Going Dutch: Experiencing Dutch interiority first-hand

my Dutch window-shopping

I return home from a week in Holland further persuaded sustainability isn’t a goal but a mindset. One that is predisposed to being healthy, playful, smart and community-focused. In my view, exposing the important role of cultural worldview in addressing sustainability issues

Various studies have for a while listed awareness, compassion, empathy, resilience and non-material values as key influencers on sustainable behaviours (Sustainability Booster, 2019), which underpins a growing acceptance that complex global sustainability challenges will not be resolved by new technology or governance alone. Consequently, reflecting upon human beings’ ‘interiority’ or ‘inner dimensions’ offers crucial insight on how change can actually be achieved. Inner dimensions in this context being the “subjective domains within the individual relating to people’s mindsets, worldviews, beliefs, values and emotions” (Wamsler & Brink, 2018).

My 4 key take-aways on Dutch interiority follow:

One: The Dutch are naturally disposed towards collectively working with nature

Haven evolved with the threat of rising sea-levels, the Dutch appear naturally predisposed to “live with nature”. Dependence on import of raw material and energy, the impending resource scarcity, has manifested in sustainability and efficiency warranting both business and civic prioritisation. Furthermore, with a disproportionate number of multinational companies (UN, 2018), the Dutch are well-used of being in tune with what’s going on in the wider world. With Calvinist roots, there appears, at least on the surface, no penchant for excessive consumption or waste.

Two: Dutch home and city design supports environmentalism

Courtesy of the Airbnb network, taking advantage of full and authentic immersion into Dutch life in Haarlem, I could sense a strong pragmatism and a social conscious. Craftsmanship, natural materials, and minimal use of plastic. The biggest spaces afforded to a communal gathering. Lots of light. This was a pattern consistent across the towns and cities visited, a natural blend of old and new, windmills and wind turbines conjoined, an ever-present paradoxical un-awkward visual, in the background. In addition to a penchant for clean, minimalist and functional design, perusing their shelf-space, they have taken advantage of healthier, cheaper and environmentally friendly products. Committed to safe, clear and sustainable space, and a balanced allocation to commercial, urban and public use, their ‘space’ is well-kept and their local economies, vibrant.

Three: Happy and healthy minds

In 2019, the World Happiness Report positioned the Netherlands as the 5th happiest country in the world (Helliwell et al., 2019). I studied faces intently. Admittedly, the locals are subsumed into broader and mixed population, but, take away the phone wielding tourists, the majority, where unseated from bikes or transit, settled in the flourishing cafes, restaurants and canals, were often deep in conversation.

Cycling also clearly contributes to a cultivation of a healthy urban living environment. The Dutch actually own more bicycles per capita than any other country in the world (22.5 million). Fresh-faced children are transported alongside parents and grandparents, nestled up close or seated in cargo-bikes. That goes for pets too. Interestingly bikes are quite standardised, the upright or “sit-up” style favoured., with no appetite for hi-tech gadgets or specialist cyclist clothing seen in other countries.

Four: A playful, free and people-orientated culture

The OECD Better Life Index 2018 reports that the Dutch have the best work-life balance of any developed nation (Jenna, 2018). According to Madden (2019) pace of life and freedom put a smile on many residents’ faces. A blend of pragmatism and playfulness further engrains a civic mentality with a natural proclivity to support healthy environments for its citizens as well as an inspiring and prosperous environment for its businesses and entrepreneurs. Involving residents in key decisions helps reinforce a togetherness (The New Economy, 2015). A consensus-driven approach to decision-making prevails (Balch, 2013).

Time spent across the Netherlands revealed to me, a strong value placed in family, friends, colleagues and personal time. There is a sense of ‘people connection’. This perception is upheld by my discovery of two words for ‘family’ in the Dutch language. “Gezin”, for the typical unit of parents-children, and “familie” which encompasses the broader sense of a network of relationship, which extends to the workplace. Dutch conversational style furthermore derives from this ‘family’ emphasis: social spaces house seating that invites open and circular conversations.

The Dutch propensity for social contentment and fulfilment is captured in their word “gezelligheid” (her-SELL-ek). “Literally, it means cozy, quaint, or nice, but can also represent time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness” (Dutch Amsterdam, 2019). ‘Being with other people’ is considered to be the most important ingredient to happiness, and with a below-average of hours of work of just 30.3 hours, they make sure they create the time to do just that! This is also contributing to an enviable good mental health of their young. “In report after report, the Netherlands tops OECD countries for high life satisfaction among its young people” (Bostaz, 2019). The time spent together as families is reflected in the strength of the relationships teenagers in the Netherlands have with their parents. There’s also plenty laid on for children both indoors and outside for their well-being. From world-class museums to a rich network of well-kept public playgrounds.

No limit of things to do for my brood.

Thank you Holland. I leave inspired and hopeful. I am aware you still have your own sustainability challenges and shortcomings, but you provide much to template upon. Your civic-mindedness and concern for both the current and next-generation are tangible.

A worldview that denies interiority necessarily produces an exteriorised culture. From such a materialistic philosophy of life, the quest for happiness can hardly lead anywhere else but the shopping mall. And precisely this incessant culture is difficult to reconcile with a responsible treatment of the environment. – Annick de Wit (2016)


Balch, O. (2013) ‘Going Dutch: why the country is leading the way on sustainable business’, The Guardian, 10th September 2018 [blog]. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/dutch-companies-leading-sustainable-business [Accessed 28th October 2019].

Boztas, S. (2018) ‘ Why Dutch teenagers are among the happiest in the world’, The Guardian, 17th June 2019, Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/17/why-dutch-bring-up-worlds-happiest-teenagers [Accessed 28th October 2019].

De Witt, A. (2016) ‘Global Warming Call for an Inner Climate Change: TheTransformative Power of Wordview Reflection for Sustainability’. In S. Dhiman and J. Marques (eds.) ‘Spirituality and Sustainability New Horizons and Exemplary Approaches, Springer: USA, p199-214.

Dutch Amsterdam (2019) ‘Gezellig — a word that encompasses the heart of Dutch Culture’[online]. Available: http://www.dutchamsterdam.nl/155-gezellig [28th October 2019].

Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2019) ‘World Happiness Report 2019’, Sustainable Development Solutions Network: New York.

Kenna, J.(2018) ‘This is why Dutch teenagers are among the happiest in the world’. World Economic Forum, 21st June 2019. Available: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/06/this-is-why-dutch-teenagers-are-among-the-happiest-in-the-world/ [Accessed 28th October].

Madden, D. (2019) ‘Ranked: The 10 Happiest Countries In The World In 2019’, Forbes, 28th March 2019 [online].Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/duncanmadden/2019/03/28/ranked-the-10-happiest-countries-in-the-world-in-2019/#43cd984148a5 [Accessed 28th October 2019].

Sustainability Booster (2016) ‘How do we make the shift to a Sustainable Mindset’, Sustainability Booster, 26th February 2016 [blog]. Available: https://www.sustainabilitybooster.com/2016/02/26/how-do-we-make-the-shift-to-a-sustainable-mindset/ [Accessed 29th October 2019].

The New Economy (2015) ‘Utrecht, where people come to live happy healthy lives’ , The New Economy, 22nd September 2015 [online]. Available: https://www.theneweconomy.com/business/utrecht-where-people-come-to-live-happy-healthy-lives [Accessed 28th October 2019].

UN (2018) ‘Transnational Corporations Investment And Development’, Transnational Corporations, Vol. 25, No. 2 [online]. Available: https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/diae2018d4_en.pdf [Accessed 29th October 2019].

Wamsler, C. & Brink, E. (2018) ‘Mindsets for Sustainability: Exploring the Link Between Mindfulness and Sustainable Climate Adaptation’, Ecological Economics, Vol. 151, September 2018, pp. 55-61.

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