7 Well-Being Tips From Around the World… and the Surprising Science Behind Them

You don’t need a passport to take advantage of these tips.

By P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D.

In the rancorous debate over Obamacare, Americans often forget that our healthcare system ranks at the bottom of most developed countries — at least when it comes to money spent and benefits gained on well-being. Are there lessons we can learn from other cultures when it comes to boosting health? Here are seven tips that you don’t need a passport for.

1. Practice Chinese Taoism. Taoism — which began in ancient China — teaches that unhappiness compliments happiness, and the negative and positive are an integrated whole. Today, the “cognitive reframing” principles of Taoism form, in part, the basis for cognitive therapy to treat depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, and chronic pain. Take time during your day to breathe deeply and reflect quietly on your life.

2. Get pedaling like the Dutch. In the Netherlands, the average person cycles more than 600 miles a year. Studies have shown that getting those pedals spinning isn’t just good for weight loss; bikers have better concentration and more energy than non-bikers, are less likely to call in sick to work, and are less likely to take up other unhealthy habits. If you hop on a bike, follow the lead of the Dutch by wearing a helmet and using bike lanes.

3. Relax in a sauna like the Finns. Finland — a nation of 5 million people — has over a million saunas. The heat of a sauna can boost your immune system and cardiovascular endurance and, according to one recent study, might even give you a longer life. To relax in a sauna Finland-style, end your hot session with a skin-cleansing Vinik, a gentle whipping with birch leaves (which contain essential oils).

4. Eat mindfully like the Japanese. Hara hachi bu, the Okinawan habit of eating until one is only 80 percent full, may well be one reason the Japanese enjoy the longest lives in the world. They use the term “nuchi gusui” (food as medicine) for their antioxidant rich mostly plant based diet. When we rapidly wolf down large meals, we don’t give our brains time to signal we are full and our body’s normal hunger processes are altered. To eat like Okinawans, try serving smaller portions, eating slowly and mindfully, and following every feast with a fast.

5. Meditate Indian-style. Meditation and yoga are well known for their spiritual and stress reducing benefits but less well known are the equally powerful effects on the cells and tissues of our body. By turning genes on and off, can boost immune function and reduce inflammation. It’s also been found to sharpen our attention, creativity, and memory, and may even slow age-related shrinkage of the brain. To try this practice out, download a meditation app or join a yoga class.

6. Spend time outside like Native Americans. Native Americans viewed Nature with great respect and felt alive in it. A walk in the park can improve your memory and attention, and reduce stress. More surprising are studies suggesting positive benefits on eyesight, inflammation, immunity, cancer, and post-surgical recovery. Even if you live in a city, finding an area with trees and grass to explore can boost your health.

7. Take time off like the Brazilians. Less than half of all Americans have taken a single day of vacation in the past year. Brazilians, on the other hand, enjoy on average 30 days of vacation and 11 public holidays annually. Taking even a single day off work has been shown to improve people’s mood, sleep, immune function, stress response, and brain function. To maximize the benefits, take one big vacation and multiple small vacations and unplug devices while you’re away from work.

Even without a passport, you can pick and choose which of these wellness tips might mesh best with your lifestyle. When cultural, social, and personal values are aligned with well-being habits, people get healthy and stay healthy.


Dr. Murali Doraiswamy is a physician and leading brain health researcher at Duke University Health System. He also serves as an advisor to businesses and advocacy groups, and is the co-author of The Alzheimer’s Action Plan.