Why we are individually happy but socially pessimistic

MANSOUR DE TOTH
MANSOUR DE TOTH

A whopping 88% of Dutch adults are happy – and have been for years, says Statistics Netherlands (CBS). Nevertheless, research has shown that two thirds of Dutch people feel that society in general is doing worse and worse. How do these things add up?

Generally, people with a low level of education, who are unemployed, from rural areas, and/or live in countries with unstable politics are more pessimistic about where society’s heading. But social pessimism, says Assistant Professor of Political Sociology Eefje Steenvoorden, is not necessarily pessimism about your own situation and whether you have enough money in your bank account to make it to the end of the month.

It’s rather the idea that society as a whole is going downhill. ‘It’s very possible that you as an individual are doing quite alright, but nevertheless feel that society’s taking a wrong turn,’ Steenvoorden explains.

What are we so worried about?

Remarkably, not a lot of research has been done to find out. So Steenvoorden decided to take up that task. She found that one of the (many) worries people have is about socioeconomic vulnerability. Not their own: they’re not particularly afraid that they themselves will lose their job, but that in general the social safety net is lacking. That means a lot of ‘what ifs':  'what if my mom falls ill?', for example, or 'what if I get divorced?'. Another worry is that we’re no longer sharing the same standards and values as a society. People feel we’re only thinking about ourselves and that solidarity is disappearing.

Are we just whining?

Our health care system is among one of the best; if we fall ill the state won’t let us down. Are we just being a bunch of whiners? Is complaining a typical Dutch trait? Well, it’s actually not that bad, Steenvoorden discovered. The Dutch are fairly positive compared to other European countries. The French are among the most pessimistic, as are people from Hungary.

Still, the numbers are concerning in the Netherlands as well. So how do we get out of this situation? According to Steenvoorden, politicians should display more ideology, more vision about where we want to go as a society to improve the future. ‘One party that has a vision for the future is the PVV (Freedom Party), and they’re very popular. They want to go back to the way it was. It’s not an optimistic vision. But to many people, at least it’s clear.’

Source: Studio Erasmus

More information

More about socical pessimism and what causes it? Watch this interview with Steenvoorden by Studio Erasmus.

More about happiness – more specifcally, how to become happy? Read this article about the research of Ruut Veenhoven, the godfather of happiness studies!