European Lessons
/ Author: Alison Brown
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European Lessons

What can North Americans learn from the European lifestyle?

By John Kamphof, President of the National Board

I have reached my “three score and ten” about a year ago. My seventieth will be confirmed by my seventy-first birthday in a month or so.

I should be old and wise. I should have answers to the questions of life and I should have figured things out by now. But I’ve learned that the longer I live and the more I experience, the more I know that I do not know.

One of the advantages of being seventy and in modest good health is that I can travel. My wife and I have learned how to travel in such a way that the cost of living in another country for a while is not much more than living at home. Some would call it cheap, some would call it frugal. For example, my wife and I just spent nine weeks in the Netherlands on a house exchange. A couple from the Netherlands lived in our house and we lived in theirs.

Living in another country for a time gives one the chance to learn the culture. We don’t just sightsee, we immerse ourselves in the culture and try to live like locals do.

We have been to various countries in Europe over the past few years and have noticed some differences between their way of living and ours in North America. After observation, I start asking questions. Why is it that people in Northern Europe just seem to be happier? Studies have shown that the happiest people in the world are from Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, and the Netherlands. Why is that?

One thing I noticed is that in general, people there seem to be more community-minded than always looking out for number one. These countries have a culture that encourages freedom—but with a strong sense of caring for one another. People seem more relaxed, even in the bigger centres. Each town and village has a central square where people gather in cafes and bars to meet for coffee or drinks, and most seem to not be in a hurry.

Another thing I noticed is that in some Northern European countries, you may tip the waiters at cafes and restaurants, but it is not expected as part of their wage. They get paid a living wage for doing their work and the tip is a reward for good service. How can this work?

When we dug a little deeper, we became aware that taxes there are a big part of the cost of life. Most countries in Europe have a value added tax, or GST, of up to 25 percent. Income taxes for a higher middle class worker could be as high as 54 percent of income. When it comes to the Gini index (income inequality), the northern countries win. Minimum wages or a guaranteed annual income assure many Northern Europeans a livable income, and trade unions are an accepted part of the social structure, not an adversary. All is not perfect—not even close—but they still win on the happiness scale.

So what can us North Americans learn from this? Do we even want to learn from this? All I know for sure after 70 years on this planet is that one thing to help bring overall happiness to others is to treat them as you wish to be treated. Invest in your community. Show care, concern, and respect for those with whom you come into contact. If you are happy and share it, it will spread to those around you.

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