Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Happy Depressives of the Netherlands

If you are raising children then the Netherlands is the place to be. Year after year, the country rates high in global surveys and research about the happiness of children.

In April this year a United Nations report concluded that Dutch children are in fact the happiest in the world. That is an impressive title to have under your belt isn't it? Not only did the Netherlands top the list of countries, it was the only nation to rank in the top five in all elements of the study: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviour and risks, and housing and environment.

And hold on to your hats, because it's not just Dutch children who are happy. Women in the Netherlands are happy too. Dutch women are independent, can choose who they marry, are free to make choices about work and the home and live in a liberal, free country. In short, women here in the Netherlands feel a high degree of control over their own lives. That is according to Ellen de Bruin who undertook extensive interviews and research to reach this conclusion.

Her conclusions, captured in an article for the New York Times, suggest that the idea that a Dutch woman feels no pressure to put on airs and graces, embrace glamour and bow to peer pressure contributes to an overall feeling of happiness.

Then we have the 2013 World Happiness Report where the Netherlands sits proudly at number four in the happiness league. The fourth happiest nation in the world people. Clap on the back for the happy Dutch people, scooping up imaginary happiness awards left, right and centre. 

But wait. There is some serious bubble bursting going on in a recent report that suggests that the Dutch are the most depressed in Europe. The report is based on the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 and is one of the most comprehensive and prestigious carried out of its kind. There really is no knocking it. Everyone is suddenly talking about the depressive nature of the Dutch. Are the Dutch bi-polar?

To clarify, the definition (taken from the editor's summary of the PLOS report) of depression is:

Not so happy
"Depression—an overwhelming feeling of sadness and hopelessness that can last for months or years—can make people feel that life is no longer worth living. People affected by depression lose interest in the activities they used to enjoy and can also be affected by physical symptoms such as disturbed sleep."

Depression is something that is on the increase across the world and is receiving more and more attention as the consequences become fully appreciated. But why have the Dutch been singled out as being more depressive than other nations? How can a country that pulls in medals in the Happiness Olympics suddenly hold the title of the European Champions of Depression?

This conclusion is nothing new. There is a history of depression in the Netherlands. In 2007, the Dutch were the third most depressed in Europe. But it would seem that things have got worse not better.

Psychiatrist Jan Swinkels told the Volkskrant that we shouldn't place too much importance on the results of this research. He claims the Dutch are indeed a somber group but culture plays a big role and there is no more help needed here than in neighbouring countries.

I can add some personal experience to this discussion. A Dutch company doctor working in an international organisation explained once that in his experience it is usually the Dutch and other northern europeans who are the ones sitting at home on sick leave with a burn out because they struggle to deal with the more relaxed attitude to work of other European nationals. In other words there is a serious culture clash in the working environment. The countries he mentioned generally fare very well in the happiness research.

Is Dutch happiness so precarious that anything disrupting the usual balance causes a hurtling into depression? Do the Dutch have high expectations that cannot always be met? Is it as some suggest related to the gloomy weather in the Netherlands? This latest report suggests that the even gloomier, darker days in countries further north in Europe play an insignificant role in the depression levels so it is unlikely that this alone explains anything.

I don't have an answer, and so far I haven't seen anyone else offering a nice perfect fit answer. But of course it is possible to be both a happy nation and one with a slightly higher level of depression than surrounding countries, without being bipolar. Depression is a very individual state, as is happiness.

On a final note, do you remember how this blog post began? "If you are raising children then the Netherlands is the place to be." Well, actually that wasn't strictly true. That statement applies to Dutch children. If you are an expat parent, you shouldn't live in the Netherlands. At least, that's the message from the latest report from the HSBC Expat Explorer's survey. When it comes to raising children overseas the Netherlands plummets to 19th place (of 24). That is not a good result. Not good at all. Not for the country that is used to picking up all those happiness awards.


  1. I see the Dutch as happy and relaxed. As for depression, the study only researched how many hours were spend in depression, but a lot depends on when it was diagnozed, what is the society's aproach to depression (is it recognized that may go hand in hand with the high diagnozis rate) or is it considered tabu? Take Japan, for example: Japanese are not considered a depressed nation an dyet the suicide rate is extremely high there! The study, as it is, doesn't say anything.

  2. Plus, my understanding is that in Japan it's not culturally acceptable to be depressed. Plus.... the differences between the Netherlands and other European countries was so marginal that with room for error etc it really is saying very little. The media, though, likes a headline ;)

  3. Exactly! So I wouldn't even waste my time on a study like that- and society's aproach to depression is very important too- just as you say whether it is tabu (very few people diagnozed) or normal to seek help for this (more diagnoses).Seriously, the reason I don't write about these studies is because they're just so badly done!

  4. I don't know, I don't really see the Dutch as being that happy. Both of my Dutchie friends have had to take a leave from work - not a day but months-long medical leave - because of burnout and depression. I don't know anyone else who has done this. Of the Dutch moms I know, they seemed very isolated, no opportunities for interaction with one another and no support system...thus why they ended up at the expat playgroups. I wouldn't dismiss the depression survey out of hand.

  5. Thanks Lynn - that's also my reasoning for mentioning the company's doctor input. I too know a couple of Dutch people who have had a burn out and have been months at home but I also saw my fair share when I worked in HR in England so find it difficult to personally say that the Dutch are more susceptible to bouts of depression.

    Depression is prevalent in all countries and this particular survey was jumped upon with the headline about 'Depressive Dutch' where in reality the difference in figures is negligible. Plus depression is so varied and individual, I think it's hard to tarnish a nation with the depression brush, as it were. Of course, some Dutch people suffer depression. As do Japanese, Spanish….. etc

    I can say from experience that trying to find a playgroup with local parents has been IMPOSSIBLE and I ended up at expat groups too. The same goes for groups when you are pregnant and the like - I was incredibly jealous of my English friends talking about the groups they attended and the support and bonds they got from those. Here there is a reliance on family and I do see good support within the families around me. If you don't have extended family close by I think you do fall through the gaps and support is then hard to come by, and then you're absolutely right and isolation is an issue.

  6. You could conclude that it's the men that are depressed then, seeing as two of the studies found the children and women to be happy. There does seem to be a lot less pressure on children here to perform than in the UK at least. I think it's great that they don't start reading until they're ready for it here and hardly get any homework until secondary school.