Friday, January 20, 2012

Why Aren't The French Content?

Why aren't the French as happy as I think they should be? Maybe it's because they see themselves as intellectuals, always questioning, always doubting and yet, they admit happiness could be a good thing.

Maybe it's because I'm the foreigner in this wonderful land that I don't understand the seemingly constant grumbling that I see and hear. At a dinner party a Frenchman told me a joke. He said: "When God created France he knew he had created perfection and could never do anything better. He then thought I mustn't have absolute perfection on earth, so he created the French."

It's a joke.

Now, before I pull you into this story I must make a disclaimer or two. A post such as this would require a great deal of data and scientific support if it were to be done with strict attention to detail. Heaven knows that statistics and whatnot are out there, but after several hours sifting through the material I gave up trying to synthesize the information for this post. Please consider the following as "science light" sort of like Coke lite. I'll give you a gloss over without the solid foundation. If you're dying to have the hard facts, click here and once there you'll discover a zillion other sites that will bolster or denigrate that study.

According to a recent French Elle article which unfortunately gave me the idea to pursue the idea, the French really do want to be happy, but they fall somewhere around 46th in the world for serenity. That said, not surprisingly the "Happiness Project" best seller by Gretchen Rubin, which has been translated into French, seems to be capturing the imagination of a country which has every reason in the world to be happy, but somehow isn't quite.

The article takes us month-by-month on what we're told should guarantee le bonheur. A cautionary note before one sets out on the quest: It takes 30 days for the brain to adopt a new habit, that's why the month- by-month approach seems to work best. Too much happiness could result in an overdose or maybe even stress (!)

If you've gotten this far with me, let me make it easier for you to continue by using one of every journalist's favorite methods, lists. We just love them. If you want to up your happiness quotient you can pick and choose from below and sort according to whatever month your little heart desires.

1.)  A study shows the French sleep an average of six hours per night which can lead to extreme fatigue and depression. The solution? Two nights a week, lights out at 10:30.

2.) 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day keeps the brain in top form. (You knew that.)

3.) According to author Florence Servan-Schreiber, eight physical contacts each day, i.e. hugs, kisses, a caress, makes us feel better, 12 contacts has the same effect as an opiate. Now that is interesting!

4.) Remember with our children, the days may be long, but the years are short. Do something fun every day. Create sweet memories.

5.) Do something creative. Anything. You don't have to be good at it, just do it.

6.) If you've stopped entertaining and spending time with friends. No matter how much effort it takes, throw a small dinner party. Make it simple, but make it.

7.) Be grateful for what you have -- I know, you've heard this before, but it bears repeating. When one is grateful, one is more tolerant of others. I find among my French friends a great deal of tolerance and charity toward others. They see and forgive human foibles.

8.) Question whether you really want more and more and more things.

9.) Make time for yourself; it's there. You'll figure out how to find it. You will be happier and your happiness will "rub off" on those around you.

10.) If you don't think you're happy and you have a litany of reasons to support that belief. . . well, then you're not happy. As one of my best friends said some time after her husband died, "I woke up one morning and I decided to be happy. It's a decision. I'm acting on it."

Now, you add to all of this excellent healthcare and transportation systems, cultural activities available at affordable prices and, of course the country's natural resources: cheese, wine, champagne, perfume, lingerie and all the rest and one -- a foreigner -- often wonders whether it's the spoiled child syndrome that is preventing true happiness.


déjà pseu said...

I think, unless one is suffering from a clinical depression, the point about *deciding* to be happy key. I know I'd certainly be happy living in France, but I also wonder if the French hang onto grumbling as part of their cultural identity?

Lost in Provence said...

I find it interesting that the concept of "having fun" doesn't translate well in French. "S'amuser" isn't really it. And riffing off of what déjà pseu wrote, I am not so sure that I see a collective cultural identity in France but a collective cultural memory? Absolutely. One in which there is not always a ton of room for happiness...

Fashion, Art and other fancies said...

Hmmm, this article makes one think, especially if one is French.
Where does one begin? I am unable to decide....

Pam @ over50feeling40 said...

In my life, I have learned the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness can change daily around circumstances. Joy is constant once we accept who we are , our purpose in life, and what life is all about. I believe the French are really suffering in the joy department. There are days I might be sad because of an event in my life, but that would never rattle my inward joy.

kathy peck said...

I agree with the top two commenters, I think it's part of their cultural identity, and that it's somehow "not intellectual" to be happy and having a lot of fun, in an obvious way. But I've always found that more of a Parisienne attitude, and not throughout France.
But, I also think that to expect to walk around "happy" always, is a misconception somehow. I would rather think of it as content and full of gratitude, with very happy moments at times, if this makes any sense? Happy may be a misused word.

Anonymous said...

You will never "find" time you have to "make" it.

Rosie said...

"Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."
― Nathaniel Hawthorne

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I adopted an attitude of gratitude and it turned my life around.

frugalscholar said...

I agree with Pseu and Hostess. As a naturally crabby person, I looked around and realized I was happy (not in the sense of constant ecstasy, but generally being in a good place). I try to remind myself of that every day. Must go give Mr FS a hug and start keeping count!

helen tilston said...

Hello Tish

France is a wonderful country and there is so much to be thankful for.
When the barometer drops down and is at the level of selfishness and self indulgence, unhappiness is also at this level.

I love the analogy of 12 hugs being equivalent to an opiate.

To hugs x 12

Mary Timmers said...

Tish--I especially like number 6. Even when I don't feel like it, (it is a lot of work, after all) having people for dinner lifts my spirits and forces me to clean my house (or part of it). When it's over I say,"We should do that more often!" Thanks!

Francine Gardner said...

Love this post! I certainly am french when it comes to sleeping...max 6 hours a night and never goes to the gym but walk everywhere . However, many years ago, i left my french side behind and embraced american optimism, and counting my blessings rather than dwelling on the "what's wrong"

BigLittleWolf said...

Having studied, lived, and worked in France (as you know), and with a penchant for French men (as you also know), I've often wondered about this myself.

It certainly seems to be part of the French culture (character?) to be "critical" as in discerning (often bordering on what Americans consider negative); perhaps, indeed, because of the emphasis on questioning and the pleasure on a good argument.

Let's face it - with a language as gorgeous as le français, how could one not enjoy any opportunity for its usage?

I despair (a bit) at the thought that the Happiness "Trend" may be sweeping France, but I find difficulty believing that it will catch on... There's something to be said for centuries worth of deeply rooted culture / perception / humor, and perhaps - beneath the appearances of "unhappiness" remains that sense that France is, nonetheless, a remarkable Land of Plenty, indeed.

Deliciously intriguing post, Tish.

BigLittleWolf said...

I will add one thought (si vous permettez) - the many many French men and women I have known over (dare I admit) four decades are not unhappy.

And I believe that is a key factor.

Class factotum said...

I like the lady who decided to be happy. It is a decision. Some people want to be happy (or content, or grateful) and some don't.

Those who don't include my husband's mom, who sent this email on Christmas day:

"Everything sucks and I get despondent."

Joni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M said...

It's part of their socialist tradition, i.e., maybe if I complain long enough someone will fix it for me. Lovely place to visit but I couldn't live there.

Marsha said...

I couldn't comment on the whys and wherefores of the French lack of happiness, but I think my daughter nailed it when she explained to me why French women, in Paris, anyway, usually have a twisted and bitter expression: their feet hurt. This was in response to my observation that on a hot day in the park, I had never seen so many bandages and bunions and corn plasters on feet as among the women sitting with their shoes off and blissful expressions on their faces. I also suspect that they consider happiness to be a state distinctly over and above general well-being, whereas I at least equate the two.

Duchesse said...

I'm with pseu, complaining is a deep part of the culture. The European cultures don't view 'being happy' as a right, as North Americans may. I'm not being scientific either, but it seems to me they endorse being alive, with all nuances of emotion, as a more realistic goal. Don't even get me started on the Irish.

Joni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deidre said...

I am reading a book (yet another)on Paris at the moment. The chapter on "Parenting French Style" is an insight into perhaps why the French are unhappy. I am surprised they aren't all in therapy. A quote from the book "....Frenchwomen raise French girls to become Frenchwomen -bitchy, competitive, antifraternal, unsmiling, the preternatural froide-ness." Umn!

That's Not My Age said...

Wine, cheese, champagne - I'd be happy if I lived in France!

Tish Jett said...


What is the book you're reading? Was it written by an American?

I'm constantly fascinated by the "outsider's" take on another culture. I wonder what drew the writer to that conclusion.

Thank you everyone for your input.

anangloinquebec said...

Oh how I loved this post. Here in Québec, Canada you will meet many an individual who continues to suffer from the rejection of France. While some might state Quebec was rejected, others will say they simply lost. You see here, people dream of what it would have been like if France had won the battle fought on the Plains of Abraham over 400 years ago against the English. Believe me this can still be the topic of a lovely dinner party where too much alcohol transports certain minds back to that battle.
So, as we struggle to maintain the French language and a culture that is more and more diluted by the multi-cultural infiltration of the rest of North America, parts of the population continue to hold on the dream of one day being a separate French union.
I think the best approach is to adopt the mindset that you wake up in the morning and make a conscious decision to be happy....c'est tout. And that goes for the Irish too!

coffeeaddict said...

deja pseu nailed it!
I also found Lost in Provence's reflection on language and how it ties to the French culture very very meaningful.
Great post.

Anonymous said...

Happiness is an american idea, happiness for one may not be the same for another...
Yes we French (I am a french woman) grumble but for us the meaning of happiness is mostly an appreciation of what makes life worth living, this why many Americans love to live in France.this elusive quality of life Actually in America it is the pursuit of happiness that is a right,a foreign concept to us. If we did not complain where would be our rights!!!

Annie v.

Elizabeth Eiffel said...

An interesting post.
For the French, perhaps it is a case of "you don't know what you've got until it's gone"?
I am amazed by the number of French people who have never travelled abroad and thus haven't had the opportunity to compare their lifestyle with those in other countries. Australians love to travel which tends to broaden our appreciation of other cultures and also for what we have at home.
P.S. Been away from my computer this week so I'm catching up this morning- time is too tight.

Carol said...

l too believe that happiness is a choice we make.

Taking pleasure in small things that delight the heart, and being grateful for all that is precious in our lives goes a long way toward creating a sense of happiness.

Chicatanyage said...

My experience is that the French do tend to grumble however I get the impression it is more a habit than an in depth emotion, Maybe they are a little sunnier in the South.
A more philosophical comment on "happiness" It is interesting how many people say "I am Happy or unhappy" an identity statement. Isn't it more about experiencing life. Once you label something the moment has passed.

Deidre said...

Hello Tish, The book I am reading is called Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands. Thirty two writers reflect on the City of Light. I quoted from the chapter Parenting, French-Style written by Janine Di Giovani an Italian American, married to a Frenchman, residing in Paris. On the two occasions we have had the pleasure of visiting Paris, I found the people, men and women, to be charming and helpful. David and I leave Australia in a few weeks for an extended stay of 4 months. I am so excited looking forward to many, many hours of people watching. I can't sign off without saying I look forward to reading your blog every morning over my cup of tea.

Mademoiselle Slimalicious said...

Your blog is very interesting, great work! I love to read about Expat in France. On the other end,
I am a French woman, who's been living overseas for nearly 6 years (UK, Japan, Australia) after falling for an Australian man.
I currently live in Sydney and I blog about having a healthy lifestyle based on the principles of the French paradox (no dieting, focussing instead on eating for pleasure but with moderation, making healthy food choices, and maintaining a level of fitness by being naturally active).

I'd like to hear stories from Expats who have lost considerable amount of weight after moving to France, to share on my blog in order to encourage my readers to quit dieting and follow the French approach instead. If you have any expat friends in France fitting if this category please send them my way! Merci beaucoup.

PS: I'm currently running a French goodies giveaway, open internationally. Feel free to enter if you like.

Susan Tiner said...

Like Diedre, I am reading Paris Was Ours but haven't yet read that essay on parenting.

I loved the first two comments and several others. It's been my impression that the French are interested in making life even better -- in perfection. That might be a reason for the grumbling. It's to see what needs improving from my US perspective!

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