How People Relax Around the World

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It’s no secret that Americans are among the most stressed-out people in the world, prone to overwork and spending what little free time we have on performance-based hobbies.

“Americans do not have a great relationship with relaxation,” says Iris Mauss, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Even though we are aware of the need for downtime, she says, we just can’t seem to escape the hustle culture that tells us we must earn any downtime we take. “People here define themselves by their work and activity.”

While Americans are burning the candle at both ends, many other cultures have no problem making time for a little R&R each day. Here are 7 relaxation rituals from around the world—and why they might be worth a try.

Forest bathing in Japan

Taking a regular walk in the woods is more than a hobby in Japan. It’s a form of preventative medicine called shinrin-yoku, credited with improving sleep quality, mood, and immunity.

Forest bathing researcher Dr. Qing Li, associate professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, says that this practice works by opening our five senses to the natural world, soothing our nervous and endocrine systems. What’s more, breathing in phytoncides, or organic compounds released from plants, delivers antimicrobial benefits and has been shown to stimulate a type of disease-fighting white blood cell.

Self-massage in India

For many generations in India, a daily pre-shower massage with oil was standard to start the day feeling alert, calm, and focused, says Zubinji Billimoria, a Los Angeles-based certified practitioner of Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of medicine. While most of us find it difficult to commit to anything before 6:30 a.m., research has shown that a massage practice at this time pays dividends in stress reduction when done regularly, even if it’s just once a week. You’re helping to counteract the stimulating modern lifestyle of cell phones, TV, and video games that makes people anxious, impatient, and unable to focus or sleep, while also supporting the body’s natural circadian rhythm, or biological clock, Billimoria says.

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To start, massage oil down your head, neck, shoulders, arms, and back, before circling in a clockwise motion on your chest, down the sides of your legs, and up the insides, ending up at the belly, rubbing again in a clockwise motion. Leave the oil on for at least 30 minutes, and then shower.

Sauna culture in Finland 

Saunas may be relegated to spa days in the U.S., but in Finland—the happiest country in the world seven times in a row, according to the World Happiness Report—they are a weekly ritual and part of the nation’s cultural DNA. Sauna is so ingrained in Finnish society that it’s recognized by UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and celebrated in Finnish songs, beliefs, and folklore. About 90% of Finns go to a public sauna at least once a week, according to the Finnish Heritage Agency. Health benefits of sweating in a sauna’s dry heat include improvements in blood pressure, reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease and dementia, and increased endorphins, according to a review study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. To reap these benefits, sit in the heat for five to 20 minutes at a time, alternating with a cooling swim, shower, or break outside.

Temazcal ceremonies in Mexico

In temazcal rituals, an ancient practice of Indigenous cultures in both North and South America, sweating is more than just relaxation or pain relief. It’s a sacred practice led by a trained healer—a sort of therapy. Held inside a beehive-shaped mud or stone lodge, participants sweat as hot lava stones are covered with water and herbs and the guide leads them through a meditation with drums, flutes, and chanting, helping to release pent-up emotions, says Roselia Flandes, spa director at the Conrad Punta Mita in Riviera Nayarit, which organizes temazcal ceremonies for guests.

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“It’s like a church, but it’s not religion,” says Marili Samayoa Monzon, a medicine woman who leads ceremonies at her practice in Los Cabos, Mexico, as well as the One&Only Palmilla and White Lodge. Monzon says the heat forces people to turn inward and often brings up memories and emotions that she is trained to help participants process. Growing in popularity, she says, wellness enthusiasts often come back monthly or even weekly to her temazcal to ease physical and mental distress.

Friluftsliv in Norway

Norwegians enjoy spending time in nature in all kinds of weather, a concept known as friluftsliv. This term means appreciating and connecting with nature, whether snowshoeing through a thick blanket of snow or strolling through a field of spring wildflowers. Spending time in nature has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve mental well-being. A 2019 meta-analysis of 84 previous studies found that immersive nature experiences delivered clear benefits to self-esteem, self-efficacy, resilience, and academic and cognitive performance.

“The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness appears to be positive and significant,” says study author Colin Capaldi, an epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Il Dolce Far Niente—or “the sweetness of doing nothing”—in Italy

Italians have seemingly perfected the art of balanced living, taking time each day to savor life’s simple pleasures. Whether it’s lingering over an aperitivo at an outdoor café, enjoying a leisurely meal with family or friends, or just basking in the sunshine, Italians prioritize leisure and living each day to the fullest, says Massimo Braglia, a Bologna native who blogs about Italian culture and language at the Italian Way of Life.

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One of his most enjoyable days in recent memory was spending an entire day with his brother in Bologna, just sitting outside people-watching.

Siesta in Spain

A little over a decade ago, it looked like Spain’s beloved ritual of an afternoon nap after lunch would be abolished to align work days and productivity with the rest of Europe. It didn’t happen. In fact, as climate change boosted temperatures across Europe last year, more people reportedly embraced the siesta to escape the heat plaguing the city midday.

There’s good reason to consider a post-lunch snooze. One University of London study found that taking a short daytime nap delays the brain shrinkage that comes with aging. Another study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that taking an hour-long nap helped improve students’ ability to learn and perform better on tests.

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