At a certain point, Sven just lost it. Other members of the discussion group had gone into great detail about how they spent their after-work hours with their companions and enjoyed the end of the day. "That's great for you!" Sven fired back to one speaker. "But first one needs the chance! My boss often plops something on my desk right before it's time to clock out, and when I arrive home late, my wife is pissed off because she was forced to take care of our kid and the housekeeping by herself." By that point, he adds, all thoughts of a relaxing evening have vanished.
If anything can comfort Sven, it's the fact that he isn't alone with this problem. The 36-year-old took part in a study released this week by Rheingold, a market-research and consultancy institute based in Cologne, which found that 46 percent of Germans say they are increasingly unable to enjoy anything due to the stress of everyday life and the feeling of being constantly reachable. The difficulty was even more pronounced among the study's younger participants, 55 percent of whom claimed to feel they have lost their ability to feel good.
Whether it's with food, alcohol, vacation or relaxing -- Germans apparently don't have the leisure to enjoy things. In fact, they can't even let go when they're having sex. According to the researchers, the bottom line is: "Our joy gene is increasingly defective -- we've forgotten how to enjoy ourselves."
Work Before Play
The results conform to the image that many Europeans have of Germans in this era of economic crisis as self-denying overachievers who can't even turn off the fun-brakes when vacationing at the beach. The positive image that they enjoyed during the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany seems gone.
"At that time, Germans really radiated a zest for life," says Rheingold psychologist Ines Imdahl. "But this mood shifted beginning in 2008." The problem, she believes, is that Germans feel weighed down by the ongoing European debt and currency crisis. "It's more than simple complaining," she adds. "People have the feeling that we have to shoulder the entire crisis here."
But the Germans aren't just burdened with the crisis. The main thing standing in their way is their own perfectionism. During hours of individual and group interviews, the researchers analyzed how 60 subjects felt pleasure. They also scrutinized the results of a representative survey of 1,000 men and women commissioned by the liquor companies Diageo and Pernod Ricard.
Among survey respondents, 81 percent said that they experience pleasure best when they have managed to achieve something first. "As the saying goes, business before pleasure," said 61-year-old female participant Wiltrud.
But this maxim doesn't seem to serve the Germans well -- they even feel burdened by the pressure to enjoy things. "People often told us that they would come home after a stressful day, but were unable to even say what they'd accomplished," Imdahl reported. "And then the people around them say, 'Hey, just relax.' Enjoyment then turns into an obligation."
Meanwhile, chances to create a sense of well-being lurk everywhere -- a glass of wine, a relaxing bubble bath, or a nice restaurant with delicious food. These, of all things, also rankle the Germans. "This glut of offerings pressures people into thinking, 'I must enjoy everything'," Imdahl says.
During the course of the study, the researchers managed to unlock a typically German sequence of steps to enjoyment, which they named "pleasure DNA." The first step involves the feeling of having earned something. This is followed by preparation for the longed-for pleasure, such as booking a day of wellness treatments. But then comes the biggest hurdle: letting go and clearing the mind. Only when a surprising positive moment supervenes can a fully integrated sense of enjoyment follow.
However, many Germans apparently lack crucial components to this "pleasure DNA." Though some 91 percent of the study participants said that pleasure makes life worthwhile, only 15 percent could recall moments in which they were able to forget their worries and feel truly happy.
Two-thirds of the respondents imagined that they might arrive at such a feeling by doing something provocative. One example? A motorcyclist reported experiencing delight when he blew exhaust fumes in the direction of a convertible driver as he accelerated at a green light.
The Jealousy Factor
Yet another phenomenon also comes into play in the German culture of pleasure -- jealousy of others' well-being. "Many think, 'man, how does he do it,'" psychologist Imdahl said. It's a Teutonic mentality one can also see in the euro crisis. "When we get agitated about the Greeks' high pensions and ample vacation days, naturally pleasure-jealousy plays a role," she says. But would Germans rather be Greek? "That doesn't suit us," she says.
Perhaps the Germans could never achieve a Southern European kind of ease, but one might think they could at least relax during their most intimate moments. Not true, the study found. The highly personal interviews revealed that Germans can't even let go during sex. Many reported constantly having film and advertising images run through their minds. "This results in the requirement to cut a good figure even during sex," Imdahl says. That is, to hold in their bellies instead of enjoying the moment.