Les Miserables: a nation trained in gloom
I was relieved this week to discover that the French are a miserable lot, heavily distrustful and with little more to look forward to than the average Afghan or Iraqi. Not because I want them to be – naturally, I live, work and drink with them – but because after five years of self-doubt, research has proven that it is perfectly normal for expatriates in France to question what might feel like their abnormal sense of gaiety.
Encountering grumpy waiters, rude pedestrians and sighing shopkeepers on a daily basis, I assumed that the French were discourteous because they were indifferent to everybody else’s happiness, not because they were unhappy themselves.
But according to researchers, the French have been abnormally unhappy for decades, consistently failing to match their satisfaction levels with their quality of life. Research carried out since the 1970s consistently reveals France as a depressed, paranoid nation which consumes more anti-depressants than the rest of Europe and suffers one of the continent’s highest levels of suicide. And this despite its long holidays, short working hours, excellent state welfare and supposed joie de vivre.
Cycle of doom
Faced with this paradox, Professor Claudia Senik of the Paris School of Economics has compiled a report that claims to hold the answer to French unhappiness.
Senik’s findings suggest that the French are taught to be unhappy through societal and cultural development at an early age. A combination of harsh criticism from teachers and strict competition between peers at primary school leads to low self-esteem and mistrust later in life, Senik argues, as adults continue to tell themselves they are mediocre and not to trust others. Combined with the fact that the French also feel insignificant in a post-colonial and English-speaking world, they are left with “multi-dimensional dissatisfaction and depressiveness,” she says.
Reading Senik’s report (available in English here) is suitably depressing. An entire nation guiding its children towards pessimism and distrust, generation after generation – it sounds like a scenario from the darkest corner of the Soviet bloc.
And breaking such a cycle will surely require an educational overhaul. Who will lead the way in convincing parents and teachers not to put their children through the demoralising boot camp they went through themselves? Most of my French friends boast of their no-mercy schooling, precisely because they emerged unscathed (at least they think they did). But it doesn’t stop there. Encouragement and praise is also scoffed at in the workplace. I suffered the inanity of one employer in my early career who gave me detention if I was late for work.
The other problem the French may face in beating the blues is that cheerfulness is viewed as rather unbecoming, especially in Paris. I was left puzzled a few weeks ago after reading the new campaign slogan for Morgan de Toi: “Happy is the New Chic.” Hmm, I thought, only in France could smiling be considered a novel marketing idea in 2013.
Laughter and general silliness is also hard to come by. While English speakers tend to use humour to ease social situations, the French are cool on expressing amusement, eyeing you with a degree of suspicion if you crack a joke during what they deem an inappropriate situation. I laughed at a visit to the doctor yesterday. He did not laugh back.
These things, according to Senik, are built into us from a young age and are very difficult to change on short notice. French nationals who live abroad do not become instantaneously more cheerful on arrival in their new home. Nor do foreigners living in France turn sour straight away.
But there is a limit, Senik says, on keeping hold of that extra happiness if you do dare to move to France (or Afghanistan or Iraq, for that matter). According to her research, you can remain as cheerful as you were in your home country for around 20 years. After that, you better get ready to join Les Miserables...