As a child of immigrant Filipino parents, I was raised on the overzealous (and arguably pathological) Asian parenting philosophy that overemphasized hard-work, immense sacrifices and merit. To get an insight of my upbringing, you can read self-proclaimed Tiger Mommy Amy Chua’s infamous “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior“. While I am immensely grateful for having attended private schools and the privilege of graduating from the best public university in the world, I came out with a skewed perspective of success. My life was supposed to be all about the pursuit of prestige, salary, status and security.
Imagine for a moment when I was first baptized into the Dutch collectivist thinking of not standing out, or the cultural emphasis of simply being average. An introduction to Dutch culture would often include being taught to “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg,” roughly translated as “Just be normal, that is crazy enough.”
I was quite perplexed at seeing my 20-something university educated Dutch peers enjoying a Peter Pan lifestyle, sing praises of how life in the Netherlands, on average, was really wonderful and appear to lack the same drive, intensity, ambition, workaholic tendencies, and anxiety that I was so accustomed to.
I spent my entire life trying to avoid being average. Mediocrity in my not-so-humble (delusional) opinion was a stigma, the fountainhead of shame. I was indoctrinated to believe that my self-worth was inextricably tied to my visible accomplishments greedily judged and scrutinized by status-conscious friends, family and acquaintances. And on a more real, practical level, without hard work, grit, a diploma from a prestigious university, luck and ingenuity, I would never be able fulfill the ever so elusive American dream of a better life, or even dare hope for upward mobility.
The Dutch cultural emphasis on averageness was the very antithesis of the American ideal of excellence. It was surreal to witness that on average, many Dutch people had happy, fulfilling lives simply by being average and showered with amazing privileges from the moment they were born. I was indignant and incredulous. It was completely unfair that the rest of the world, like Americans, had to work much harder and had more uncertain future than those in the Low Countries.
It was a difficult transition to move from the American philosophy of bootstrapping (lifting oneself up through individual effort, hard work and personal responsibility) to Dutch privilege and the accompanying lifestyle of entitlements (subsidies, uitkeringen en toeslagen). Seven expat years, a Dutch husband and a half-Dutch son later, I’m convinced that the Dutch (and those who live in the Netherlands) are truly among the luckiest people in the world.
While the Netherlands is far from faults and the weather can be quite unforgiving, especially for those accustomed to sunnier dispositions, the Dutch have accomplished a very high standard of living for the average citizen. Here’s my personal insight as to why the Dutch are the luckiest people in the world:
Part-Time Work Champion of Europe (and hence, the World)
Writer Collen once wrote an insightful observation of the Dutch national pastime of “Not Working“. The Dutch work the least amount of hours in the European Union (and thus arguably the least in the industrialized world), proudly devoting only 30.6 hours a week to work and allowing the rest of the time to devote to family and their own personal interests. The Dutch have discovered that in order to be more productive in the working world, they also need the time and space for their own personal well being and time with their families and friends. Meanwhile, American intellectuals such as Wharton Professor Steve Friedman are still presenting this idea as a novel paradigm shift, positing several policy changes to make it possible for millennials to better balance work and family life.
Access to the Healthiest, Most Affordable Food in the World
According to International Charity Oxfam, The Netherlands ranks first place in the world for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable diet. Oxfam’s “Good Enough to Eat” index compares 125 countries, creating a snapshot of the different challenges and every day realities people face in acquiring food.
Dutch Educational System
While the United States American educational system continues to fail its students, The Netherlands has achieved something truly remarkable: it prepares an echelon of students who can intellectually compete on an international level and prepares even the least privileged students to a moderately high level of achievement. While Dutch students do well in standardized tests but rarely excel, almost everyone is entitled to receiving generous student grants for their pursuit of higher education. Their American counterparts however are facing a $1.2 trillion college debt crisis.
Affordable Housing, Subsidized for Almost Everyone
The Dutch Netherlands has an extensive public housing system where qualified people get apartments for below-market rents. Recent figures show that as many as 54% of Dutch households live in rented accommodations, with only 13% renting from private landlords. The stigma associated with living in social housing does not exist in the Netherlands as many high earning professionals, never being required to move, readily take advantage of the generously lack system of insanely affordable rent.
In fact, the Dutch government also doesn’t discriminate against those wealthy enough to own homes, generously providing mortgage interest tax deductions and other subsidies to homeowners. The Dutch, after all, are the most indebted households in the euro zone with an average debt exceeding 250% of disposable income.
Generous Welfare State and Subsidies
(Inter)National headlines were made when writer Rodaan Al Galidi, who was honored with the EU’s literature prize on behalf of the Netherlands, failed his citizenship test because he lacked an intimate understanding of the Dutch welfare benefit system (uitkering). It seems integrating into Dutch society requires one to master the art of receiving government aid. While the Netherlands does have an extensive and seemingly over-bearing tax system, there’s a mutual understanding that everyone simply hires a clever accountant to access all the deductions, exploit loopholes and maximize eligible subsidies.
The Netherlands is one of the safest countries in the world. While tourists and Dutch citizens can be victims to theft as in most modern, industrialized countries, being a victim of gun violence or random gun accidents is unheard of. As a mother, I can’t help but become anxiously weary of America’s obsession with guns and the safety of my child if we go back to San Francisco.
Dutch children are consistently rated by Unicef as the happiest children in the world while ranking American children near the very bottom. The general life satisfaction and contentment of Dutch parents is definitely a major contributing factor to their happiness.
While I am still undecided as to whether or not I want to permanently settle in the Netherlands, I am forever indebted to having experienced a society that really does take care of its own. Is it any wonder that the happiness of the Dutch is simply a reflection of living in a country that allows for a life well lived?
Obviously, I only touched the tip of the ice-berg on reasons why living in the Netherlands can be a wonderful experience. What are some other aspects of living in the Netherlands that you guys enjoy? Do Dutch people also feel like their among the luckiest people in the world?
p.s. Interested in wasting more time? Come join me on my Facebook page with guaranteed posts about my adventures in the Netherlands as an expat mom and random parenting articles and inspirational material floating around the world wide web.