9 lessons from different countries on how to put yourself first

Selfish people aren’t necessarily bad people. If you put yourself first more, you might find yourself a happier, healthier person more equipped to be lovely to others. As part of our summer mantra, to be more (Positively) Selfish, we compare countries’ attitudes to looking after number one and ask what they can teach us. 

1. Have more ‘me time’ – like the French

According to the OECD, Les French are world leaders in time taken for ‘leisure and personal care’, setting aside an average of 16.36 hours a week for looking after number one (about two hours more than the USA). This isn’t about alone time, it’s about spending time for YOU without feeling guilty.

The benefits of self-care can be as simple as better nutrition (e.g. having a good, healthy meal), cheering yourself up (e.g. watching your favourite sitcom), or easing stress (e.g. going for a nice walk or having a small glass of Bordeaux). You could do less simple things, like going on holiday or getting a face tattoo.

The point is, take time to do things you want to do, like the French, and you’ll be healthier and happier.

2. Live alone – like the Swedes

More than half of Swedes – 52% – now live on their own. That’s 52% of the population not having an argument about what to watch on the telly or who does the dishes or what colour to paint the bannister. That’s 52% of the population getting peace and quiet when they want it. That’s 52% of the population learning to become more independent and capable of looking after themselves, their bills and understanding the local bin collection system.

3. Eat alone – like the Japanese

A huge part of Japanese culture is eating alone in restaurants. This might sound sad, but it’s actually a highly efficient use of their time. Leave work, walk to a restaurant of THEIR choice, eat tasty Japanese food, no cooking, no washing up, no splitting the bill, time to themselves for thinking or reading or listening or people watching, off they pop to wherever with more time on their hands.

Read more: Why is eating alone so popular in Japan? 

4. Quit small talk – like the Finns

Hey, how’s it going?


Instead, be more like the Finns, who are culturally programmed to dispense with small talk. Sounds rude or antisocial? Does it really?

What would you get more from, say, on a long-haul flight or when stuck in a lift? Casual, pointless chitchat about the weather or switching off from the world and immersing yourself in a podcast? Or to read a book? Or watch a documentary?

5. Sleep more – like New Zealanders

Sleep is important. A staggering statement, that, but it really is. It helps you heal, it helps you live longer, it helps you lose weight, it helps your mental health and performance, it gives you the chance to dream, and it’s a great excuse to go to bed (and who doesn’t like bed?).

According to the National Sleep Foundation in the US, we should be getting between 7 and 9 hours a night. No country gets near that top end, but New Zealand leads the way, according to data from over a million people using the Sleep Cycle app, with a restful 7h27m. Perhaps it’s all those sheep they can count.

6. Use social media less – like the Germans

Yep, the Germans. Despite (or perhaps because of) being by far Europe’s largest and most advanced economy, according to data from We Are Social, only 46% of Germans use major social media platforms. Compare that to 67% in the UK, 70% in the USA and a mighty 99% in the UAE.

Less time on social media is good. It means less comparing our lives to those of others, less time spent arguing with utter tools, less getting depressed over the number of utter tools in the world, less time aimlessly scrolling, more time for other stuff that’s better for body and mind.

It also means fewer funny animal videos, but we all have to make sacrifices.

7. Get a hobby – like the British

Nothing says “I’m doing what I want to do” than a hobby and nobody loves a hobby like the British. According to a survey for Axa, 95% of Brits say they have a hobby, with 26% of them giving more time to their hobbies than our social lives.

Getting stuck into a hobby can be like meditation: it focusses the mind. It fills gaps with something more worthwhile than staring at a screen. It can make for good, proper conversations. It can help you make friends. If you get good at it, it might even lead to a career doing something you love.

So get on your (hobby) horse and find yourself a pastime.

8. Work less – like the Dutch

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the Dutch work the least of anyone in the world, with an average working week of 29 hours. But before we’re flooded with complaints by angry Netherlanders (who clearly have a lot of time on their hands) they are not lazy. In fact, they have one of the highest employment rates on the continent, they’re just more productive – perhaps because they work less.

Studies have shown that working longer hours is bad for both your brain and your heart, increasing the chances of stroke, depression and substance abuse. Shorter working weeks can actually make you more productive – the concept of four-day weeks on five-days’ salary is on the rise. More people working fewer hours equals a more diverse workforce and more opportunities for people. And, of course…

… the weekend starts early. (Or finishes late. Or happens on Wednesday.)

9. Take afternoon naps – like the Italians and Spanish

We all know that people in the south of Spain and Italy like to siesta (the Italians, particularly, after an absolute feast of a lunch). But while the practical benefits are to keep out of the sun and aid digestion, napping, in general, is an excellent way to look after number one.

Indeed, some psychologists at Harvard University believe a 60- to 90-minute daytime nap can be as beneficial as a full night’s sleep.

You’ll live longer, be happier, and be healthier. You just need to negotiate carefully with HR about how to get a hammock under your desk.

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