Why are the French so unhappy?

The long held ‘joie de vivre’ of the French has been called into question by a Professor at the Paris School of Economics who has revealed that contrary to popular belief, the French are suffering from a ‘great unhappiness’.

In her article for the Financial Times Claudia Senik argues that despite being proud of their culture and maintaining their relative affluence in the economic crisis, the French are by and large dissatisfied.

Her work using happiness research to compare contentment in difference countries showed that the French felt many negative emotions (anger, worry, stress) and less positive sentiment (enjoyment, happiness) on a daily basis than many other of the global counterparts.  

Surveys going back as far as 2002 show a deep pessimism in the French.  Long before the current economic crisis they agreed more often than other Europeans that “for most people in the country, life is getting worse”, or that “it is hard to have hope for the future of the world”.  She also maintains that many of her countrymen are consuming ‘staggering’ volumes of psychoactive drugs.

Senik maintains that the results cannot not be wholly explained by the France’s economic and political circumstances, since they were less happy than you would predict, given their levels of affluence and employment, than most other western Europeans.

The research led her to conclude that French unhappiness is not connected to life in France.  This also came through when looking at French expatriates who were overall less happy than other nationalities wherever they lived.

The results add weight to the view that in some cases happiness levels are embedded in national idiosyncrasies which transcend politics, wealth and health.

In the French case, Senik suggests that the French school system may be playing a part.  At French schools, all children are supposed to be able to reach the same performance but they find it very difficult to obtain top grades later on and make it to the top schools, suggesting that the system does not create self-confidence or self-esteem in children.

If, as well-being research indicates, happiness depends on whether people meet the benchmarks they set for themselves, the French tend to set themselves high standards and this may be making them unhappy.  She adds;

“Maybe they evaluate their lives against the idea of French ‘grandeur’ – the expectation that France should be a cultural superpower.  This makes for a stimulating life.  But it is not making us happy.  The French need to lower their expectations if they want to cheer up.”

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