3 Unique Dutch Concepts That Will Instantly Transform Your Life

Photo: Regien Paassen / Shutterstock
man and woman blowing bubbles

The Dutch are known for windmills, tulips, and bicycling, but also for having the highest quality of life in the world (No. 1 in 2023).

Among additional accolades, the Netherlands (the official name for the country) is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to raise a family, among the top places for child wellbeing, and is home to some of the world’s happiest people including the happiest children.

What you may not know is that along with this well-being comes a boatload of financial benefits. Despite having a small landmass (slightly less than two times New Jersey) and small population (17.5 million, comparable to New York state), the Dutch are the 15th richest country in the world, have the 17th largest economy, and are the second-largest food exporter after the United States.

So how do the Dutch achieve such enviable success in both work and life? As an American living in the Netherlands, I believe these three Dutch concepts play a big role.

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Here are three very Dutch reasons citizens of the Netherlands are so happy

1. Gezellig (a pleasant feeling or experience) 

Similar to the Danish concept of hygge, gezellig is all about coziness and contentment. However, there’s way more to it than that. Gezellig is also about relating to other people in a way that keeps things pleasant and enjoyable. It’s the essence of the Dutch concept of life — keeping it gezellig.

Hidden behind the idea of gezellig is a related Dutch concept to “not make things bigger than they are.” This is even reflected in the language where nouns are often made diminutive by adding a -tje. Therefore you ask for a beertje (little beer) even when you’re ordering 20 ounces. And even if a yacht rivals that of a billionaire you refer to it as a bootje (little boat). This is a way of ensuring that people feel equally valued which is essential to gezelligheid (everyone’s coziness).

Most importantly, these concepts also apply to relationships. The Dutch de-escalate and defuse problems by not making things bigger than they are. In this way they look past occasional bad behavior, potential insults, and crosswords, and are quick to make amends and forgive. It minimizes division and keeps everyone focused on what’s most important. You see this in practice everywhere from families to politics.

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2. Uitwaaien (to enjoy the fresh air)

The Dutch consider time in nature as crucial to well-being. Uitwaaien refers to the practice of walking into the wind to blow away your stress and negative thoughts. It’s a way of enjoying nature no matter what the weather.

The Netherlands has hundreds of miles of coastline and thousands of miles of nature trails designed to be accessible to everyone. That makes it easy even in this densely populated country to get away from people and get some exercise while letting the breeze clear your head.

Almost everyone takes their daily ommetje (little walk) for this purpose. And any time life begins to feel overwhelming or problems are escalating, someone will suggest taking a break for some uitwaaien. The clarity gained goes far in keeping it gezellig.

Research shows that physical activity in nature has benefits beyond exercise and this habit demonstrates its value. The Dutch also value time for thinking and processing. The practice of uitwaaien is a natural way to combine all of these. But it’s also common to meet up with friends or for families to walk together after work or as an enjoyable weekend activity.

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3. Lekker niksen (leaning into downtime for enjoyment and rejuvenation)

Niksen is based on the word for nothing (niks) and lekker which means delicious or enjoyable, thus lekker niksen (delicious nothing) is the term for enjoying doing nothing. It’s often the answer to questions about upcoming plans, essentially saying that you’re going to enjoy doing nothing. It’s considered a perfectly acceptable reason not to accept an invitation.

As a part of lekker niksen the Dutch highly value mijmeren (enjoyable daydreaming). Time spent doing nothing but daydreaming is considered time well spent. And research confirms the truth in this. When we do nothing our brain and body can rest and replenish. And paradoxically, our best ideas often come when we’re in a relaxed state.

To ensure that everyone gets time for this relaxation, the Dutch put great emphasis on vacation. A minimum of four weeks of vacation time plus eight paid holidays is provided for everyone, and higher-level jobs often provide double that or more. Taking a vacation is considered an important well-being practice, and by law, every job also provides vacation bonus money. That and guaranteed comprehensive health insurance is a big part of why the Dutch are also among the world’s healthiest people.

Unlike in the US, not taking your full vacation is considered a sign of being unable to manage your work time rather than a sign of dedication. This follows through to work hours. The expectation is that you can do your job within normal hours, leaving time and energy for family life and relaxation.

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The bottom line — the Dutch know what's up

Whether it’s in business or life the Dutch admire a situation where alles klopt, meaning that everything comes together as it should in an easy way, yet on time and under budget. That takes planning and preparation, but it also takes rested and happy people. This is why the Dutch prize work-life balance so highly. They know that when you take care of yourself, and support others in doing the same, everyone will be able to bring their best to all endeavors.

These concepts grew out of a time when people in this low and swampy place had to work together to drain the land and build levees to keep the water out. The stakes were high — they either thrived together or died together. The problems facing our families and our world today are no less important and also require that we bring our best to everything we do. So, take time for uitwaaien, enjoy some lekker niksen, and above all else keep it gezellig.

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Lisa Newman, MAPP, is a positive psychology practitioner, health coach, and certified intuitive eating counselor.