idea has been spread, in part, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian, and human rights activist.
The word Ubuntu can be translated as 'humanity towards others,' and is part of a phrase that means 'a person is a person through other people.'
Ubuntu is different from the other items from our list because it’s not just a practice, but rather, a whole humanist philosophy that embraces diversity, compassion, warmth, and dignity for all.
This may be a philosophy we especially need right now, even if living by it might be a lifelong pursuit. We can begin by acknowledging the humanity of all people, being open to learning, and respecting all, even if we're unfamiliar or in conflict with someone.
6. Jewish Sabbath
Last but not least, let’s learn about the Jewish day of rest and reflection.
Observing the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is a religious tradition in the practice of Judaism. The Shabbat—meaning “rest” or “cessation”—begins on Friday evening and ends on Saturday evening, during which people refrain from work. Instead, they honor the Sabbath with restful activities like prayer, contemplation, and having festive meals with family.
Research has found that Sabbath-keeping is beneficial for physical and mental health.
One Jewish writer, Menachem Kaiser, has referred to the Sabbath as “the only authentic form of leisure: the act and fulfillment of doing absolutely nothing productive” and “our best bet to enact lasting communities.” This, to me, sounds like a much-needed balm for our modern hurts.
And it’s not just my intuition. Research has found that Sabbath-keeping is beneficial for physical and mental health. This is unsurprising, given that much research has established the benefits of rest, spirituality, and even simply eating meals together as a family. So, I wholeheartedly agree with Kaiser that, even if you’re not religious, you can practice a secular version of Shabbat and let this weekly time out give you the chance to rest and connect with others.
Whether it’s through the spirituality of Shabbat, the quietness of forest bathing, or the exuberance of laughter yoga, so many wellness practices and philosophies from around the world get back to the basics—feeling connected to our bodies, our minds, and one another. None of the ideas we surveyed today require you to buy a single thing. All of them invite us to be mindful and connected.