American Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.” And according to Pink Floyd, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” Evidently, it is not the Dutch way! According to the UN World Happiness Report, the Netherlands is the fourth happiest country in the world. It is ranked by the OECD as the third-best country for work-life balance and highest in terms of overall well-being. Why? Perhaps it is more a matter of attitude than amplitude.
First, the Dutch value free time. They work an average of 30.6 hours per week, as compared to the EU average of 37.5 and American average of 46-50 hours. This leaves quality time for doing things, rather than keeping one’s nose firmly to the grindstone simply to buy things. Even students trying to keep up with the insanely-paced quarter system always find time to have some fun. Utrecht has so many pubs and cafes to choose from, all with inexpensive and fabulous beer, wine and coffee, not to mention one cultural event or another happening on any given weekend!
Second, the Dutch like to live simply and self-sufficiently. Take the biking culture. Everyone bikes everywhere, regardless of weather or destination, in whatever attire the destination requires – without a lot of concern over arriving with wet hair or shoes. Practicality is far more important than appearances, which is quite liberating!
Third, the Dutch are at heart egalitarian. The notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” is not a factor for the simple reason that “the Joneses” are frowned upon as pretentious anyway. The only pecking order one need concern oneself with is that of the road. And that is simple: bikes, pedestrians, and then cars. (But trams trump all!)
Fourth, the Dutch are both very organized and very tolerant, qualities likely arising from many centuries of reclaiming land from the sea. Historically, all factions living in the same polder area were forced to cooperate, even if at war with one other, to fulfill a greater common purpose – literally keeping their heads above water! The complexities of maintaining dykes and sluices, coordinating ships passage through the locks on all those canals, all require the ability to forge a consensus and get along. This explains perhaps the large degree of organization and planning in Dutch society – juxtaposed with tolerance for drugs, prostitution, and controlled chaos such as the Utrecht phenomena of, for example, raucous, police-led skate nights through the center of town!
But, at the end of the day, it’s the drop. I am talking about black licorice, of course, which comes in more varieties than Belgian beers. Sweet, minty, and salty – and double salty! Hard, soft, chewy, or crusted, formed into every shape imaginable, coins, animals, even cars. There are stores with bins that cover entire walls, each filled with different types of drop to scoop up, mix and match. Yes, there is the chocolate, the breads, and the cheeses, all so good you will go home thinking your local fare tastes like sawdust. But drop, and the love of drop, is as uniquely and quintessentially Dutch as it gets. Dutch people eat more black licorice than any other people in the world, on average 5 pounds per year per person! And that, my friends, is why the Dutch are so happy!