Shineanthology’s Weblog

An anthology of optimistic, near future SF

Happiness in the News and Actual Happiness


Just came accross this news item on the site of Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. I’m translating it here because I think it offers some salient points, and also — somewhat related — as a kind of kick-off for a series of articles I hope to feature here in the new year called “Optimistic SF around the World” (I have approached quite a few people worldwide and received very positive reactions and hope to make it a monthly recurring item: watch this space for more news early next year).

happiness_4The title says it all:

“The Dutch trust each other and call themselves ‘very happy’.”

The Hague — Much more than 25 years ago, Dutch people trust each other, research from the University of Tilburg shows.

The mutual trust between the Dutch people has increased in the last couple of years. Almost two thirds (63 percent) of them answer — to the question if others in general are to be trusted — with a resounding ‘yes’. 25 years ago that percentage was 44.

This is what research, performed by the University of Tilburg, for which 1,500 Dutch people have been interviewed, shows. The research is part of the European Values Study, which compares norms and values of European citizens every nine years. The main report appears at the end of 2009.

Not only the mutual trust, but also the tolerance of Dutch people for things like homosexuality, divorce and abortion increased greatly in the past 25 years. The cause for the high mutual trust is partly due to the relative wealth and partly due to the liberal political system, in which the Dutch are free to make their own choices, according to social sciences professor Paul de Graaf, who leads both the Dutch and European research of trust and tolerance.


‘Citizens of relatively poor Eastern European countries trust mainly their family. The rest of the village and the country, including politicians, will take you in at the slightest opportunity, is what these people — who are also much more familiar with corruption — think’, according to de Graaf. ‘In the Netherlands people are relatively well-to-do. In general we don’t think that the neighbours or the politicians are out to get us.’


[Left the graph depicting mutual trust (in blue), personal happiness (in red) as a percentage from 0 to 100; and satisfaction (in green) on a scale from 1 to 10.]

The results are remarkable, because the current government — at its inception — was actually quite worried about the mutual trust. ‘With me personally things are fine, but with society at large not so much so’, would be the general mood. That would be translated as ‘my kids are brought up correctly, but not those of the neighbours’, de Graaf says. However the research shows, he summarises: ‘I’m fine and the others aren’t doing too bad, either.’

Also the so-called ‘hardening of society’, that many seem to have observed since the rise of Pim Fortuyn, would be not quite as bad. ‘That trend does not appear from the numbers’, says De Graaf.

Declining of (consumer) confidence

Although the Tilburg research was done just before the credit crisis erupted, the results would not be much different if it was done right now, the social sciences professor thinks. ‘Only if the recession pulls through and results in massive layoffs, then confidence and mutual trust will decline.’

‘Through all the shouting at websites one would almost think that most Dutch people are unhappy and unsatisfied’, de Graaf adds. But that would be a misconception, as well. In 2008, 56 percent of Dutch people call themselves ‘very happy’. A good 25 years ago that number was 34 percent. De Graaf: ‘I must conclude that the majority of Dutch people are as happy as pigs in muck.’


I tend to have the following discussion quite a lot here in Holland: people complaining that our society has become more harsh (‘hardened’ would be the literal translation), more anti-social. I counter this by calling it bullshit and stating that news reporting — both in the old-fashioned paper newspapers and online — has become more sensational and focussed on horror stories, because these sell better. It’s a cynical trend — probably ages old already, but becoming so much more apparent as the global community becomes more and more interlinked — that distorts (our view of) reality. Same with our feeling of safety: again the mass media (and sometimes the government, as well, unfortunately) tries to paint a picture of our society going down the drains and the streets becoming more unsafe by the minute. And again I have to call bullshit: I’m not saying it’s safe everywhere, but much safer than we are led to believe, even though the above research does not show this directly.

This research provides some evidence for my point of view: contrary to the false perception spread by the media (who have an agenda: bad news sells!) life in the Netherlands has been getting better. And here’s my prediction for 2033: in another 25 years it will get even better (yes: even if the near future — aka the credit crisis — looks bleak. But we’ve overcome the oil crisis, the internet bubble, and more).

Finally, as a reference, a map: “A Globel Projection of Subjective Well-being: the First Published Map of World Happiness” (check out the original BBC article, and the article at Technovelgy, which also has a “Happy Planet Map” that includes the impact on the environment, and shakes up the whole ranking. Yes, things are just very complicated). From 2006:


(UPDATE, 21-01-2009): according to the latest Eurobarometer survey of the European Union (via de Volkskrant), the Dutch are the most content Europeans (followed by the Swedes and the Danes). A staggering 92% of the Dutch considers their current situation as ‘good’.


1 Comment»

  gillian wrote @

I am not sure that the fact that Dutch people are optimistic is merely a result of the favorable social and economic situation in their country. As far as it concerns my own experience, most Dutch people I have known, were optimistic and able to maintain a positive attitude in difficult circumstances.
I studied for the last two years of high school in the European school. The problem was that the other kids of my class were there for many years. They knew each other, they were not very interested in me and I was too proud to go and talk to them. There was one exception, though: the Dutch kids were different. To them, it did not matter that I was new there. They were the only ones who came and talked to me as if they had known me for years. After some time, I realized that the Dutch young people were also the most open minded, the ones who had the easiest contacts with people of other nationalities than their own; they had no problems speaking in other languages than their own (that was probably the reason why they were better in foreign languages as well) and , in my opinion they were also more mature. For this last point of view, I admit that I could lack objectivity, maybe I thought so just because they were very kind to me. But all the rest is true.
Many years later, in my first year of training as an ophthalmologist, I was working in a university hospital. Things were very difficult as the chief of the department was constantly quarreling with the senior resident. Everybody suffered from this constant quarrels, especially we, young beginners without experience and in the necessity to constantly ask questions…to which nobody would usually answer as they were in a bad mood. At some stage, the whole department resembled the Adams family; people came in the morning and did not even greet their colleagues.
With three exceptions.
The three Dutch colleagues working there at that moment, were the only ones who seemed to know how to handle this difficult situation. They were almost the only persons smiling and – most important – they were the only ones who cared to explain things to us. I am still very grateful to one of my Dutch colleagues who was patient enough to explain almost everything to me every day. I still think that I owe a lot of my present knowledge to his kindness. That was even not his job;he was at the last year and the training was supposed to be at the resident’s responsibility.
I do not want to generalize this is always a dangerous thing. However, I think that optimism and positive attitude in Dutch people are something much more than a result of a good social and economic situation in their country; I think optimism, open mind and positivism are in the idiosyncrasy, in the temperament of Dutch people. And I am seriously wondering if the favorable situation in their country is not more the result of the positive attitude of the people and their potential to remain optimistic in difficulties than the reverse.

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