I am American. And, like many of my fellow Americans, I am strongly influenced by our country’s ideals of independence and productivity. After all, we are the nation of Manifest Destiny, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and the American Dream.
This cultural baseline has resulted in untold innovations from assembly lines to air conditioning, to airplanes, to iPhones. But it’s not all sparkles and stars, is it? Our nation is among the least healthy and most stressed developed nations on the planet. This begs a very important question: Even with all our delights and accomplishments, are we happy?
Living in Italy, I’m becoming a student of this culture’s unique approach to happiness. I’m not saying they have the secret to everything in life, but they are exceptionally good at cultivating joy. And if they can do it, so can we (there’s that American competitive spirit for ya).
Here are five things Italians do, which breed joy and can be easily incorporated into our own lives:
- Imbue Your Life with Art
Everything in Italy is beautiful, from the rolling Tuscan hillsides to the ornate cathedrals, to the most dilapidated alleyways bursting with greenery and colorful flowers. The famed poet Lord Byron called Italy the “garden of the world, the home of all Art yields.”
Italy’s beauty is not an accident. Italians have imbued every aspect of life with beauty since before the Renaissance (the pinnacle of art and culture which, unsurprisingly, originated here). For centuries, Italians have put their money where their mouth is, so to speak; investing in artists and artisans to adorn buildings, create frescos, erect statues, paint, carve and more. In a typical Italian piazza (city square), there is art and beauty everywhere you look. Even Italian food is beautiful, with an emphasis on colorful herbs, fruits and vegetables, and special attention paid to just the right presentation.
Italians’ love of art is also evident in the way they dress. From high-fashion Milan to the littlest hamlet, Italians love to look good. This is “la bella figura,” the art of creating a good impression. Italian women are known for their fashion sense, stylish but elegant, and Italian men are known for “spezzato” the art of combining jackets and trousers in artful ways (instead of just putting on a suit).
*Takeaway: Invite art and beauty into every aspect of your life and spend time in beautiful places.
You don’t have to have a lot of money, or be a certain age, or look a certain way. In Italy, people of every background, body shape and age rock their fashion, cultivate beauty, and savor the beauty around them. Famed Italian actress Sophia Loren once said, “Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.”
Another Loren quote that I absolutely love, which applies here, is: “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”
2. Walk all the time, climb all the stairs
Italians of all ages love to walk and bike, especially in here in Tuscany. Local towns are nested into tight valleys or on top of hills, with narrow streets and steep climbs. Cars can’t navigate them well. So, people walk. Like, everywhere.
This gets them outside in nature, breathing the fresh air, interacting with neighbors, and using their bodies. As we know from Blue Zones research, continuous movement (not just an hour a day in the gym) is key to longevity, happiness and overall life satisfaction.
*Takeaway: Always be moving.
Walk, bike, garden, climb stairs – and keep doing it. As we all know, if you don’t use it, you lose it. And – an object in motion is significantly more likely to stay in motion. So, build constant movement into every day, throughout the day. Make movement your way of life.
3. Eat little, but well – mostly vegetables
Italians have a saying: “Mangia poco, ma bene.” This means “Eat little, but well.”
Italians know good food but unlike Americans, they don’t eat much. Instead, they savor small portion sizes, with an emphasis on vegetables and hearty servings of antioxidant-rich olive oil.
They also follow breakfast and lunch (and often dinner) with a small cup of coffee or espresso (like, very small, like maybe a couple tablespoons worth). This stimulates digestion and allows everyone to linger longer at the table, savoring the atmosphere and good company – as eating together is also key to the Italian way of life.
*Takeaway: Eat really well.
Cook delicious meals that are heavy on vegetables. Take just enough to fill you up and then really take your time to savor it with your friends and family.
4. Take your time
It’s not just meals that Italians savor. They love taking their time just about everywhere (except when driving). Even medical appointments in Italy are slower, with time to talk built in. Processes are slower too (don’t expect to get anything done quickly). The work day is punctuated with lots of breaks for socializing and offices are closed frequently for holidays. In fact, many Italians take a whole month off from work each year.
In America, we do the opposite. We pump ourselves full of caffeine (big to-go cups, not tiny little espresso boosts), then rush to work, work all day (pumping more caffeine), work through lunch or run out to grab fast food, rush home and crash in front of the TV. And to what end?
At the end of the day, life is short and precious – and meant to be savored.
*Takeaway: Take your time.
Eat slowly, take long walks, chat with everyone. Savor it all.
As Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
5. Embrace Community
For centuries, Italians have emphasized social life. The very structures of their cities was built around it, with large central piazzas for gathering and socializing. This prime real estate could have been more profitable as residential or business units, but the Italians have long known that gathering together is key to a healthy society, robust political discourse, philosophical exploration, public welfare and downright joy.
In Italy, it’s all about community and the familigia, which extends to include friends, religious congregations, and often even strangers. Your social life is your life. As Ms. Loren famously said: “You have to enjoy life. Always be surrounded by people that you like, people who have a nice conversation. There are so many positive things to think about.”
*Takeaway: Build your community.
Host family and friend meals. Invite someone to go for a walk with you. Spend time outside, chatting with your neighbors. Take a little extra time to connect with someone (even your cashier or bank teller) throughout each day.
These five elements are at the heart of Italian culture and key to their exceptional ability to enjoy life. So try them out and enjoy a little La Dolce Vita yourself.