7 cultural concepts we don’t have in the U.S.

Perhaps one of these ideas will inspire you to think differently in your day-to-day life.

Exploring other cultures helps us learn more about ourselves — and perhaps find a new celebration or concept that speaks to us. (Photo: Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock)

From the end of October through the New Year and onto Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to forget that the holidays we celebrate are simply cultural constructs that we can choose to engage in — or not. The concepts and ideas we celebrate — like our spiritual beliefs and daily habits — are a choice, though sometimes it feels like we “have” to celebrate them, even if we don’t feel like it.
Culture is ours to do with as we choose, and that means that we can add, subtract, or edit celebrations or holidays as we see fit — because you and me and everyone reading this makes up our culture, and it is defined by us, for us, after all.
If you want to add a new and different perspective to your life, there are plenty of other ways to recognize joy and beauty outside American traditions. From Scandinavia to Japan, India and Germany, the concepts below may strike a nerve with you and inspire your own personal or familial celebration or — as is the case with a couple of these for me — sound like an acknowledgement of something you have long felt, but didn’t have a word for.
Friluftsliv
friluftsliv
Photo: Shutterstock
Friluftsliv translates directly from Norwegian as “free air life,” which doesn’t quite do it justice. Coined relatively recently, in 1859, it is the concept that being outside is good for human beings’ mind and spirit. “It is a term in Norway that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature,” Anna Stoltenberg, culture coordinator for Sons of Norway, a U.S.-based Norwegian heritage group, told MNN. Other than that, it’s not a strict definition: it can include sleeping outside, hiking, taking photographs or meditating, playing or dancing outside, for adults or kids. It doesn’t require any special equipment, includes all four seasons, and needn’t cost much money. Practicing friluftsliv could be as simple as making a commitment to walking in a natural area five days a week, or doing a day-long hike once a month.
Shinrin-yoku
forest bathing
Photo: Semmick Photo/Shutterstock
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that means “forest bathing” and unlike the Norwegian translation above, this one seems a perfect language fit (though a pretty similar idea). The idea being that spending time in the forest and natural areas is good preventative medicine, since it lowers stress, which causes or exacerbates some of our most intractable health issues. As MNN’s Catie Leary details, this isn’t just a nice idea — there’s science behind it: “The “magic” behind forest bathing boils down to the naturally produced allelochemic substances known as phytoncides, which are kind of like pheromones for plants. Their job is to help ward off pesky insects and slow the growth of fungi and bacteria. When humans are exposed to phytoncides, these chemicals are scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, relieve stress and boost the growth of cancer-fighting white blood cells. Some common examples of plants that give off phytoncides include garlic, onion, pine, tea tree and oak, which makes sense considering their potent aromas.”
Hygge
hygge and cozy winters
Photo: Shutterstock
Hygge is the idea that helps Denmark regularly rate as one of the happiest countries in the world — Danes have regularly been some of the most joyful in the world for over 40 years that the U.S. has been studying them — despite long, dark winters. Loosely translated at “togetherness,” and “coziness,” though it’s not a physical state, it’s a mental one. According to VisitDenmark (the country’s official tourism site): “The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family — that’s hygge too. And let’s not forget the eating and drinking — preferably sitting around the table for hours on end discussing the big and small things in life.” Hygge’s high season is winter, and Christmas lights, candles galore, and other manifestations of warmth and light, including warm alcoholic beverages, are key to the concept.
Still a little confused and wondering how you could cultivate hygge in your life? This Danish NPR commenter sums up some specifics: “Hygge is a deep sense of cosy that can originate from many different sources. Here is a good example from my life : a cloudy winter Sunday morning at the country house, fire in the stove and 20 candles lit to dispel the gloom. My husband, puppy and I curled up on our sheepskins wearing felt slippers, warm snuggly clothes and hands clasped around hot mugs of tea. A full day ahead with long walks on the cold beach, back for pancake lunch, reading, more snuggling, etc. This is a very hyggligt day.” Now that sounds do-able, doesn’t it?
Wabi-sabi
patina and the concept of wabi sabi
Photo: markuliasz/Shutterstock
Wabi-sabi is the Japanese idea of embracing the imperfect, of celebrating the worn, the cracked, the patinaed, both as a decorative concept and a spiritual one — it’s an acceptance of the toll that life takes on us all. As I wrote about it earlier this year, “If we can learn to love the things that already exist, for all their chips and cracks, their patinas, their crooked lines or tactile evidence of being made by someone’s hands instead of a machine, from being made from natural materials that vary rather than perfect plastic, we wouldn’t need to make new stuff, reducing our consumption (and its concurrent energy use and inevitable waste), cutting our budgets, and saving some great stories for future generations.” We might also be less stressed, and more attentive to the details, which are the keys to mindfulness.
Kaizen
kaizen or continuous improvement
Photo: Santiago Cornejo/Shutterstock
Kaizen is another Japanese concept, one that means “continuous improvement,” and could be taken to mean the opposite of wabi-sabi (though as you’ll see, it depends on the interpretation). It’s a very new idea, only coined in 1986, and generally used in business circumstances. As this tutorial details, “Kaizen is a system that involves every employee, from upper management to the cleaning crew. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a once a month or once a year activity. It is continuous. Japanese companies, such as Toyota and Canon, a total of 60 to 70 suggestions per employee per year are written down, shared and implemented.” These are regular, small improvements, not major changes. Applied to your own life, it could mean daily or weekly check-ins about goals, as opposed to making New Year’s resolutions, or a more organized path based on small changes toward weight loss, a personal project or a hobby.
Gemütlichkeit
Gemütlichkeit is a German word that means almost the same thing as hygge, and also has its peak usage during the winter. In fact, some linguists posit that the word (and concept) of hygge likely came from the German idea. Blogger Constanze’s entry on the German Language Blog for “Untranslatable German Words” describes how the word means more than just cozy: “A soft chair in a coffee shop might be considered ‘cosy’. But sit in that chair surrounded by close friends and a hot cup of tea, while soft music plays in the background, and that sort of scene is what you’d call gemütlich.”
Jugaad 
jugaad or ingenuity
Photo: Michal Zieba/Shutterstock
Jugaad is a Hindi word that means “an innovative fix” or a “repair derived from ingenuity,” — think a jury-rigged sled for snowy fun, or a bicycle chain repaired with some duct tape. It’s a frequently used word in India where frugal fixes are revered. But the idea has further merit beyond figuring out solutions to get by with less. It also encapsulates the spirit of doing something innovative. As the authors of Jugaad Innovation write in Forbes, they see jugaad in many other places than the repair shop: “In Kenya, for instance, entrepreneurs have invented a device that enables bicycle riders to charge their cellphones while pedaling. In the Philippines, Illac Diaz has deployed A Litre of Light — a recycled plastic bottle containing bleach-processed water that refracts sunlight, producing the equivalent of a 55-watt light bulb — in thousands of makeshift houses in off-the-grid shantytowns. And in Lima, Peru (with high humidity and only 1 inch of rain per year), an engineering college has designed advertising billboards that can convert humid air into potable water.”
Jugaad’s idea of frugal innovation can definitely be applied in the individual life — what about setting aside a half a day twice a year where everyone in your family fixes something that needs repair? You’ll save money, spend time together, test problem-solving skills, and get a sense of accomplishment from repairing instead of buying new.
I’d like to integrate some of these ideas into my own life. Over the last few years I have dropped Christmas and Easter (I’ve been an atheist for over 25 years now) and replaced them with a Solstice celebrations; I have remade New Year’s into a quiet, reflective time (the antithesis of a party); and have incorporated an appreciation and gratefulness aspect into my almost-daily meditation routine. I’ve kept Thanksgiving, though mine is vegetarian, so the focus is on the harvest and thanks and not killing a turkey. And I celebrate Halloween some years, when I feel into it, and not if I don’t. And forget Valentine’s Day!
Because I don’t love some of our existing holidays, I’d like to add celebrations to my list — luckily I need not come up with them by myself, but can look to other cultures for inspiration. I actually started practicing hygge last winter and I felt it really helped me through the darkest days of the year. I may formalize it a bit by creating a “start” and “end” date to the practice. Wabi-sabi is also very appealing to me, as I tend towards perfectionism (which also tends to make me miserable), and it’s an idea that seems like it might become part of my seasonal cleaning and organizing time (along with Jugaad).
Have any of the above ideas inspired you to try something different or add a new celebration day to your life?

A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom

The Atlantic

Kids who constantly use phones and computers tend to be more nervous in face-to-face conversations. What can teachers do to help?

Giuseppe Milo/Flickr

Stress about a meeting that is still a week away, handwringing before talking to the cashier in the grocery line, worrying about seeing an acquaintance on the street—for people with social anxiety disorder, even the simplest task can prove challenging. The symptoms of social anxiety often set in around adolescence, when people place a new emphasis on social interactions and their place in their peer groups. But some academics fear that greater access to technology could exacerbate social anxiety among teens, particularly as smartphones, tablets, and computers become omnipresent in and out of the classroom. And even though teachers are increasingly exploiting the devices as learning tools, they also play an integral role in stemming the tide of social anxiety.

“If we are glued to technology 24/7, it’s going to have an effect on social skills—it’s just natural,” said Tamyra Pierce, a journalism professor at California State University, Fresno. The clear link between technology and social behavior makes it all the more important that teachers who embrace these devices need to keep students’ social skills in mind.

An estimated 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and symptoms usually start around age 13. More than just shyness, social anxiety causes people to fear the judgment and scrutiny of those around them. People with social anxiety often have concurrent disorders like depression. The disorder can affect every aspect of a person’s life, from academic performance to self esteem; in severe cases, social anxiety can be debilitating, keeping sufferers in bed and out of public places to avoid confrontation. But almost everyone suffers from at least a little social anxiety, says Thomas Rodebaugh, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “We’d be worried about someone who never experiences any social anxiety,” he said.

Social anxiety differs between individuals, so it makes sense that the relationship between technology and social anxiety is murky and is often varies case to case. For some sufferers, technology can increase social interaction. One 2012 studyfound that people with low self-esteem who may be reluctant to talk about themselves with peers face-to-face feel more comfortable sharing personal information on Facebook. Researchers who conducted another 2006 studyconcluded that social media can “strengthen community engagement and attachment” in some people. Pierce recalls teens with disabilities that, in spite of their apprehension about talking with the opposite sex, were able to approach their crushes through technology. “Once they felt like they were doing okay [online], then they could continue the conversation face-to-face in a more comfortable state,” Pierce said. “The anxiety was lessened by using technology, but that’s more the exception than the rule.”

Pierce says it’s the exception because she has personally seen an increase in social anxiety among her plugged-in students over the years she has been teaching. “Now young people can’t look you in the eye, they get antsy talking to you in person,” she said.

So, in 2009, Pierce conducted a study to test the relationship between technology and social anxiety. She asked teenagers how often they use “socially interactive technologies,” like instant messages and texts, and then assessed how comfortable they felt talking to people face-to-face. Pierce found that the more the students spent using online communication methods, the more likely they were to show symptoms of anxiety about communicating face-to-face. What’s more, teenage girls showed much more anxiety than did their male peers.

These conclusions left Pierce with a chicken-and-egg problem: “Was it the use of technology that has created a heightened sense of anxiety about talking to someone face to face, or did it start with social anxiety that led to increased use of social media?” Either way, though, she hypothesizes that teens are using social media as a crutch, a replacement for the in-person interactions that help them develop socially. “It’s going to take a lot more research because, as I’ve seen in my other research about social media, due to excessive use of cell phones, teens and young people alike are not talking face to face. It’s hampering their social skills,” she said.

But Rodebaugh, the psychologist, is skeptical that technology is to blame for social anxiety among teens. “What we’ve seen from some of my students’ studies is, if you’re the sort of person who is going on Facebook to interact with people you expect to see sometime in the future, you’re going to interact with them in the real world,” he said. There’s no evidence that using technology that way has a negative effect, he added. But he agrees that adolescence is a pivotal time in a person’s social development and, as future studies probe the relationship between social anxiety and technology, “[adolescence] is a good place to look for it.”

In the years since Pierce’s study, digital communication has become even more common. Between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of teens who had smartphonesincreased from 23 percent to 37 percent. In 2012, 81 percent of teens used some form of social media.

Anecdotally, both Pierce and Rodebaugh have seen more laptops and cell phones in the classroom. Constant pings of texts and Facebook notifications can sometimes distract students, pulling them away from their face-to-face interactions and into the virtual world of digital communication. One 2013 studyfound that the average person unlocked his or her cell phone more than 100 times per day. “It’s much easier to look at a phone than to look someone in the eye,” said parenting blogger Vanessa Van Petten in a 2013 Washington Postarticle.

Technology is increasingly a primary means for socializing among teens. But it’s not clear whether this has had an effect on the number of people with social anxiety. “We don’t have data that is that intensive [about social anxiety] over the past five years,” Rodebaugh said. Even though social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders (about12 percent of adults will have it at some point in their lives), researchers aren’t yet able to determine how its prevalence has changed over time; there’s still little consensus on the causes of the disorder. So there’s no proof that an increased use of technology over the past five years has led to a greater prevalence of social anxiety. Pierce plans to conduct an updated version of her 2009 study in the near future, which may shed some light on the issue.

Regardless, even if the link between technology and social anxiety were clearer, banning it in the classroom seems increasingly unlikely. Teachers from kindergarten onward are embracing laptops, iPads, and video games as educational tools, using them to help students visualize complex topics in a whole new way, despite the distraction caused by texts and social media. “Unless there were some sort of attempt to ban technology from the classroom, [that technology] will be there when most people want it to,” Rodebaugh said. “I haven’t yet made a particular policy [restricting the use of technology in the classroom]. But I’ve considered it, and I assume at some point I’ll have to.”

Pierce doesn’t think that’s the solution, though. “It’s not a matter of use or no use, it’s what kind of use,” she said. “When we take away all face-to-face communication and our young people stay in their rooms and stare at their screens, we do them a disservice.” A good comparison, she says, is how people view tests—some prefer multiple-choice while others want only open-ended questions. Using technology in the right way means giving students a balance and options with their devices, both academically and socially. “We can’t lose the social skills, we can’t lose the technology—we have to have both. We have to go back to that balance,” Pierce said.

For teens that feel socially anxious, Pierce suggests that they use technology less at home (especially for those who let it disrupt their sleep). Rodebaugh added that there are a number of treatments for social anxiety, which involve medication or therapy. “People don’t have to continue to suffer if they don’t want to,” he said.

Sleeping Near A Smartphone Can Disturb A Child’s Rest

NPR

Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

Most of the children in this study said they slept with a smartphone or iPod.

David Young-Wolff/Getty Images

The last thing my 11-year-old does before she goes to sleep is put her iPod on the nightstand. And that could mean less sleep for her, researchers say.

There’s plenty of evidence that children who have televisions in their rooms get less sleep. This is one of the first studies to look at whether having a small screen like an iPod or smartphone in the room also affects rest.

The study, which was published Monday in Pediatrics, looked at 2,048 racially diverse fourth-graders and seventh-graders who were participating in a study on childhood obesity in Massachusetts. Lack of sleep is considered a risk factor for obesity, so the children were asked how long they slept and if they felt they needed more sleep.

They also were asked how often they slept with an iPod, smartphone or cellphone in their bed or next to the bed. More than half of the children, 57 percent, said they slept near a small screen.

Those children reported getting 20.6 fewer minutes of sleep on weekdays, compared to children who didn’t have the devices in the bedroom. Those children were also more likely to say they felt like they hadn’t gotten enough sleep.

The study also looked at TVs in the bedroom and found that children who slept in a room with a TV reported 18 fewer minutes of sleep than those without a TV, on par with other studies. And the big screens were even more common than the small screens — three-quarters of the children said they had a TV in their room. But they were less likely to feel like they missed out on sleep than the kids with small screens.

With both the TVs and the small screens, children went to sleep later, the researchers say. The small-screen sleepers hit the hay 37 minutes later than their screenless peers, and TV-watchers went to bed 31 minutes later. All the children were getting up at the same time because they had to get off to school.

And here’s one more wrinkle: Children who said they played video games or watched DVDs during the day also said they felt less rested. But the negative impact was much smaller than for small screens or TVs in the bedroom.

This study wasn’t designed in a way that could figure out what was causing the sleep loss and tiredness — whether the kids were actually using the devices thus exposing themselves to light and stimulating content, say, or whether getting calls or alerts during the night interrupted sleep.

My guess is that it’s all of the above. And though I don’t think my sixth-grader is texting at midnight, I’ve been worried enough about the disruptive potential of the bedside device that this Christmas she got an old-school bit of technology — a clock radio. That iPod is outta there.