lundi 20 mai 2013

Why are the Dutch happier than the French?

A couple of  years ago, I was standing in a train, on my way to work, struggling to keep breathing between a particularly tall blonde woman’s bosom and a fogged up glass window. Someone on the microphone was staying that they apologized for the incovenience, but one of the rail switches up ahead wasn’t working anymore, and therefore the content of three different trains had to fit into a single one, in the midst of rush hour. And as I twisted my neck to escape a slow, smothering death, I noticed something peculiar: nobody was complaining.

In Paris, where this sort of occurence is commonplace, you would have heard people grumbling. Maybe insulting eachother - because clearly someone else was taking all the free room and if you just squeeze yourself a little more, three extra bodies can could stuff themselves into the tin can on wheels. Maybe just sighing very loudly. But either way, there would have been demonstrations of unhappiness. Here, nothing. Everyone was silent, stoic, some even babbling onwards as if holding a conversation from under someone else’s armpit was the most natural thing in the world. It just didn’t seem to rile them to have their personal space forcefully invaded by unwilling strangers, or to be almost assured to be late for work because of a problem they could do nothing to solve.

That was my first hint. And over the years I have grown to realize something that seemed odd at first, but more and more, grew into an evidence: Dutch people are happier, more relaxed, more prone to enjoy life,  than the French. 

After all, if you exclude Paris which is like a big polluted wart in the country, France is a place of culture, beautiful landscapes, great food, and a good part of the hexagone  is sunny more often than not. Whereas the Netherlands, well…. is a small, rainy, tiny flat country, and I hope I’ll not offend anymore by saying that with the notable exception of cakes baked by my best friend, and anything made by my mother in law, the food is simply not that great.

Well, I suppose that if you’ve been reading me this far, you might be interested in what answers I came up with. These are reflexions in progress, so I’d be curious to see what others have to say about it…


Those who know me are aware that I used to be a teacher. From elementary school to university, I am a pure product of french education. And you know what I found? We really ought to improve.
French education (by this I mean scholar education, not the one parents provide) is almost only geared towards academical achievements. We throw intellectual challenges at the kids, and we pick the very few best ones to make them a replica of how we think, how we express ourselves. Now, I know that many teachers are trying to fight against that, being more supple in the way they encourage expression, encourage the learning how to think, and not what to think. But can one do that by being the product of the very same education they’re trying  to change? I doubt it. This evolution will take time, and would necessitate a complete change that no -one is really willing to accept.

The French school system is based on selection of the best- the ones that are not so good can always go to apprentieceship and manual work. How The ones that are good, but refuse to think the way they’re supposed to, are also excluded. And what’s worse- you never completely step out of school. French people have a sicknening fear/respect of hierarchy that  makes them  either prone to nod to anything that is said to them because « it’s coming from high up », or to refuse everything in block because « it’s coming from the boss. »
The boss is the enemy. Why do you think there are so many strikes in France? Our relationship with authority never evolved from one of either complete submission, or complete refusal. That’s a different topic of course, but I truly think it is partly bred from this formating school system, in which you either fit, and you’ll spend your life thinking you are better than others, or you don’t, and somewhere in a corner of your mind, there will be a confidence- breaking teacher shaking his head at you sadly murmuring that you will really never do anyting worthwhile in your life.

Let’s compare this to the way Dutch kids are educated. According to the UNICEF, Dutch children are the happiest in the world. Apparently breakfast has a great deal to do with it, relationship with the parents, and oh, surprise, schools. I have visisted a couple of dutch schools, and from what I have seen (which is not all of it, far from), the children seemed a lot more involved in their own education. There are more projects, more special days, and -big- difference, students are unafraid to ask questions.

Another big difference is that children are oriented a lot earlier than in France. Too early, I used to think - but I no longer do. At the age of 12, it is usually quite obvious which children have interest for academical sciences, which don’t really know yet, and which one excel at anything hands-on or practical. After the inital orientation, there are always ways to go back to studying or to school, even for adults. And the main thing is that here, children directed towards manual jobs are not looked at like failures. Or at least, a lot less so. If anyone Dutch reading this feels I am wrong, please don’t hesitate to let me know! In the end, be it in France or in the Netherlands, good professional workers are highly valued and well paid. But the consideration isn’t the same.

I guess it comes down to: grow up being told you’re not so wonderful and that you need to work harder to achieve anything, and struggle for the rest of your life with self confidence issues. Grow up being encouraged to speak up, to discuss things, being congratulated when you do anything even if it isn’t perfect, and you’ll be looking at life in a much more optimistic way.

Extra links: the same UNICEF study, from the french perspective (article in french)
Wikipedia article about the french educationnal system