Why You Cannot Transpose Lifestyles and Social Systems

transpose-social-systems-and-lifestyles My old landlord had this book called Why Japanese Women Don’t Get Fat or something to that effect a few years back.  It came after the hugely successful Why French Women Don’t Get Fat book, and was probably followed by many more in the series – Mediterranean, Chinese? It was full of these pleasant childhood memories of the same barefoot-Contessa, serene cook-fests, fabulous aromas, succulent colours and tastes, raw yet healthy and refreshing food, cooking-with-my-mother variety.  My landlord, who loved to cook, and adored everything Japanese, would whip up a miso soup, or venture to roll ourselves some sushi from time to time, so as to imitate the enviable Japanese kitchen.

These ideas seem appealing at first glance.  If only we can adapt their more chic, more zen-like mindset, their embrace of the good life, their grasp of moderation, the we can be just as carefree and equally slim.

On food and dieting

Eating, particularly within the context of a diet, is a North American obsession.  Not a day went by in the office or in social circles did I not hear about someone needing to lose a few pounds, their new exercise regime, or them trying to go on or come off a diet.  This applied to everyone from young pups to seniors, and it afflicted both women and men.

The food court catered to our obsession with salad bars and fat free dressings.  The supermarkets are lined with fat-reduced, low-sugar everything, and Weight Watcher packages filled frozen food isles.  But still, to be thin was the holy grail, out of grasp from the majority of the population.

Just like everything else, the more out of grasp something seems to be, the more obsessed we become over it.  I always thought the thin-chasing craze, and the beauty standards it entailed, prevails everywhere.  I was wrong.  It turns out that in this part of Europe, to be thin is the norm.  And to be thin, and good looking, is hardly that big of a deal.

I think the problem is two-fold.  The first is the ready availability of too much food, and too much choices for our own good.  Since making peace with the local store here 1/5 the size of a regular supermarket back home, I  have come to appreciate the joy and simplicity of having fewer choices.  Theoretically, I am still a champion of endless choices. In practice, I am beginning to doubt whether two full isles of cereals make any difference to my happiness and physical well-being at all.  I am getting used to the idea that some items are seasonal – asparagus and strawberries for spring and summer, bitterkoekjes vla for fall and winter.

But as a system and a society, those of us in North America believe in the power of capitalistic over-abundance.  So is it any surprise that our figures suffer because of it?

The second is the speed, and cost, of eating out.  Eating out in this part of the world is a slow, sometimes painfully slow process.  Most restaurants only take one reservation per evening.  As a result, you are expected to spend hours polishing off these 5-course meals.  The bill from such a meal is no trifle, and the time spent lingering at one spot is perhaps even harder to  translate across the pond.  If you don’t believe me, just trying justifying our drive-through coffee shops, drive-through bank machines, or God forbid, this, to an European.

In North America, we worship speed, efficiency, and values our time to the extreme.  It has permeated through not only our ways of working, but infiltrated the way we treat every other part of our lives.  Eating is one of those things that got compromised in the process.  Those low unemployment and higher growth numbers had to come at the expense of something.

Diets are affected by more than the food we eat

I have lived in the Netherlands for over a year now.  And I can say from my experience that as books that entertain and educate, the ones I mentioned above do the job.  But to follow those ideas to the letter, is both impractical to implement, and next to impossible to derive benefits out of.

The diets of those countries evolve out of their specific culture, geography, and lifestyle.  The north American diet and its subsequent high obesity rates have just as much to do with the food we consume, as it does with the lifestyle we lead.  And many times, lifestyle is something not chosen, but imposed upon us.

On average, someone in North America would get somewhere between two to three weeks of vacation a year.  Many work overtime and on weekends.  Many also suffer through long commutes, and are forced to deal with either a crowded publication transportation system, or the sometimes unpredictable traffics that spurn road rage.  For many, the stress of a life with high materialistic demands and higher insecurity would arguably require a more rigid, planned, and more stressful existence.  Our health no doubt suffer because of it.  But people accept and embrace it as part of the prevalent pioneering mentality.

In contrast, Western Europeans get around 25 days, or about five weeks a year of vacation when they step into the workforce.  Most of them do not much like the idea of overtime.  Due to the compact geography of the countries, many commute only a short distance to work.  Some in the Netherlands bike to work.

Social-psychologists are interested in behaviour that follow periods of self-denial and self-control.  They find that after a period of strict adherence to some goal or other, we become more indulgent in other areas of our lives. Self-control has been described as something that weakens after you use it.

For example, say you exert self-control by avoiding strawberry shortcake and opting for asparagus instead. Now your self-control is enfeebled, so rather than turning to that Tolstoy novel you vowed to finish, you watch a Simpsons rerun instead. Your self-regulatory resources can also be expended by, for instance, taking a test or enduring a loss. Depleted self-control is why, after an unusually hard day at work, you give in to a third martini when you would normally stop at two.

So the point here is that, with a more balanced life that does not ask too much of you, there are less needs for over-indulgences.  Whereas a more demanding life may require us to over-compensate in other areas to make up for what’s lacking.

Perhaps a lot of us deal with the lack of control we have over our time through indulgences.  And the cheapest and the most accessible way to that end is through binge eating, and binge drinking.  And shopping too, but that’s another issue altogether.  It’s a theory.

Now on social systems

All that blabbering, I’m actually trying to relay the following story.  The last couple of days, I’ve come across a flurry of articles flowing out pens of American ex-pats, espousing certain benefits of social arrangements in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland. Almost inevitably, at the end of their discovery journeys, they try to sum up some “learning points” from their experiences, and attempt to superimpose certain policies of their enlightened adopted lands to address the ills of the American system.

This annoys me greatly.  Because social systems are inherently sovereign and highly specific.  No country, or let’s say, relatively developed, politically stable, and democratic country sleepwalk itself into a set of political and social policies. There is always a historical and cultural backdrop that accompanies those decisions.  In other cases, there might have been a lack of historical and cultural burdens that led people to decide on its own unique economic and political structures (I’m thinking of former colonies here, including the US).  Whatever the case it may be, it is hardly realistic to pick-and-choose.

Similar to the difficulties of adopting a European, or Japanese diet – one isolated from the social environments of such eating habits, it would be equally difficult to cherry-pick the “good” of certain social systems, without picking up the ills along with it.  The authors have said as much.  In Finland, the system deals with high depression and a chronic lack of self-esteem.  And in the Netherlands, the general population exhibits the attitudes of good-enough, and take little initiative without the direction of the government.

So let’s just enjoy the good of whatever system we happen to stumble upon as that: a system that evolved from its own history, traditions, geography, and cultures. Our own systems, for better or for worse, also evolved for a reason.  If change is needed, it will happen within the confines of a system that generations of our predecessors have signed off on.  In the meantime, let’s refrain from playing amateur social engineers.

picture source: toni-niskanen

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  • Fraser H.

    I really enjoyed this article. I wonder if the tendancy of the American ex-pats to try to bring the lessons of Europe home is also a function of our social system. It may be a product of our competitive, commodified mindset. I often hear Europeans in Canada complain about the culture here. They say that if you buy a stranger a beer in Europe you are being friendly, if you buy a stranger a beer in Canada you’re being “gay”.

    I think a bit of longing for the European way is a good thing. One strength of ours is the push to make things better. If we could assign happiness a number, and compete with each other for the “highest number”, we would crush the rest of the world with our happiness index.

  • Fraser H.

    I really enjoyed this article. I wonder if the tendancy of the American ex-pats to try to bring the lessons of Europe home is also a function of our social system. It may be a product of our competitive, commodified mindset. I often hear Europeans in Canada complain about the culture here. They say that if you buy a stranger a beer in Europe you are being friendly, if you buy a stranger a beer in Canada you’re being “gay”.

    I think a bit of longing for the European way is a good thing. One strength of ours is the push to make things better. If we could assign happiness a number, and compete with each other for the “highest number”, we would crush the rest of the world with our happiness index.

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Hi Fraser,

    Thank you for dropping by. I agree, hand over a list of objectives, and we’ll find a way to get on the top of that list :)

    And really? Buying a stranger a beer is considered gay in Canada? I had no idea. Why haven’t I met those “gay” Europeans, which bars do they frequent, do you know?

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Hi Fraser,

    Thank you for dropping by. I agree, hand over a list of objectives, and we’ll find a way to get on the top of that list :)

    And really? Buying a stranger a beer is considered gay in Canada? I had no idea. Why haven’t I met those “gay” Europeans, which bars do they frequent, do you know?