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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.


Don’t laugh


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...

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OK so we're talking generally here and having lived in France for 10 years I have met some quite jolly, positive, lovely folk who don't at all conform to the stereotype, like with any attempt to make 60 million people with the same cloth. BUT! In general they are a miserable bunch and I have seen the negativity at my daughter's school which starts the ball rolling pretty early on. They have a lot of cultural baggage, royalty envy, America-envy, issues about collaborating during the war, and moreover a sense of great resistance to the English language and to a rapidly changing world which has left them standing. I now appreciate the UK so much more!
The irony is that France is the measure, the standard of good living. Ask anyone after a summer spent in the south of France. Everyone loves to knock the French, then emulate their mode of living. Of course, things don't quite work the same way here in the US, where lifestyle is DIY and the 'pursuit of happiness' is the basis of individual rights, but we can certainly respect and admire the results of the French approach. If only they'd be less dour going about it...
I think this article is completely wrong, it try to minimize the french culture, France is a great country and its influence remains strong in the world as anyone can see France's achievements in science, culture and Technology. !Vive la France!
After reading all these comments about France and the French, I'm forced to reply. So I'll try to be as succinct as possible, but I honestly could write a book on this subject. After having lived 49 years in San Francisco and made 141 trips between Aix-En-Provence and California, I think my input will clarify with justification this inexactness and ambiguity regarding the article of the professor. First observation, as you know, we all have tendency to generalize but we live in details. I have lived between San Francisco and Aix-En-Provence for the last 49years back and forth. I still have difficulty with the Americans to really enjoy the kind of laughing I experience with my French friends here in the US and my family and friends in France. The reason being is that I am a happy person by nature and our culture is so different than the Anglo-saxons. So I have decided to accept it as it is and I keep entertaining myself by smiling as much as I can to fulfill my life. In France we laugh if it's funny and hilarious, we do not laugh the way Americans do, our humor is not the same. I agree when they say, the French seem to be too serious and less jovial at time, not showing an " over doze of a fake happiness " sometime, but that is the way we are in public, hypocrisy and diplomacy don't go too well with the French. LOL.... Incidentally, France is still the fifth largest economy in the world, the most visited country in the world with 81 million visitors per year, so France must do something right to attract so many people. Now with all due respect, I think Claudia Senik could be less "cynic" ...Smiling of course....and more optimistic when describing the French attitude. As I said at the beginning, I could write endlessly to prove my point, but I'm going to suggest to everyone interested to find out the truth about France and the French people. A book written by two Canadians who lived 3 years in France before starting to write. The title is: Why Do We Love France, but not the French men. A.Lucas
I sometimes wonder if I am living in the same France that the detractors are living in. In 12 years, firstly in the Limousin and now in Franche Comte, I have experienced, with a few minor exceptions, only friendship, a willingness to help, and always a "bonjour" from strangers and friends alike. For those who feel the French are unhappy and unsociable may I suggest spending a week in Britain.
I had a French woman that I worked with and her husband spend the day with me at my ranch in East Texas. They were on their way back to their work in Kentucky. They had four children that spend the day fishing, riding ATV's, running around and jumping on things. We shot guns, looked at bulls and generally had a good time. I don't know about the general attitude of the French, but I know that four little children had a great time. The little boy wanted his father to buy him a gun and kept asking all the way back to their hours in Kentucky. The children had smiles on their faces the whole time.
Straight to the point: 1. Obviuosly, you were mixing with the wrong crowd in France, if you have not met smiley people 2. Senik’s report probably based on a questionnaire of a couple of thousands people , which is not the whole nation 3. French are generally taking more drugs, including anti-depressants, because this is what nowdays doctors prescribe to them. 4. Please, be careful saying, I quote: "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", because you actually have not got a clue about how the kids of Soviet era were brought up: in fact completely opposite to that what you are trying to say. 5. I don't think you can see people saying hello to complete strangers on the streets of Paris, as you won't see it in any large city anywhere in the world. But come to a rural area, countryside and see for yourself: everyone on the street says hello and smile to each other. We had some scottish friends staying with us and they were amazed to find that you don't have to jump on the other side of the street if you see a group of youth coming towards you: here they don't pick on you but they just say "hello", as well mannered people woul do.
This is a very serious blog, Sophie, and I think you are very brave to write it!! Yes, it seems Paris and Parisians have always had a reputation of being has London! I think much of this is perceived more than factual, possibly due to the 'added stress' of being such a large conurbation and the difficulty of escaping from it. This is strange when Paris has the reputation of being 'Gay Paree' and of course Central London is the capital of the U K's theatre and entertainment industry. France is a beautiful country..obviously very different between North and South..with some tremendous people living in it. For those struggling to find happiness, I feel for you and hope either you find it or it finds you without delay.
Tanya, are you seriously suggesting that you'd risk your child's mental health and potentially life as an adult if it meant he or she was considered well behaved as a child???
On the other hand British nation is spoiled! I'm always impressed with french children's well behavior. It speaks better for education system.
Here is the test. If you are French, can watch this video and find it funny, maybe there is hope.
In all seriousness, I think this article speaks volumes. I have two young children with a French partner and we live in Paris. I am totally speechless at the punishing primary school education system the kids have to endure here and don't remember my childhood in England ever being close to this. Simple things like riding a bicycle in the street with your friends after school, is replaced by an endless cycle of crammed-in before bed-time things to do, like after-school sporting and recreational activities, a ton of homework to complete, a quick shower, dinner and then sleep. Parents are constantly on the go, dragging their offspring around to their various leisure centres with not a thought for how tired the poor child is and then wondering why they failed their dictation test the following day. It's unfortunate, but France is creating a nation of stressed-out miserable individuals who can't see that there's a bigger picture out there for them to be part of. As for “Who will lead the way in convincing parents and teachers not to put their children through the demoralising boot camp they went through themselves?” I'm afraid my partner tells me that this kind of behaviour is normal.
well said
I have to say (as a french) that there is a part of truth in that article. However, if everyone consider Paris as a good reference do represent the whole of France, He/She would be completely wrong. France is about Paris and province ! And if you go anywhere in the south for example, you would find more people with a bright smile on the face. I have to say that after living abroad for 7 years, I came back to France and didn't feel like staying there and working with French. I left again after few months. It is somehow true that some french people can be really depressing ... And if you tell the french "we are in a crisis situation", they will spread the word and act depressed ! (but some will keep on drinking champagne in the clubs.... ). I'm in Ireland right now, its also the crisis over there, so people get drunk like crazy, so they forget and smile. That's another way not to feel depressed.... but they are hiding depression behind their pints of Guinness.
I am from Paris, and I have been living in the US for six years. There is one thing I miss: a good laugh with my French friends. This article leads nowhere for one reason: French and American have a very different sense of humour. We have very good friends here in America, all of them Americans, and we have very good time with them, but there is no way they can really make me laugh - and I guess they have the same problem with me! I laugh more when I spend one week in Paris than during the rest of the year in the US. As for the school system, our children go to one of these elite - though public - high school and I must say the work much more than their French friends in Paris.
IMHO This article pampers to the Anglo-American view of how society should be - fully of happy-clapping individuals seeking the peak of Mazlow's heirarchy of needs whilst ignoring the base levels. Barbara Ehrenreich's "Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World" reflects this perfectly and Jimmy Reid's Glasgow address from 1972 is still as relevant today as it ever was - "It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else."
If every country in the world could ask itself one question would it be, are we happy? That is what I find to be really disappointing about the article is that it pretends to be about French culture, but it really reveals a lot more about American assumptions. Because French education is competitive, it ruins self esteem -- horrible!!! (BTW it isn't my experience that after I meet French people, I find myself worried about their self esteem). But let's have a look at America's results in math and science compared to countries that spend much less on education. The American education system is hardly a model for the rest of the world, regardless of what it teaches us to say about how happy we are when we are asked in a survey. If we go abroad armed with this silly study and simplistic answers, well, that's what we Americans are known for isn't it. But sometimes (and traveling oversees is one of those times) the question is more valuable than the answer. My favorite expression is a Spanish proverb, the believer is happy, the skeptic is wise. With our pathetic standings in world education, our ubiquitous retail therapy and a constitutional mandate enforcing our zeal for happiness, maybe paying a little more attention to wisdom wouldn't be such a bad thing for the US. If you want to know what we aren't wise about and why -- you can ask anyone in Europe, most of them have an answer -- but a few of them may have a question.
Maybe the French are just smarter than most and can see reality. Unlike America, where you have multitudes of grinning imbeciles (I'm an American). When a reporter asked de Gaulle if he was happy, he replied "What do you take me for, an idiot?"
I have lived in France and the US since birth. The french education system does breed low self-estime and a certain class system, but is no different from India, Japan or for that matter some sections of the elite US education system. The difference lies in the labour market. Deep rigidity, means many must leave France to perform while others must sometimes accept realities the best they can. This sometimes breeds uneasiness as you would rather hold another position or job. That is if you can get one as a youth with an insider outsider labour market. London is now as French as it was at the times of the Hugenots and they are laughing merrily away, same for Washington DC or NY.
I am a New Zealander who has lived and worked in Paris for 12 years and I tend to agree with this article. One of the first phrases I learnt here was 'j'en ai marre' which means 'Im fed up'. French people repeat this ad nauseam. I become aware of how unfriendly and suspicious the french are when I go home to NZ and walk in a store and random people great me with smiles and exchange courteous chit chat. When I need help and a random stranger will go out of their way to make sure my needs are met. This happens sometimes in France but mostly not. I like to smile and crack jokes but I learnt quickly to avoid looking people in the eye (especially men) because this can only mean a direct sexual come on. I continue to crack jokes to french people because it amuses me to see them squirm and be so uncomfortable and half the time they rise to the occasion and respond even if they are initially shocked by my forwardness. As far as dating french men, I've given up, as I find constant complaining and negativity very unsexy and quite boring. The happiest french people I know are either world travelled or come from smaller towns
How do you then account for the fact that the French have one if not the highest fertility rate in Europe? They may be suicidal as individuals, but certainly not as a nation. Plus people capable of voting someone like F. Hollande into power cannot be said to lack a profound sense of humour. Ah ! Ah !
It is only seems so compared to their lovable laugh a minute neighbors across the Rhine -the Germans. Seriously I have spent some the time in France, made many the trips there and have generally found the French to be pleasant, not un-friendly and courteous, providing one understands how French culture works -France is all about doing the right thing in the proper manner; one must understand the difference between the 'tu' and 'vous' and why it exists. One can always get the excellent service in France if one approaches with the proper attitude and the small smile: "I have a problem, or a need, can you help me out...?" The two main problems I see with the French is one: they are eternally pessimistic, they think disaster is always right around the corner and two in France, unlike in America, one is not allowed to define one's self (or re-invent one's self); in France one is essentially told what one is. To quote Camus: "l'enfer est les autres"
I have read some ridiculous, uninformed and illogical comments in my day but this article seems to be rife with them: a. Please at least READ the article closely (heavens forbid you read the study its based on before arguing against it.) as the woman who did the study is French, not an American or a tourist or an ex-pat. So she has no cultural bone to pick or bias against the French and since she teaches at two of the premiere b. The study is based on a wide array of statistical data taken from many years and across the entirety of France NOT just Paris. c. And it is NOT just in comparison to America but about 40 other countries. I have been living and working with the French for over 7 years, and know my share of both happy and depressing people - but my sample is not large enough to form a valid opinion from so I shall not. But facts are facts - and the fact is the French population takes more anti-depressants than any other European country. And Mme. Senik's study seems to be a rather well structured and unbiased look at that phenomenon and matches the reality quite well.
There is the story of a French veteran of the first world war, too old for the second, that, when he heard that the Germans simply skirted the Magineau Line, turned his face to the wall and starved himself to death in shame. French is a beautiful and elegant language. German is hectoring more conducive to ambition. Angst is German. Perhaps French malaise is partly a function of their country's proximity to Germany and France's experience with Germany. And now again Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe. Its embarrassing. But is there not some national self satisfaction in simply not being German? Or English, or American for that matter. Viva la France!
I am scared. I just moved to Paris. I had some good experiences though. My french colleagues told me that I am lucky to find some co-operative strangers in Paris.
Whatever the reason why the French seem so unhappy matters not. We love the French here in the United States. We wish we had more of them. They make exceptional parents who are usually 100% devoted to their children. French women are EXCELLENT cooks and keep their homes exceptional clean too. French fathers here have a great sense of humor and usually have an x rated piece of art lying around the house which causes a little embarrassment for the children when their friends visit but, causes giggles from the visitors. LOL I have never seen a French man start a fight at a bar or nighclub. They are usually very laid back. French men are the least likely to commit a crime here too. Send us more French people!


After more than 40 years of living and working in France let me share a couple of thoughts with you. In general I believe the French confuse being serious with being compentent. And the French, more than other poeple, want to be considered intellectuals which means little room for smiles or laughter. On a personal note. My wife and I just returned from the States where we once more bought dozens and dozens of birthday cards for our growing family. Funny, cute cards, can't find them in France where they are very often too serious, like the people themselves.
As a frenchman living in Paris, I'd say this article just emphasizes the cultural differences between France and the USA. When i went to the US, I found the people very friendly and eager to express their emotions (and to gloat about their personnal lives after 5 minutes). But after a week, i was bored of being asked how is was doing with a big smile in every store or restaurant in went in by people who didn't even expect an answer. People spoke loud and laughed loud. We see that in a lot of Hollywood movies and TV Shows : the american have to look happy and to say they are. It's the diktat of happiness. We don't have that in France. We express our feelings in different ways but we don't pretend we care if we don't and the relationships between strangers are less fake. Someone who doesn't know you will not act as your BFF. A baker, a salesman or a waiter will ask you how you are doing only if he recognizes and appreciates you. From an american point of view, I totally gets how french can be seen as rude or sad. The study mentionned is about SELF DECLARED happinness. In countries where people have to be happy, people are more likely to say they are.
This article proves that receiving everything for free like French people did for the past 50 years is not the way to live happily. The real happiness comes from a work well done and as an American living in France for nearly 5 years I can see that French folks don't like to work. If I have a suggestion for the French, find what you really love to do than try to make money of it.
As an American who has spent a majority of the past few years in France it is very strange to see so few people smile. I've been in Mexico the past 6 months where everyday I pass complete strangers who warmly smile and say hello. In France it is so rare that I can't remember the last time it happened. I'm sure it has, but after being on the receiving end of so many blank looks and scowls in return, why bother? People in the USA are not as friendly as Mexico, but it's not unusual at all to smile and say hello to strangers. Why are people so serious and uptight in France? In my opinion, fear and low-esteem are what drives this selfish attitude. Right after the tsunami hit Japan and there was a tremendous outpouring of aid worldwide (yes, including from France). But also in France, it was absolutely astonishing to witness the panic of people clearing the store shelf of iodine on the less than 1 in 10 million chance of any radiation exposure. While others took to the streets in protest of nuclear power. This also pointed out how isolated and out-of-touch the average French citizen is from the rest of the world. Some of the nicest people I have met in France, also think nothing of smoking right in my face. Openly stating that it is accepted that this in within their rights. Seeing nothing wrong with taking this position in the face of a health crisis. While most people in France are afraid to say anything to defend their right to breath clean air. The pressure to conform in France is unlike anything I have witnessed elsewhere. And, the exact opposite of what I had perceived to be a liberal, open-minded society until I had lived there for quite awhile. I was simply amazed at how conformity and the pressure to conform dominates people lives.
France is a beautiful Country, Paris is the most beautiful city in te world in every corner of the city it's always something pretty to look at. Whenever I visit I stay 3 months at the time and never get tired of the art everywhere it's like living in a giant museum; and all French citizens should be proud and happy that they were born there. It is true that I have come across some sour, arrogant or just plain rude people there but I always felt that it was the minority that just needed a hug. The article shows the research and it's worst than I believed to be, All French need to realize that life is short and that they need to enjoy it as much as possible that are times to laugh and the more you smile the happier you are inside.
Sophie, Does this article exist in french ? If so, can you send it to me ?
Let's try not to draw a carricatural picture with French people being a suicidal or depressed people. I laugh everyday at the university, with my friends, with teachers, with family. My friends do not describe their life as sad either. The reputation French people have is for a large part due to Paris being such a huge city, with people constantly stressed out and/or in a hurry. Paris is NOT France. I am happy, discovering a lot of things about my country as I study other countries, discovering more reasons to be proud of being French. We are not the most suicidal people in Europe. We may have the biggest minority of people feeling depressed, it is still a minority. I would not deny saying that we might have a societal problem, because I haven't conducted a study to argue in this direction, but let's try not to reinforce a cliché. If you want to know France, stop going to Paris.
I don't agree. I am an American living half time in Paris' 8eme and I do not find Parisians exceptionally unhappy. I have a lot of French friends and acquaintances who laugh and smile and enjoy life. I have been to many stores and restaurants where the staff have been helpful and cheerful; and what I found is that many tourists mistake imigrants which only maginal strength with French and English as rude; when in fact they can't really communicate. I like Paris; and I like France. And I enjoy every day I spend here; enough so that I wrote a book about it. It's a great place....and yes, we all could smile more!
Good topic, I agree.
Wayne, I got to say, and with all due respect, your theory on the fall of the monarchy leading to unhappiness is about as smart as a toaster in the tub. And I'm sure Canadians will be relieved to find out the reason they are so uptight is because they are actually not Canadians, but French wired for eternal gloom. Nevertheless, I agree with your advice. Laughter is the best medicine, as someone once said.
I think the general attitude goes back to the abolishment of the Monarchy. After they abolished it, they felt the need to make sure it would never rise again and so, they made sure no one was seen as being better than anyone else. We, in the United States, see the same attitude by the French who come from Canada so, it has to have happened before they moved away from France during the late 1700s. The people of France have a lot to be proud of. They are still considered fashion leaders and trend setters around the world in terms of clothing fashion, hair styles, and makeup. They have a BEAUTIFUL country with BEAUTIFUL looking women and men too. It is true though that French people need to SMILE more often. Two of my best friends for over 30 years are from Canada and I have finally gotten them to smile and laugh and be more open. The French, in general, are VERY private people. A message to the people of France: SMILE, LAUGH, and be HAPPY! You can not do it after you die.


Amen!! Wow is this a relief!