No cars. No work. No internet. Could an auto-free island off Germany's North Sea coast hold the key to happiness? DW's Courtney Tenz tried it for a few weeks to see if there really is a "cure" for her modern ills.
Like a lot of young working parents, I spent the first few years of my child's life exhausted, constantly running between work and day care and home and playgrounds. At times, eight uninterrupted hours of sleep felt luxurious. Quiet meals went out the window — as did plates full of food, literally. Forget evenings out with friends or an hour-long yoga class or any of the self-care ideas I read about in women's magazines.
After a winter in which viruses seemed to be omnipresent and fevers and sniffles regularly derailed any plans I had of ever getting out of bed again, my doctor suggested I look into a Kur — literally translated, a "cure."
Germans, you see, are big fans of "taking the airs" as a remedy for whatever ails you. I'd always thought the heroes and heroines of 19th century novels who moved to the mountains or seaside to treat their tuberculosis were a work of fiction until I'd moved to Europe and saw the all-natural treatments were very much a thing of the present — and not just for TB.
As my ailment wasn't an illness so much as a pressing need to push pause on a hurried life, I was prescribed a mother-child "cure" on the North Sea island of Langeoog. The idea: Spend three weeks away to sort out stressors, strengthen our immune systems and find workable solutions to alleviate the stress. Going on Kur meant more than just taking a step back from my daily life; it meant taking a step back in time
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Out of the car and onto the beach
Or at least that's what it felt like when we arrived at the ferry port on the North Sea shore, suitcases in hand. After an arduous train and bus journey to the small port city, we boarded a ferry whose schedule relied on the tides to make the short trip across the Wadden Sea to the East Frisian island.
Once we arrived on the island, the only effective means of transportation were our own two feet. There are horse-drawn carriages and a short, colorful train you can board to take you from the port to the main street, but neither is very practical for getting far.
Not that there's far to go: the whole island is around 19 square kilometers, its size dependent on the tides. Made entirely of sand, much of the "long island" is a protected natural habitat so there's little need to traverse from one end to the other and if you need to do so — perhaps to see the seals who've come in from the Atlantic to nest — you can use pedal power.
That's quite a contrast to my everyday life, where commuting to the office on a good day takes nearly an hour (often more, depending on how punctual the trains are). It turns out that my long commute could have been having a negative effect on how I was feeling. According to a study published in 2014 in the UK, commuters with travel times of between 61 and 90 minutes have lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety than non-commuters.
So it seems that just by stepping out of the car and onto the island, I had already taken the first step toward alleviating my daily stress — one step closer to happiness.
Jog on: My happiness project
Although my doctor hadn't prescribed the Kur as a happiness retreat, emphasizing that the mother-child weeks were intended to give parents a chance to bond with their children apart from everyday stressors, I quickly conflated the idea of doing away with stress with increasing my own personal happiness index.
Born in the USA like Bruce Springsteen, I was raised with the über-American idea that the pursuit of happiness is as important to a person's existence as life itself and I took my three weeks on Langeoog as a Pharrell Williams-style challenge to get happy.
Two days after I arrived, I sat down with a doctor to create a program for my time on the island. Like many things in Germany, stress, it seems, can only be done away with in a carefully planned-out and organized manner, with small contingencies for emergency situations, like illness.
In addition to mandatory meal times and scheduled-in afternoons on the beach with my child, my prescribed plan demanded daily exercise. And with good reason: Studies have shown that runners score, on average, higher than the general population on the Oxford Happiness Scale. In one study, 89 percent of runners said regular runs made them happier and had a positive impact on their mental health.
I already knew from my daily life that jogging helped to burn off anger and clear my mind so I kept up with a five-day-a-week sports program. On top of that, I was given a schedule that included a few new-to-me fitness classes. Mornings, we would do what is known as "Kneipp therapy" — walk briskly along the North Sea in knee-deep water (I say brisk because the water was a balmy 12 degrees Celsius most days). Afternoons, progressive muscle relaxation techniques were on the agenda.
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An unintended digital detox
Even with an active lifestyle, these additions made the retreat a far cry from my normal daily routines back in the real world, where my desk job seemed to demand an always-connected lifestyle. At the Kurhaus on Langeoog, there was no internet to be found. The closest wireless connection I could reach was at a coffee shop a half-kilometer away, but getting there proved to be more trouble than it was worth.
And forget about mobile reception. To even get a signal for a phone call on Langeoog, I had to stand on top of the tallest sand dune and wait for the wind to blow westward from the mainland. The retreat became, even if unintended, a digital detox.
Stopping to smell flowers is a lot different when you're not worried about how to get the best shot to post to your Insta-story. It's also a lot easier to enjoy flying a kite with your kid when you don't need to keep up with the latest micro-drama unfolding on Twitter or check your e-mails to confirm meetings that are decidedly non-emergency.
Logging off for a bit did help me to find a balance between work and family life — one of the key ingredients in a better quality of life. And it was in finding that balance that the retreat proved useful in increasing my happiness quotient. By taking a few weeks off to power down and jog on, confronting stressors felt a lot more manageable. And while I would never admit to being really, truly happy — after all, I was raised with the notion that it is the pursuit of happiness that is worth fighting for, not the end goal — it was this process of striving toward happiness that has brought lasting joy.