The Observer

To the French: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

It’s easier than you may think! After his last article about the pall of doom hanging over France, our columnist in Paris reconsiders his position.
© Hervé Pinel

After my last article about the pall of doom hanging over France, a friend accused me not only of indulging in doomsterism but of misunderstanding what she called the real French paradox. “What people don’t realize,” she said, “is that we’re gloomy as a nation but quite happy as individuals.” Thinking back to my earlier comments about structural discontent in French society, I realized that I hadn’t sufficiently disentangled the collective and individual strands of happiness, while putting too much emphasis on economics. In my defense, growth has long been the main measure of national success. If people are unhappy, it’s because the economy is underperforming: They might have the recipe for happiness but they can’t afford the ingredients.

And yet we know that gross domestic product offers only a partial and often misleading picture of the state of a nation. To quote Robert F. Kennedy, GDP measures everything except what makes life worthwhile. It ignores vital factors such as environmental protection and sustainability, but includes pollution, crime, and resource depletion, which generate expenditure and therefore growth. In sum, GDP is too narrow a metric for gauging the happiness of a country’s citizens. So how to measure whether, and to what extent, people are happy? And how universal are those values? Is an American happy in the same way as a French person? Comparisons may not be odious, but they can be misleading. According to one researcher, the English word “happy” is notoriously difficult to translate (it derives from the Middle English hap, meaning “luck,” as in “perhaps”). In French, happy can only be rendered by heureux, which often denotes a higher degree of satisfaction. That might explain why French barflies take advantage of le happy hour and movie-goers enjoy le happy end: While pleasurable, neither indulgence necessarily produces le bonheur, or “real” happiness.

Historically, the social importance of happiness has varied over the centuries. As the French historian Rémy Pawin argues, it was elevated to a cardinal virtue in the 1700s – “the pursuit of happiness” was a cornerstone of American Independence, while luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau made it a prerequisite (Rousseau’s personal definition of happiness was a good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion). In 19th-century France, by contrast, happiness began to be seen as a weakness, decried variously as a pox, a sign of stupidity and without cultural value. Happiness here and now was unthinkable, according to Mr. Pawin. After a brief period of euphoria in the late 1930s, happiness was relegated to the sidelines by World War II and its aftermath. A citizen’s all-important task throughout the 1950s was to rebuild a devastated country, not to have fun. Only in the 1960s did the pendulum start to swing back. The youth movement of that period – arguably more political in France than elsewhere – was decisive in building “an individual and consumerist” happiness, per Mr. Pawin. Being happy was once again desirable, but the emphasis had shifted from the social to the individual. As French society grew broadly wealthier, so consumption became the locomotive of the economy and goods became objects of subjective happiness for a broad swathe of the population.

© Hervé Pinel

The tide turned yet again in the late 1970s as the economic outlook soured, mass unemployment returned, and the benefits of the consumer society were called into question. It was becoming clear that spending pattern data did not paint a comprehensive picture of how ordinary people were faring. By the turn of the century, work was underway to find a more holistic way of measuring social progress. In 2008, dissatisfied with the available statistical data, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France commissioned a landmark report – headed by Joseph Stiglitz, a prominent U.S. economist – to find alternatives to GDP as the mainstay of analysis. Three years later, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published a survey of well-being in its member nations. Other countries and organizations, notably the United Nations, followed suit or launched similar initiatives. The key idea was that GNH – gross national happiness – was equally or more important than GDP. Economists, sociologists, and other wonks turned to something called subjective well-being, or SWB, which concentrates on a person’s overall feelings about their lives.

Technically, this yardstick covers a wider range of concepts than simply happiness, focusing on personal experiences, feelings, and evaluations. But, as the name implies, it is subjective. So if SWB is used as a universal benchmark, as GDP is, there’s an implicit assumption that people in every country define happiness, and answer happiness surveys, in a broadly similar way. If not, then one might as well ask people to rank their favorite national foods: If a majority of Americans say that apple pie is tops, what would that imply for people in another country who adore, say, crème caramel? “They don’t like pie. Hey, they must be miserable!” To be fair, constant efforts are being made to align national responses by ignoring subjective measures of objective concepts. But the bases of comparison are not always, well, comparable because other surveys of the same topics give starkly different results: think Norway v. Panama as the world’s “happiest” nation. Drawing objective conclusions from subjective inputs is not straightforward.

Which brings me back, subjectively, to my friend’s original observation about France being collectively miserable but individually content, if not downright happy. The two spheres – personal and communal – are often disconnected: Despite ambient pessimism, French people can be happy individually, with family and friends.

According to the data, I live in a country that is hardly the cheeriest place in the world. France ranks 20th in the UN’s World Happiness Report, just above Bahrain but way below Iceland, for instance, and four places behind the U.S. Apparently, I’d be happier in Luxembourg (#6) or Ireland (#13). And yet, the people around me are upbeat (unless the talk turns to politics); they live in the moment; they enjoy doing what they love and sharing it with others; they complain (they are French, after all) but usually good naturedly and often constructively. Even the famously miserable owner of my local restaurant cracks a small smile once in a while. As with many people, the statistics don’t tell anything like my, or their, full story. As the age-old proverb says: Est heureux qui croit l’être (Happy is he who thinks himself so).


Article published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.