by Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

I had the good fortune to travel to Austria earlier this month. Our school has a technical assistance contract with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and has developed an exchange agreement with the Medical University of Graz. Accompanying me on the trip was one of my faculty, Bita Kash, and her husband Fred. Bita grew up in Austria and was able to provide a lot of insight into the culture of the country.

One night we were enjoying a lovely dinner and I noticed that the waiter had disappeared for the last twenty minutes or so. As an American, this made me a bit uncomfortable. Where was he? Why wasn’t he checking on us? Not that I had anywhere to be, but our American culture always has us on the go. I asked Bita where she thought he was and she asked if I needed anything. I didn’t so she asked why I wanted him to come. I didn’t know. Then she said we were experiencing Gemütlichkeit, which means enjoying yourself, being comfortable with friends, and indulging in a feeling of coziness. Having a waiter continually check on you would reduce this feeling. It appears to be a uniquely Austrian concept where life is enjoyed in a relaxing manner. Bita, who is a bit of a Type A personality, admitted that local folks told her that she was more German than Austrian. As I spent the week enjoying three-hour dinners, coffee, and chatting before business meetings and work meetings while sitting on a rooftop patio, I began to really enjoy Gemütlichkeit and started to think about what it would mean in an American context.

The public health literature is pretty clear that higher levels of stress are related to increased levels of mortality. Stress is our response to stressors, not the actual stressor itself. This means that two people can respond to the same stressor in very different ways. In addition, the strength of social ties has been linked to mental health as well as other forms of morbidity and all-cause mortality. In a country where the diet is based on weinerschnitzel, apfelstrudel, and beer, the adult obesity rate is 11.5%, below the median of the European Union, half of Great Britain and a third of the US. Cleary, the Austrians are on to something, but how can we bring that sense of Gemütlichkeit to the US?

Summer is a great time to start trying to reduce our stress and bring about a more Gemütlichkeit approach to life. About half of Americans don’t use their vacation days. This is an essential time that we need to rejuvenate and relax. At my school, I implemented summer hours where staff can work nine-hour days, Monday through Thursday, and have half days every Friday or take every other Friday off. We can take more time with our meals. According to the USDA, Americans spend an average of 67 minutes per day eating and drinking. At three meals a day, this is barely 20 minutes per meal. The Slow Food movement encourages us to slow down and cook and enjoy our meals more. This should have a direct effect of the quality of our food and how it is consumed. The health benefits of eating fresh, natural foods are clear both to our own health and the health of the environment. I would love to hear about how people are trying to integrate Gemütlichkeit into their lifestyle. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you are up to. As for myself, I will be taking my vacation in July and will be taking a break from this column too. See you in August. Prost!

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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