Travel Reflections: Walking into the Wind

In August, my family and I took a trip to Switzerland. It’s a place I know well— I lived there for a year in high school, speak the language, and we’ve been back several times. We’ve stayed close to my host family— they were at my wedding, and seeing them was the real reason for the trip. It’s been a while since I’ve been back (Covid put a damper on travel), and spending time there with older kids was interesting. As travel ideally does, it helped expand my perspective, and threw into sharper relief things that we know to be true. The contrast between how live and the reality of day-to-day life there was was enlightening. This post, then, is a reflection piece on the experience— and how it relates to health and happiness.

Switzerland is a small, landlocked, mountainous country. There are four (four!) official languages. Living standards are high, and per-capita income is among the highest in the world. In addition to being a beautiful place, it’s an expensive place. But my intention is not to give you the data for the place (Google can tell you that, if you like), it ss to share what it feels like to live there. So, here’s (part) of what I noticed:

  • Families are intact. While there is conflict, and people do not all get along (that’s true everywhere, people are people), inter-generational and intra-generational cohesion is high. It’s normal for grandparents to help with the grandkids. Siblings help with each other’s children. This is the expectation— not the anomaly. Families get together regularly, and for no big reason— that’s just what happens. There is also less geographic dispersion— families are near each other. Family and place is more important than work.
  • Things work: the trains run on time, the streets are well paved and clean. We did not see a single homeless person the entire trip. The app for the Swiss Railway system is simply amazing. The system ensures that is you are working, you can afford a safe place to live, access to healthcare, and time to enjoy your friends and family.
  • The natural environment is important, is prioritized, accessible, cared for, and enjoyed by pretty much everyone. While we were there, there was a heatwave. I jumped into a lake, river, or stream almost every day. The the water is clean. Zurich, the largest city, sits at the confluence of river and a lake. We went swimming in the lake. My son fished in it. Walking over bridges in the middle of the city, you could see to the bottom, and see the fish swimming. People would literally go down to the lake on their lunch break and jump in. Hiking and being in nature is a normal part of life. From the house, it’s a 10 minute walk to the forest. We went on hikes with kids that were as young as 3 years old— she managed a 1.5 mile hike largely without complaining. It wasn’t a big deal.
  • Work is not the focus of life. I think we talked about work for a grand total of 20 minutes over the course of two weeks. When you meet someone new, it’s not normal to immediately ask them what they do for a living. I spent a whole evening talking with folks I’ve never met, and our work never came up.
  • Children are not the focus, but including them is normal. There’s a lot of space between things that are completely kidded out (think Chuck-E Cheese) and children not allowed, but I find it can be hard to find that space here. In Switzerland, it’s the default.
  • Related, there are a million things, large and small, that make it easier to have a family and raise kids. The schools work. There is a rule that there must be a kindergarten within 1 km of the child’s house. The broad expectation is that, starting in kindergarten, children will walk to school with other kids— not their parents. This set-up and attitude continues as children age, with the expectation that they will walk, bike, and take buses and trains by themselves. Equally important, the infrastructure exists for this to happen safely.
  • There are public drinking fountains everywhere. Around the city, on bike paths, in the village. Wherever you go, there’s clean, cool water to drink.
  • Biking and walking, particularly short distances, is normal and expected. There is no reason to get in a car to go into town.
  • We stopped by the side of the road, at a farm stand. There were vending machines filled with fresh raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. The fruit was fresh, organic, beautiful, and delicious.
  • My host sister has a mandatory two week vacation every year, where she cannot do work. This year, she logged into an important meeting part way through the break. She was told, in no uncertain terms, that she would need to take another two weeks. The break must be at least two weeks, and must be completely free from work.

I do not mean to imply that there are not problems, or that challenges do not exist. However, the society seems set up so that it is easy for people engage in behaviors that are conducive to health and happiness. Its easier to do the things I find myself encouraging patients to do— eat well (fresh fruits and vegetables), spend time with others, exercise, be outdoors, and balance the needs of work and home. Whereas here it feels like doing these things takes extra effort (you have to actively opt-in), there, it feels like the default.

I have two primary takeaways from this:

  1. The difficulty of staying healthy and being happy is not only a function of willpower or personal drive— it’s also a function of where we live. Personal choice and individual decision-making matter, but so does the context within which those decisions are made and within which we live our lives. There are healthy, happy people here, and miserable, unhealthy people in Switzerland. This reality is true the world over. But we have to work at it more. Perhaps the analogy is that there, the wind is at your back. Here, we are walking into the wind.
  2. We, collectively, can do better. The world we live in is heavily influenced by our choices. Who we vote for, what we value, what we pay for, how we spend our time, how we direct our attention and energy— it all matters. I do not believe there are a lot of people here (or anywhere in the world) that want to live in a polluted environment with high amounts of social fragmentation, disconnected families, eating bad food, and without access to nature or the outdoors. As humans, the things that make us happy are pretty universal. How do we foster that? How do we come together around that?

-Dr. Justin