Winning at Life: Five Ways the Dutch Do It Better

The Dutch are a contented lot, but it's not tulip fields and clogs that are keeping them happy. Over in the Netherlands they've worked out the ways to make life for themselves just that little bit better.

The Dutch are a contented lot, but it's not tulip fields and clogs that are keeping them happy.

Over in the Netherlands they've worked out the ways to make life for themselves just that little bit better.

1. Comfort Food

There must be a connection with the endless months of rain and grey skies, but the Dutch know how to keep warm by hitting the mark in the comfort food stakes. Think thick-cut hot chips served with lashings of mayonnaise (the combination really does work!), bitterballen, small balls of meat thrown into the deep flyer, frikandel, another sort of deep fried meat, croquettes, deep fried meat, fish or potatoes, and you're getting the idea. The Dutch proficiency in keeping their stomachs satisfied extends beyond the deep fryer to the pannenkoekenhuis (pancake house), where large flat pancakes are served savoury or sweet. Start with mushrooms and ham covered in melted cheese and finish off with another sprawling pancake for dessert, served with your choice of baked apple, chocolate sprinkles, cream or jam. Just the food to help you get through an eight month-long winter.

2. Cycling

Ask any foreigner leaving the country what they will miss most about living in the Netherlands and odds are they will say cycling. And they are absolutely right. There's nothing not to like about cycling on the flat, clearly designated cycle paths, except the rain/hail/snow. As motorists get stuck in traffic jams and stress levels spill over into road rage, cyclists are enjoying the breeze in their helmet-free hair, being out in nature and knowing that at the end of their leisurely ride they can hop off and leave their bike without trawling for a parking spot. Even smack bang in the centre of town you can park your bike outside a department store, quickly pop in and out and continue to do your errands on two wheels. No parking tickets and no worrying if you can have that second drink before you get behind the wheel. Not to mention the incidental exercise it gives you every day - the only explanation I can find for why the Dutch remain so svelte despite their love for the deep fryer and carbo-loading.

3. Giving Birth

Dutch practices around giving birth can be confronting for non-locals, whether it's the popularity of home births or the fact that after a hospital delivery you'll be discharged a few hours after giving birth, if all goes well. Are the Dutch this hard-core? Probably. But that's not why they do this. The reason it works is because of the shining jewel in the Dutch healthcare system: the Kraamzorg. Whether you've had your baby at home or in the hospital, within hours of giving birth your Kraamzorg, a professional maternity nurse, will turn up at your doorstep to look after you and your baby in the comfort of your own home. Best of all, it's all paid for by your compulsory health insurance. You can count on around eight days of having your Kraamzorg show you how to look after your new baby, change sheets, scrub toilets, prepare meals, offer visitors cups of coffee, do the laundry, look after any older children and generally be the best guest you will ever have after giving birth. After eight days of this kind of help you'll be asking if you can adopt her as well.

4. Saying it like it is

New arrivals to the Netherlands are often warned about the famed Dutch directness. The Dutch have no qualms about saying it how it is: telling you what you're doing wrong and how you could be doing it better. At first it's confronting and, frankly, a little annoying. And then you begin to appreciate how much angst and time is saved by not having to phrase things delicately to your neighbour Joost about his noisy kids, or wonder what Jip meant when he dropped that line about how different you're looking these days. The Dutch say it like it is and then move on, no hurt feelings intended. And on those rare days that you actually receive a compliment you can bask in the knowledge that every word was meant.

5. Work/Life balance

Having a gezellig (cosy) life is supremely important to Dutch people, which means having plenty of down time to enjoy with family and friends. A four-day working week is the norm amongst Dutch women and for about 10% of Dutch men. When they're at the office they're not working crazy hours either, a 30-hour working week is the Dutch average. Somehow the Dutch have managed to enjoy shorter working hours while still topping the EU productivity rankings. Add to that 25 days of paid holiday leave a year, and it's hard to argue against the idea that the Dutch have mastered the work/life balance. This goes a big part of the way to explaining why the Dutch consistently rank so high in happiness surveys. Less hours at work means more time for a glass of rosé or Heineken at a canal-side cafe or for a family bike ride down to the local pannenkoekenhuis.

It's hard to argue against that.

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