Gemütlichkeit

The German concept of belonging & happiness that English doesn’t have a word for.

Sitting in a tent at Oktoberfest one song that will be played again and again is Ein Prosit. It only has four words in the lyrics, it takes less than 30 seconds to sing, and after singing it the band leader directs everyone to drink. The lyrics are:

GERMAN

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
Der Gemütlichkeit

ENGLISH

A toast, a toast
To Gemütlichkeit

What exactly are we toasting? What is Gemütlichkeit?

Gemütlichkeit is the good feeling of being with friends enjoying the simple things in life.

Good Feeling

Gemütlichkeit (roughly: ge-mut-lee-kite) is a German word that we don’t have a direct translation for in English. It’s a feeling of happy belonging, sort of like cozy but unlike cozy it’s felt in the company of others. Gemütlichkeit can’t be felt alone. It’s the good feeling you get wandering a Christmas market with your family, it’s a summer BBQ in a friend’s back yard, and of course it’s gathering together at a beer garden. Gemütlichkeit is a state of mind. It’s the enjoyment of simple pleasures shared with others.

Part of gemütlichkeit’s meaning comes from its origins. In the early 19th century Biedermeier period, industrialization helped create a new German middle class. This growing population used their new found money & free-time to embrace a quieter, simpler life. Feeling secure and happy with friends & family was more important than politics. This was also around the start of Oktoberfest, which began as a wedding festival but turned into an annual tradition in 1811. Gemütlichkeit and Oktoberfest go well together because, as people gather for good food, beer, and fun, they’re celebrating the simple things in life with others.

The legendary Franzl Lang sings Ein Prosit, a toast to gemütlichkeit.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Knowing when to step off the treadmill and be happy

Hedonism is about finding pleasure and avoiding suffering. It ranges from the wild to the mild, but essentially it is a way of thinking where we want to be happy and should seek out ways of making ourselves happy.

The hedonic treadmill (also called hedonic adaptation) is an idea where each of us has a default level of happiness, and that our happiness will return to this default level despite life changes. If we make more money and start living a fancier lifestyle, what might make us a bit happier at first, soon becomes the new normal and we return to our default happiness level. We get more, we get used to it, and then it takes even more to make us (temporarily) happier again. It’s an arms race where it can constantly take more to feel happier and it can go on forever. Whatever the change, we tend to get used to the new speed of the treadmill.

The good news is that it also works the other way around. If we lose a job or some catastrophic accident befalls us, we can adapt to that as well and (over time) return to our default happiness level. In his TED talk on the science of happiness, Dan Gilbert discusses a study of lottery winners and people recently paralyzed and after a year both groups had returned to their pre-incident level of happiness. The treadmill can speed up or slow down but your happiness level will adapt.

Epicurus

Epicurus was a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher who created a school of philosophical thought, known today as Epicureanism. While the word “epicure” means someone with fine taste in food & alcohol, Epicureanism is a much deeper collection of teachings that have little to do with food. Epicurus was a hedonist, in that he felt happiness was good and pain was evil, however he taught that we should enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Happiness can be achieved through friendship and living a simple life. Perhaps it’s best to know when to step off the hedonic treadmill and appreciate what you have rather than running faster for more.

More on “Less is more”

The idiom “Less is more” is by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” was at the core of his design philosophy.

“Less is more” is about simplicity. It’s that keeping things to the absolute essentials is more effective than including extraneous additional elements.

Mies

Ludiwg Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. His architectural career started by apprenticing at various design firms but it was in Berlin in the early 20th century that he gained greater exposure to the new progressive ideas of the age. This gained even more momentum after World War I. People in the Weimar Republic were living in a world of increasing industrialization, fast-paced metropolises, and greater reasons to turn away from traditional views. The old constructs of thinking were from a bygone era that weren’t compatible with the modern industrialized world. It was in this environment that Modernism was born.

Modernism embraced new ways of thinking. As people struggled to find their place in a world broken by the old regime, modernism explored new ways forward. It found it’s way into design, art, literature, philosophy, music, and other fields as experimental new ways that were alternatives/rejections to the rules of the past.

Modernism was at the center of Mies’ architectural thinking and he quickly became a leader in this new school of thought. While serving as the third and final head of the famed Bauhaus design school, Mies realized the political climate in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile and emigrated to the USA in 1937, eventually settling in Chicago. It was in Chicago that he worked the rest of his life creating some of his masterpieces in modernist thought such as the Farnsworth House.

Less is more

His entire approach to architecture stripped designs down to the absolute essentials; removing classical architectural decorative ornamentation entirely. It was from this design philosophy that “Less is more” was born. It was a utilitarian approach where a design is more powerful the less you add. Basically a design is better the less stuff you add to it. Keep it simple.

Ornamentation served no functional purpose so it was omitted. It took Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function” to the extreme. A building’s visual style should take a backseat to its purpose.

While celebrated as a design visionary and as a father of modernism, Mies’ aphorism of “Less is more”  has taken on a life of its own where it is arguably more famous than he is.