Teens in Netherlands regularly top life satisfaction tables, with schooling playing a big role
Sun 17 Jun 2018
In after , the Netherlands tops OECD countries for high life satisfaction among its young people.
It contrasts starkly with the picture in countries like Britain, where depression and anxiety are on the rise among teenagers, and the US, where the number of young people taking their own lives has risen sharply.
So why is this flat, damp country of 17 million people with its history of Calvinism and colonialism so good at giving young people an optimistic outlook?
Dr Simone de Roos, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP), says life satisfaction among teenagers has not dropped since 2013.
“I think Dutch children have generally positive interactions in all their social surroundings,” says De Roos. “They have a supportive environment at home, with friends and also at school. Dutch parents give a lot of support and have mild control. There’s an egalitarian climate, teachers are not authoritarian but accept the feelings of pupils, and pupils trust teachers.”
The last Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, comparing children of 11, 13 and 15, showed a happy Dutch youth. When asked where they would be on “Cantril’s ladder” – with the worst possible life for them on 0 and their best at 10, about 94% of Dutch boys said six or above. Dutch girls were slightly lower, ranging from 84% to 92%.
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Sign up here for weekly email updates from this series According to that report, young people in the Netherlands were also in the top five for eating breakfast on weekdays, watching more than two hours of weekday television, having kind and helpful classmates – and in the bottom five for being overweight, having sex before 15, and feeling pressure from schoolwork. They were less likely than average to experience bullying and generally found it easy to talk to parents.
The results chime with a 2016 Dutch Statistics Office study of 4,000 people from 12 to 25, who ranked their happiness at 8.4 out of 10, and a PISA report in 2015 noting that the country – alongside Finland and Switzerland – seemed “able to combine good learning outcomes with highly satisfied students”.
Of course, the general state of the nation helps. There is little unemployment in the Netherlands, relatively low inequality and a healthy economy. Five months ago the SCP compared the Netherlands favourably with
25 years ago, while another study showed people were more optimistic than last year. “At some point there’s a critical mass of optimistic voices, and then it gets its own dynamic,” says Prof Paul Dekker, the SCP programme leader in values and meaning.
The director of the World Database of Happiness, Prof Ruut Veenhoven, also believes young people are less burdened by an expectation to “be good”.
“If you look across Europe, the Dutch and the Danes are the most lenient and focus more on developing autonomy than giving priority to obedience – and that fits the society,” he says. “Children are more free to do what they want, and in doing what they want, develop an idea of what they really like and social skills. A happy boy may be sometimes not a very good boy.”
In Dutch, there is no phrase that means literally “you are a good boy” or “good girl”, says 14-year-old Tjalling Appelhof, from Amsterdam. “You say ‘bravo, lad’ or ‘well done’ or ‘thank you’,” he says. Like most Dutch teenagers, he cycles to school and feels he has a good level of self-determination. “I can say how late I come home – not at 3am, I mean, but some time before bedtime!” he says. “I think I have enough freedom.”