The Netherlands is the Sixth Happiest Country in the World

20 March 2017

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Today is the International Day of Happiness! And what better way to celebrate it than the annual World Happiness Report announcing the Netherlands as the 6th happiest country on earth! Norway came in first, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland. The Netherlands actually moved up a place, from seventh to sixth. If you look at the list closely, the Netherlands also happens to be the “warmest” country in the top seven, or at least the first one with the most moderate temperatures.

First published in 2012, the World Happiness Report aims to highlight the importance of social factors that play a crucial role in the differences in happiness among countries. Apparently, happiness is more than socio-economic factors and policies.

The World Happiness Report ranking is based on a simple question asked in the survey:

“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

Further adding support to the Netherlands as being one of the happiest places in the world, the Dutch National Center for Statistics (CBS) also released a report today stating that 88% of Dutch people surveyed said that they were happy. That’s nearly 90%!

If all this positive news still doesn’t bring a smile to your face, today also happens to be the first official day of Spring! According to Grammarly, spring is a verb that means “to regain hope at the end of four dark months.” Chances are if you’re living in the Netherlands, it feels more like eight months of perpetual darkness and that it’s officially ice-cream and tulip season!

So what can our neighbors across the Atlantic learn from the happy Dutch?

Keep it gezellig.
Gezellig is an untranslatable word that encompasses feelings of belonging, companionship, coziness, love and warmth. Dutch gezelligheid is all about connection. While it may seem similar to the Danish word hygge (which is apparently all the rage these days), gezelligheid a more down-to-earth feeling that makes you feel all warm on the inside.

Make time for friends and family.
The quality of our relationship with friends and family is quite important to our happiness and well-being. Not to be too morbid, but not having spent time with friends and family is one of the regrets people have when they are dying. So while you’re busy pursuing your dreams, make sure to also include your nearest and dearest as part of that journey.

Aim for healthy habits such as daily exercises and a well-balanced diet.
According to CBS, the perception of happiness is closely related to one’s health. The healthier a person is, the happier they seem to be. Those who aren’t in the best of health tend not to consider themselves very happy.

And seriously consider starting the day with some chocolate sprinkles known as hagelslag on buttered white bread.
It’s how many Dutch children (and many adults) start their day. If you don’t know already, The Netherlands is the clear leader in UNICEF League Table of Child Well-Being measuring five dimensions: Material Well-being, Health and Safety, Education, Behaviours and Risks, and Housing and Environment. No other country except the Netherlands ranked in the top five in all dimensions! I have a sneaking suspicion that hagelslag must have something to do with it.

And isn’t it kismet that with all this “happiness” in the air, the Dutch debut of our book De Gelukkigste Kinderen van De Werld is going to be released tomorrow? In the book, we explore exactly why Dutch kids the happiest kids in the world!
Prefer the book in UK English? We’ve got you covered with The Happiest Kids in the World.

The Dutch Illustrator Who Showed Me My Child’s Perspective

1 March 2017

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While I was pregnant with my first son Bram Junior, I began collecting children’s books that I thought were quintessential for his childhood: Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Little Prince and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Like many parents, I’m a firm believer that no one can ever have enough books, especially from Dr. Seuss, Julia Donaldson, Eric Carle, Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl. These were the authors that shaped my American childhood, and I wanted my son also to be enriched by the worlds they created.

But the one book that has the most sentimental value for me as a parent is the one gifted to me right before Bram was born. It’s called Nijntje aan zee (Miffy at the Seaside). And it was personally signed by the Dutch illustrator and author himself – Dick Bruna.

What is most striking about Nijntje aan zee – like most of Bruna’s illustrations and stories – is its relatable simplicity. With minimalist black lines and primary colors, the story revolves around Nijntje’s day at the seaside with her father;  how she got dressed in a bathing suit, how they built sandcastles on the beach with her bucket and shovel, how they went swimming and collected shells on the shore, the feelings of disappointment of having to leave, and of falling asleep on the way back home. It’s a universal, recognizable experience shared by all children. What may seem like nothing out of the ordinary and mundane to us adults is a world that captures the imagination of young children and leaves lasting impressions. And that’s where Bruna’s genius lies – creating stories and illustrations that convey a deep empathy and appreciation of a child’s perspective.

Upon hearing the news that Utrecht’s beloved son Dick Bruna died in his sleep on February 16th, 2017, like millions of other Nederlanders, I couldn’t help but feel it as a personal loss. Born into a prominent family of publishers, Bruna spent most of his life in the same quaint, charming Dutch city that I first called home. Being a resident of Utrecht – or the Netherlands for that matter –  Bruna’s influence is everywhere, from street signs near elementary schools reminding cars to slow down, to random Nijntje (Miffy) statues in various Dutch cities. For years, this world-renowned artist who sold over 85 million copies of 100-odd Miffy books was an unassuming, familiar fixture at a local neighborhood café, greeting fans and familiar faces.

Modern parenting these days is a serious business, from pre-conception all the way to adulthood (though parenting, according to many, also never really ends). We all aspire to raise self-assured, happy, successful adults who know their place in the world and make meaningful contributions to the society they live in. Yet in our anxiety to pick the perfect ergonomic baby carriers, stylish Instagram-worthy outfits made by the latest designers, and shelling out our monthly paychecks to create home-cooked meals using only locally produced, organic foods and ingredients, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. And if you’re a parent feeling overwhelmed and feeling that it’s just too hard to adult today, consider picking up one of Bruna’s books as a gentle reminder of what really is important to you and your child.

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Chances are, you’ll feel so much better and you’ll realize that you’re probably over-parenting and doing too much. Bruna’s stories revolve around the inherent joy children get doing the most normal, ordinary things: drawing a picture, baking a cake, playing a game of ball, going out to the park, riding a bike and getting ready for bed. It’s really all about fostering meaningful relationships with our young children by simply introducing them to our everyday world. Now that to me is absolute brilliance: a down-to-earth parenting approach in tune with the child’s basic need for love and attention. In other words, calm down and keep it simple.

 

As I kiss my two boys goodnight after re-reading Nijntje aan zee, I can’t help but smile at the idea that Bruna’s world of Nijnjte and friends all started as a way to connect with and entertain his young son during a rainy and windy seaside holiday. Slaap lekker (Sleep sweetly) Mr. Dick Bruna. Till we meet again, I’ll be celebrating my everyday life with my two boys, knowing that in the end, it is the small, seemingly ordinary things that matter the most to them.

 

 

p.s. Enjoyed our blog post? Well, you can read more about our musing of parenting in our book The Happiest Kids in the World. You can buy the UK version available now, or pre-order the American version or the Dutch one today!

Pancake Day 2017 – Celebrating Dutch Pancakes

28 February 2017

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Pancake Day, formerly known as Shrove Tuesday, is the day before the Christian practice of Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent). In the Netherlands, even though two-thirds of the Dutch population have no registered religious faith, celebrating Pancake Day is apparently a beloved tradition (neither my husband or I was aware of it until this year). At least, that is the impression you get if you’re a disciple of Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a famous Dutch Renaissance artist, shared his interpretation of Pancake Day back in 1559 with his painting “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”. If you rest your eyes towards the center front left, right behind the Prince of Carnival (a jolly man wearing bright red trousers and a blue shirt riding a beer barrel) is a solitary woman hunched down making pancakes (or waffles?). The painting depicts the internal human struggle between revelry and sobriety, of life and death, winter and spring.

Serving pancakes the day before a sustained period of fasting and self-reflection intuitively makes sense. It’s soul food after all – a rich, decadent concoction of white flour, eggs, milk, and butter. It’s a fitting last hurrah before the Christian practice of forty days of penance, austerity, and abstinence (Sundays are spiritual “cheat days” in the modern tradition).

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Pieter Breugel The Elder’s The Fight Between Carnival and Len

The Dutch, of course, have their version of pancakes – a regular diet staple known as pannenkoeken. Not as thick and fluffy as their American cousins and with a bit more substance than their French neighbors, pannenkoeken are just the right texture and consistency, acquiring that elusive Goldilocks-style satisfaction. They’re also much larger – approximately one traditional portion is the size of a dinner plate. Pannenkoeken are rarely eaten for breakfast but usually for dinner at home, or an extravagant lunch – anything that isn’t an open-faced sandwich is considered a luxury in the Low Countries.

Pannenkoeken can be eaten as is, or with savory and sweet combinations of cinnamon, apple, bacon, cheese, and raisins. Depending on which pannenkoekenhuis (a specialized pancake restaurant) you go to, chances are you’ll be surprised with lots of epicurean creativity. My pancake for lunch today was with smoked salmon, spinach, pine nuts and goat cheese. My sons had theirs with apple and cinnamon. And rather than drizzling pannenkoeken with a healthy dose of maple syrup, the Dutch have stroop – a more condensed sugary syrup.

As a cafeteria Catholic and a mom, I love celebrating this day and look forward to Lent. I appreciate setting a specific time each year to reflect on my life, reassess what is and isn’t important to me, and to be more aware of how I spend my time. I use it as a time to take an honest inventory of my life and how I can be a better mother, wife, and overall human being. It is a gentle reminder of my inevitable death – the ashes signed in the shape of a cross on my forehead the next day – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return“. Lent is basically the magical art of doing a spiritual cleanse en masse.

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It is also customarily a time of fasting for the most devout adult Catholics (two small meals and one regular meal) and sacrificing a particular vice. For children, it usually means giving up chocolate, ice-cream, video games, watching tv or playing with their favorite toy.

A recent interpretation of this period is making it a time to be a better human being. An example is The 40acts challenge  where you take on the challenge of doing one positive act a day starting from Ash Wednesday up to Easter Sunday. Hopefully, the forty-seven days are enough time to make spreading some random act of kindness a daily habit. I find it a refreshing take on Christianity in a world that needs kindness and love more than ever before.

The Big School Circus: Choosing a High School in Amsterdam

21 February 2017

This year I finally got why the Dutch are so fond of the word keuzestress: the stress of choosing, the stress of having too many choices. Mostly it’s used in reference to young adults in their twenties and thirties trying to figure out what they want from life. The other thing is, you don’t have keuzestress without options. But sometimes children are presented with options too: if you live in Amsterdam and are in your last year of primary school, there is a wealth of secondaries you could attend.

Here children choose which high school they want to go to, rather than parents. Children can attend any school offering the specific type of education recommended to them; there aren’t catchment areas. Over a period of three weeks, all of the schools open their doors on various weekday evenings and Saturdays and put on a beauty pageant for the kids. There are trial lessons, information sessions, lab tours, musical performances and you get a bag with information about the school and a gift when you leave. My daughter now has keyrings, a Dopper water bottle and earbuds stamped with the names of different schools. We also have piles and piles of brochures and papers. She was impressed with the Dopper.

Given that some schools are more popular than others, children must compile a ranked list of their preferences. Places are assigned by a lottery per category rather than by merit, with 95% of children getting into one of the top three on their list. The fact the other 5% end up lower on their list means it is advisable to hand in a long list of schools, say ten to twelve. Now here’s the rub – all of the schools are different and have their own identity. Choosing a school is not about comparing like with like.

My daughter has a VWO recommendation (pre-university entrance). In Amsterdam, there are five categorical gymnasiums – schools offering only a ‘gymnasium’ qualification – VWO plus Latin/Greek, which she could go to. But there are also lyceums – schools offering VWO (with or without classics) and HAVO, the next level down. HAVO prepares you for a more practical college education afterward, say business studies or applied psychology. There are also schoolgemeenschappen – comprehensive schools offering all three levels of study. VMBO prepares pupils for vocational training afterward. She could attend any of these school types and take her VWO exams in six years’ time.

We visited six schools last year and ten this year before Ina came up with her list. Joining her on her visits, I was amazed by the amount of innovation going on in Amsterdam. The new IJburg 2 College (comprehensive) had both horizontal and vertical clusters (same level and different levels together) and project-based learning rather than separate subjects. The building was architecturally interesting with open plan class setups – with good sound insulation, a teacher assured us. At present, it is in the middle of a building site on Zeeburger island. For Ina, it would mean a long cycle over the windy Schellingwoude bridge, but she deemed this preferable to navigating the busy city center traffic if she were to go to the Amsterdams Lyceum for example.

 

Just three hundred meters from our house, a new branch of the SVPO (School voor Persoonlijk Onderwijs) will open after the summer holidays. Its timetable is unusual in itself – school just four days a week from 9 to 5. Homework is done at school with the teachers, and class sizes are just 16 kids. It’s not a private school. None of these are. Smaller class sizes are achieved by only having eight teachers, a head and a concierge, no other support staff. Tests are done online to cut out on marking, so the teachers only work four days 9-5 too. Lessons last 85 minutes, and there’s a sports day once a month.

At Het 4e Gymnasium, the school my son attends, lessons last 50 minutes and the timetable is a five day a week/ 7,5 hours a day. While my daughter was mainly interested in schools with a strong science and maths profile, preferably with technology and IT options, she was wowed by the award-winning architecture of the 4e’s new building in Amsterdam-West. With its own in-house cinema, film editing suite and excellent drama facilities, she suddenly decided she’d be equally happy studying drama as IT. For the more scientifically-minded, the school is also unique in offering Astronomy lessons.

Two schools in Amsterdam offer the new ‘technasium’ diploma – a VWO with technology & design, which my daughter was really interested in. Metis Montessori has both technasium and a ‘coder’ class for children who want to learn programming as an additional subject from day one. Damstede, around the corner from us, a lyceum with a reputation of being solid but not inspiring in terms of extras, is building a new location for a technasium and a sports HAVO. That also went on the list.

Then there was Cygnus Gymnasium, also in a modern(ist) building – this one textured gray concrete. It has excellent results, friendly teachers and kids and good science facilities. They also teach ‘living Latin’ believing speaking it makes it easy to learn, and use the AIM method of teaching French in French with hand gestures.  Hyperion Lyceum in Noord has ‘atheneum plus’, a VWO diploma with extra science subjects such as IT and robotics. Offering both gymnasium and athenaeum diplomas, it is the most oversubscribed VWO school in Amsterdam, unfortunately, with just over half of those who apply getting a place.

Cartesius Lyceum won Ina’s heart with its climbing wall, a down-to-earth mix of kids from different backgrounds, nice teachers, a good location, one-hour lessons and computer science. At the very reputable Barlaeus Gymnasium, she took part in a classroom debate about whether meritocracy should be used in assigning schools rather than a lottery. Shouldn’t the children with the highest grades get first dibs? There were good arguments for and against but Ina still felt the Dutch system was better.

All in all, it has been an absolutely exhausting three-weeks with myriad impressions and the feeling we have only just scratched the surface. I’ve noted down the aspects Ina herself found important in her choice of school:

  • Distance & safe cycling route
  • Architecture: light, space, classrooms, the auditorium, the stairs, shared spaces
  • Subjects offered beyond the basic VWO package
  • Structure of the school day and learning support (e.g., homework class, mentors)
  • The gym: size, atmosphere, and equipment

It was very difficult to choose from such diverse options but in the end Ina went with her gut instinct and put the Hyperion Lyceum at #1. Given its popularity, the rest of the list became more important than it might have been otherwise. But she told me to stop stressing: “Mummy, I liked all the schools I visited so it will be fine!” Keuzestress can be a luxury problem indeed.

The Magical Art of Talking to Dutch Doctors

24 January 2017

 

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One of those most challenging aspects of living in the Netherlands as an American expat is getting accustomed to the Dutch healthcare system. Specifically, adjusting to the Dutch huisarts – general practitioner – infamous among expat circles and fodder for complaints. “Why go to the Dutch huisarts when chances are they will just prescribe you paracetamol?” is the common complaint among many foreigners about the realities of life in the Low Countries.  

 

Paracetamol is another name for the active ingredient acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol back home in the United States. I’ve popped so much paracetamol since moving here nearly ten years ago that I should have bought stocks in the company.  But here’s something worth considering:  According to the Euro Health Consumer Index 2015 (CHCI), the most recent report available, the Netherlands ranks as the best country in Europe in terms of health care.

 

The Netherlands is “the only country which has consistently been among the top three in the total ranking of any European Index the Health Consumer Powerhouse (HCP) has published since 2005”. Apparently, not only are the happiest kids in the world found in the Netherlands, but also the best healthcare system in Europe. This speaks volumes since we all know how serious European governments are about caring for their sick.

 

Being an American  married to a Dutch guy and having young children adds another dimension to tensions in regards to health and healthcare. The moment one of my sons has a fever of over 39 C (102.2 F), I’m ready to rush straight to the doctor’s office. It’s what most American doctors would recommend, especially for babies. My Dutch husband, on the other hand, would prefer to wait a week or two before even calling the doctor. Yet once I acknowledged some key truths, I came to appreciate the Dutch healthcare system, especially my huisarts. Here are some useful survival “tips” for better understanding the Dutch healthcare system:

 

1 Understand the Dutch (medical) culture and view towards sickness

“Americans go to the doctor to prevent themselves from getting sick, while the Dutch go to the doctor when they are actually really sick,” observed journalist Margriet Oostveen during a recent coffee date. Oostveen lived in Washington D.C. for six years. We were chatting about the differences between the two cultures, and she agreed that one of the major differences is their view on health. Americans try to avoid getting sick at all costs, seeing sickness as a form of weakness and are much more into prevention. The Dutch, on the other hand, see sickness as simply an inconvenient part of life. They just get on with it really, and wait till they are absolutely sick in bed before they manage to drag themselves to the general practitioner.

 

2 Date before making a commitment

Or in other words, “try before you buy”. In the Netherlands, the general practitioner will basically be the physician that you have the most contact with. Unlike the US system, specialists such as pediatricians and gynecologists are only seen based on the referral of a general practitioner and usually if there is a serious medical condition. Chances are there will be several practices available near where you live. The website www.kiesuwhuisarts.nl provides information on all the available options. It is possible to change doctors but best to have a trial appointment with them first before actually signing up. Don’t be shy and date around for the “right match”.

 

There’s nothing wrong with finding a general practitioner who is culturally sensitive. I totally adore my current huisarts who I affectionately refer to as -“Dr. Google” (We actually have Googled together at his clinic to confer on a diagnosis). I am, and will probably always be, more the neurotic American with a soft spot for medicines and medical tests to make sure that I have a clean bill of health.  My huisarts understands this and knows when to comfort me and send me away for more paracetamol.

 

3 Communicate in a clear, direct pragmatic manner
Dutch general practitioners and specialists, like most humans, are not mind readers. In a perfect world, they would have impeccable bedside manners, give you their undivided attention, and understand what you really mean. Dutch doctors, however, are only human. A simple approach when visiting the general practitioner would be to give them a detailed history and to be as direct as possible. If you’re really sure that you may need further treatment, do not hesitate in asking for a second opinion from one of their colleagues.( Hence, it’s crucial to take my second tip of carefully selecting your general practitioner seriously.)

 

4 Dutch doctors take the threat of antibiotic resistance seriously

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to our modern day life. We have to remind ourselves of a simple truth: Antibiotics are medicines used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. The flu, which can leave many people sick for weeks on end, is a virus. Antibiotics cannot kill viruses. Dutch doctors recognize this threat and are aware of it, and thus only prescribe antibiotics if they can diagnose a person with a bacterial infection and not a viral infection.

 

5 Wait two weeks with any minor ailments before going to your GP

Dutch doctors are very pragmatic and not keen to waste time and resources, so the chances are if you have a minor ailment like a cough or stomach ache, they’ll tell you to simply wait two weeks and come back only if it doesn’t go away on its own.

 

 

P.S. We wrote a book called “The Happiest Kids in the World; Bringing up Children the Dutch way.”
P.P.S. If you happen to have already read the book, please share your thoughts! Sharing (your thoughts) is caring!

Publication Day of The Happiest Kids in the World (United Kingdom)

12 January 2017

Today is officially publication day of The Happiest Kids in the World in the United Kingdom and Ireland! The English edition is also now available in Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Lebanon!

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So far, we’ve garnered a bit of attention with our friends from across the pond and a couple of nice reader reviews on Goodreads.com (please add more if our words resonate with you). Here’s what some people have to say about our book:

 

“Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!” Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2, Breakfast Show

 

“Clear and concise, with plenty of anecdotes from family life to illustrate the argument, this is one of the most convincing parenting books to come across my desk in the last year.”

                                               Sian Griffiths, education editor of The Sunday Times

 

“An eye-opening and badly needed dose of perspective. In my next life, I want to be Dutch.”   

                                                Pamela Druckerman, author of French Children Don’t Throw Food

 

“A fascinating book – one I wish I had read sooner! In fact, the more I read the more I became tempted to move our entire family to the Netherlands…”

                                                Sarah Turner author of The Unmumsy Mum


A major serial piece ran in
The Telegraph Weekend:  They raise the world’s happiest children – so is it time you went Dutch? And there was a glowing review in The Sunday Times

 

From the bottom of our hearts, we would like to thank you for your continued support and readership.

 

If you happen to be in Amsterdam this Saturday and want something gezellig to do, come join us for our book launch at 3:30 pm! Or if you can’t make it, we’ll be in the American Book Centre in the Hague on February 11th.

P.s. If you like to procrastinate a bit more from work, come join our Facebook group or read some of our recent blogs at FindingDutchland.com. These past few weeks we’ve written about Gezelligheid & Hygge, The Dutch vs the Danes, The Case for Giving Kids a Basic Income, Oliebollen, Papadag and much more!


P.p.s And come join our mailing list. We promise not to be annoying and rarely send those out anyway.

Gezelligheid vs Hygge

9 January 2017

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Hygge is being pitched as one of the reasons Danish adults are the happiest in the world. My first thought is that hygge is a brilliant marketing concept plus an appealing interior decorating trend. To me, hygge suggests wrapping up warm inside while it is snowing outdoors, lovely chunky knits, candles, log fires, pork roast, mulled wine and gingerbread, hearts and fairy lights. What’s not to like? It’s kind of Christmas but without the stress. On the other hand, when I read descriptions of it suggesting it’s not just about being warm and cozy but also about togetherness, I’m strangely reminded of that supposedly uniquely Dutch concept of gezelligheid.
Mind you, gezelligheid can’t really compete on the design front – you’re more likely to see anoraks and waterproof trousers since we get more rain than snow. And though Dutch people like blankets, they’re rather fond on the fleece kind. To make matters worse, they are still wearing onesies long after that trend was declared as dead as old Marley. My kids bought new ones again at Christmas. Incidentally, yesterday I came across an article by a Dutch journalist who moved to Denmark. She struggled to fit in at first, before realizing she dressed more scruffily, with stains on her clothes and mismatching accessories. The Danes are described as neat and tidy, law-abiding, and more formal. They didn’t get her silly jokes or her Dutch bluntness.

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Anyway, let’s look at the attributes of gezelligheid. In Holland it takes place in ‘brown cafés’ where you drink beer or genever or at home with a borrel with bitterballen and croquettes, or while skating together on natural ice. Gezelligheid is claiming a section of the park by stringing bunting in the trees and having a barbecue or picnic on a rug, or stopping at market stalls selling oliebollen. A bustling street market is always gezellig. Gezellig shouldn’t be expensive or pretentious. It should be accessible to all. It’s a biscuit tin on the table and a mug of coffee. It’s a spontaneous ‘koek –en-zopie’ stall selling warming refreshments for after your ice-skate. It’s hot chocolate or pea soup and the sound of lively chatter. It’s hygge but without the fairy magic.

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My uncle married a Danish woman so I grew up with a half-Danish cousin, Lotte. She tells me hygge definitely existed in Denmark when she was young. ‘You would have a hygge evening on your own or hygge with friends – an enjoyable cosy get-together. It’s not a new invention, though I’m a bit surprised it’s suddenly everywhere (Maybe all the Nordic dramas!)’

In his beautifully-produced and well-written The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well, Meik Wiking writes that the word hygge originates from a Norwegian word meaning ‘well-being’ (in comparison, gezelligheid originates from the word for ‘companionship’). In fact, he even goes on to discuss the similarity between the two concepts before concluding that the Dutch variant is more sociable, while the Danish one is more insular. He writes that as a researcher at the Institute for Happiness, being with other people is perhaps the most important ingredient to happiness, so I’ll take that as a bonus point for gezelligheid.
The dark side of hygge is that since it is close-knit and home-focused, it’s apparently hard to break into Danish society as an outsider. But there’s plenty of positives too. It’s appealing to introverts, and simplicity and modesty are central tenets. Ingredients for hygge are light (though the Danes are unwittingly poisoning themselves with all the candles – oh no!), warmth, equality, togetherness, comfort and shelter. They sound like the perfect ingredients for happiness and getting through the dark days of winter. It’s not surprising that Brits are jumping on the bandwagon.


How to have the happiest life in the world? Grow up in Holland and then move to Denmark

5 January 2017

Why I Moved to Dutchland

photo by Gelya Bogatishcheva

So here’s the thing, Dutch children are the happiest children in the world according to UNICEF (their findings were based on World Health Organization/HBSC long-term research results). Rina and I attempted to figure out why by writing our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. We found plenty of factors that would account for childhood happiness such as little pressure at school, good relationships with parents, lots of autonomy and time to play. The Netherlands is also a relatively safe and affluent country to grow up in.

However, according to the United Nations World Happiness Report, Danish adults are the happiest adults in the world and the Dutch rate at only seventh place. Strange isn’t it? Obviously, the best environment for being a happy child is not the same as for a happy adult. Having greatly enjoyed Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, I can pinpoint a couple of areas in which the Danes are ahead of the Dutch. For example, Danish adults are very trusting of each other and trust in society provides a sense of security and belonging. What’s more, Danish fathers are even more hands-on than their Dutch equivalents and Danish society seems further along the route to gender equality.

I decided to go through the WHO results published as Social Determinants of Health and Well-Being Among Young People and compare what it said about young Danes. What could be holding them back in childhood? For a start, there is a big difference in their reported relationships with parents. Danish teenagers are down at 18th place (out of the 29 countries surveyed) in relation to ‘finding it easy to talk to their mothers’ and at 15th for ‘finding it easy to talk to their fathers’, whereas the Dutch top both those charts. I’ve heard said that the Danish are more formal toward each other than the Dutch, perhaps they are more authoritarian parents?

Both Danish and Dutch children share a culture of older children not tending to go out with friends during the week – probably because they are doing homework and playing sport, at least that’s my experience here. Incidentally, Greenland is party land for teenagers and the country with the lowest number of teenage virgins in the world. Twice the number of Greenland’s teenagers surveyed have had sex at 15, than in the second country on the list – namely, Denmark. The Dutch, on the other hand, don’t tend to lose their virginity at a young age, they rated near the bottom. Early sex education clearly puts them off!

Teenage drinking is similar in both Denmark and the Netherlands (around average), though more Dutch kids use cannabis, unsurprisingly. Danish boys are significantly more likely to get into a fight than Dutch boys at the ages of 11 and 13, but at 15, Danish boys are less likely to get into a fight. Perhaps the Danes hit puberty earlier? Perhaps they are frustrated at secondary school but calm down later? Do they rebel early and grow to love the system?

Here’s another thing. Danish children feel significantly more pressured at school than Dutch kids – perhaps there is a more aspirational culture, like in the UK? Danish children find their classmates reasonably kind and helpful. They come in around 10th place, whereas Netherlands is higher at 3rd. If you’ve got a competitive system, it affects relationships between peers. Nevertheless, both countries have low figures for bullying.

Healthwise, the scores are similar. Denmark and the Netherlands share the lowest stats on obesity. There is something worrying, however. Denmark rates top in 11, 13 and 15-year-olds engaging in weight-reduction behaviour. (The Netherlands is second to last on this). Why are so many Danish kids on a diet? It’s not that they don’t cycle – there’s a similar cycling culture in Denmark as the one here. They also eat more fruit than the Dutch kids. Is there a kind of health food drive in Denmark that is putting pressure on them? Perhaps they dislike healthy food as kids, but then reap the benefits of having learned to eat healthy as adults?

Finally, here are the results on children who report high life satisfaction:
11-year-old Danes are way down the list #26 (NL is at #2 after Armenia)
13-year-olds climb up slightly to #24 (NL #1)
and 15-year-old Danes suddenly reach 5th place (NL #1)

So what is going on between the ages of 13 and 15 in Denmark that can explain this sudden improvement in life satisfaction? After this, it keeps climbing until they reach number one as adults. I’d love to know what these stats represent, so if you’re Danish or have lived in Denmark and have any ideas, do drop me a line!

The Case for Giving Kids a Basic Income

4 January 2017

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On January 2nd, the Sociale Verzekeringsbank or Social Insurance Bank, transferred two payments of  €198.38 into my bank account. One for each of my two boys, both of whom are under the age of six. The extra cash appears like magic every quarter (January, April, July and October), courtesy of SVB with a simple one-word note: kinderbijslag or child benefit.

Every family in the Netherlands with kids under the age of eighteen is entitled to the child benefit. The universal kinderbijslag is independent of the parents’ income. The amount increases when children get older to accommodate for extra expenses –  €240.89 for children aged six to twelve and €283.40 for children thirteen years old up to and including seventeen.

As an American mom living in Holland, having regular cash allowances for my children is such a foreign concept. The Dutch universal child benefit is not a unique scheme either. A 2012 UNICEF report on child poverty evaluating thirty-five economically advanced countries notes that the United States is the only one that does not have any form of cash allowance policies. (Interestingly, the United Kingdom is currently one of the very few countries in Europe that don’t offer the benefit for all children. Households earning more than £50,000 are subject to a tax deduction.)

A recent longitudinal study from King’s College London makes a compelling case for introducing universal child benefits. The study tracked more than 1,000 people from ages 3 to 38 years, confirming associations between childhood adversity and negative life outcomes such as falling deeper into poverty as adults, committing crimes and developing addictions. That’s thirty five years of observations. Researchers suggest that decreasing adverse childhood experiences may be able to influence more positive outcomes. By implementing a universal child benefit, parents may be able to provide more secure and stable households – using the extra cash to pay for diapers, food, and clothes.

My initial American bootstrap-intuition considered the universal child benefit a case of European socialism gone wild. And who is to say that parents won’t use the extra cash on themselves instead? The reality is – supported by tons of research –  parents, especially those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, really do use the child benefit allowance for their children.

What should be more shocking is how the United States tolerates one of the highest rates of child poverty in the industrialized world. Approximately 20.1% of children live in poor households in the United States as compared to only 6.3% in the Netherlands. Even more shocking – nearly one in three American families struggle to afford enough diapers. A universal child benefit like the one in the Netherlands can dramatically make a difference, giving more equitable access to necessities like diapers.

Why not implement a minimum level of well-being for all children? The child benefit allowance isn’t at all about giving extra money to parents. It’s trying to give every child a starting fair chance. Through all our American policy debates, what we should all keep in mind is that it really is all about the children – society’s most vulnerable. 


P.S. And while we’re discussing a basic income for children, the Dutch are even toying with the idea of giving everyone a welfare allowance, inspired by the Finnish experiment. Now isn’t that interesting?


P.P.S.  Want to know why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world? Pre-order the UK edition of our book here  http://bit.ly/HappiestKids. Or the US edition here: http://amzn.to/2dhGJJT

A Dutch New Year (Oliebollen Recipe)

31 December 2016

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“Fijne jaarwisseling,” says my neighbour Wim as he hands me and my son Bram Julius freshly made oliebollen – fried dough filled with raisins, apples, and currants, and then dusted with powdered sugar right before being served. And nothing else brings as much nostalgia and childhood memories of a Dutch New Year than oliebollen.

In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, oliebollen are found everywhere – from seasonal stands, bakeries, and supermarkets. There’s even a nationwide competition to see who can bake the tastiest oliebollen. But the best, in my not-so-humble opinion, are always the ones made at home.

Bram Julius and I are in Wim’s and his wife Mariska’s kitchen to get an insider’s view on this beloved Dutch tradition. There are several pots on the stove filled with hot oil. The kitchen counter and island are littered with dozens upon dozens of oliebollen resting on cooling racks, or piled high on plates once they’ve cooled down. They bake over three hundred oliebollen to share among family, friends, and neighbours.

On the last day of the year for as long as he can remember, Wim starts getting everything ready at around 3:00 pm. Gradually different members of the family drop in to help here and there, lingering long enough to grab a bite of a freshly baked oliebol when they can. The scene is relaxed and joyful. The process of making all the oliebollen is a time of being together as a family, reflecting on the year they have had and looking forward to what awaits them in the coming one. It is gezellig – warm, cozy and intimate.

Wim inherited the oliebollen recipe from his uncle who once owned a bakery in Utrecht. Though the bakery has long closed, the memories and tradition are very much alive in his kitchen.


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According to the article “The History of the Doughnut” in The Smithsonian magazine, oliebollen are considered the grandfather of American doughnuts. Dutch settlers in Manhattan, formerly known as New Amsterdam, introduced “olykoeks” or oily cakes to their fellow Americans. Supposedly, the name evolved to oliebollen – oily balls – because of their irregular round shape.

And no wonder they became an instant hit in the New World. Once you take a bite of the crispy outer shell, with the sugar melting in your mouth and the chewy textured center, chances are you’ll have a foodgasm.

Bram pulls at my sleeve, indicating for more.

“Just one more,” I say.

He runs over to Wim who already has one ready for him.

 

Finding Dutchland’s Olieballen Recipe
Ingredients
2 (0.6 ounce) packages of dried (instant) yeast

1/2 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon sugar

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 cup dried currants

1 cup raisins

2 Granny Smith apples- peeled, cored and finely chopped

1 quart vegetable oil for deep-frying

1 cup confectioners’ sugar for dusting


Directions

In a small bowl, mix the teaspoon of sugar into 1/2 cup of warm milk. Sprinkle the yeast and wait for the concoction to bubble (may take up to ten minutes). Then stir in the mixture really well.

In a separate large bowl, sift the 4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Make a hole in the flour mixture and add the 2 eggs, the yeast milk mixture and 1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk. Mix all ingredients well.

“Knead” the batter with a mixer at a high speed for 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the raisins, currants and apple. Mix well with a spoon, or the lowest setting of the mixer.

Cover the bowl with a moist towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm area for about 1 hour. The dough is ready when it is double the original size.

Preheat the vegetable oil in a deep-fryer, or a large pot for frying to a temperature of 180 degree Celsius.

Working in batches, use a metal ice-cream scooper (sprayed with oil so batter won’t stick) to form balls (6 cm). Gently drop them into the oil and bake for 5 minutes, turning them over halfway to cook thoroughly . They will appear golden and crispy.

Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a cooling wrack with a paper towel underneath to catch the excess oil.

Dust doughnuts generously with confectioner’s’ sugar and enjoy with caution (could be really hot and difficult to just have one).

 

Psst. Want to know why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world? Pre-order the UK edition of our book here:

 Or the US edition here: http://amzn.to/2dhGJJT