Hey, France, Why So Glum?

Yet another article, this one from The Guardian, is highlighting the French tendency toward melancholy. In this study, people living in Iran and Afghanistan felt more optimistic about the upcoming year than the French. Stop and think about that for a moment.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about French tristesse. What gives, mes amis? You have a beautiful country, a rich history, great food, tons of vacation, free healthcare, free higher education….

Of course, many of my countrymen, particularly those of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-get-over-it variety, might say that all these entitlements, read socialism, inevitably lead to misery. I don’t buy it. Look at other European nations, some even more left leaning than France, and many of them report much higher levels of happiness. Besides, we in the “Land of the Free” fare none to well on happiness scales – often we are right up there (or down there, I suppose) with France in terms of feelings of well-being.

The article doesn’t delve into why the French are so gloomy. So I showed it to my husband and asked for his thoughts. His snarky response: “Because we know better. Life sucks and no one is fooling us.”

That’s in keeping with Olivier Magny’s Stuff Parisians Like. He writes in the chapter titled Complaining:

“In Paris, enthusiasm is considered a mild form of retardation. If you are happy, you must be stupid. On the other hand, if you complain, you must be smart.” (pg. 135)

Well, they do say ignorance is bliss. Still, I would argue that the most enlightened among us are the ones who recognize how tough life is but still manage to be happy despite it all.

I’ve observed the French and their tendency toward melancholy and negativity for years now, and I enjoy playing amateur sociologist trying to decipher the causes. My own conclusions are biased, unscientific, and based on a small sample size, but I think there is something here, in this quote from the article:

“Senik claims that the “French paradox” – the fact that the country’s general prosperity does not appear to translate into the happiness of its citizens – can be explained by ‘mental attitudes that are acquired in school or other socialisation instances, especially during youth.’”

Happinesss, quality of life, perceptions of well-being – so many factors play in, and it is so much more complicated than it should be. Especially for the French, with their uncanny ability to turn even the most uncomplicated thing into something convoluted and impossible to decipher.

Thoughts? Why are the French (and why are we, here, in the U.S.) so glum?

10 thoughts on “Hey, France, Why So Glum?

  1. Interesting post! I recommend checking out the book, “The Geography of Bliss,” by Eric Weiner. It doesn’t talk about France specifically, but it does talk about what “happiness” means and what it comes from in several different countries.

    • I don’t think it’s the only answer to the question of why French rates of depression are so high, but ask most French people about their school experience and they will have horror stories to tell about demoralizing teaching styles. It seems that this is changing, but change can be slow.

  2. Fascinating! I’ve also wondered the same myself. A few thoughts…
    Black clothes. Black can be so fashionably chic, but the French have such an obsession with it. And when I see school-aged kids wearing nothing but black winter coats on a gray day, it’s anything but chic! I think it’s downright depressing! It’s almost as if the entire country feels it must wear black because it is in mourning!
    War and the loss of French soldiers and citizens. When my parents came to visit, my in-laws wanted to take them to memorial after war memorial and then more… my dad who is a naturally optimistic cheerful person in spite of having lived through some very hard things, declined the invitation to visit any more war sites or graves. He kindly and respectfully told me, “Leave the dead in past. We’ve paid them our honors, now let’s see something else.” Both my in-laws lived through WWII, suffered and lost loved ones and were puzzled and a it hurt that my parents didn’t want to see more war memorials. I believe a certain morosity in France is because they truly are still in mourning, especially those who lost loved ones during the war!
    Finally, this sense of entitlement for social benefits tends to create spoiled citizens who are never satisified with what they have.
    Now, I live in a suburb of Paris and I can’t say that all the French people I am in contact with share these attitudes of entitlement or morosity, but they are general attitudes that I have often seen repeated in France. That said, I have also met some of the happiest people, living a simple, healthy lifestyle while living here in France.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking article!

    • Excellent points, Maria. I’ve wondered about the imprint the war left on the French psyche; as you point out the losses, plus the difficulty of rebuilding afterwards, certainly affect that generation of French people on down. But then I turn to some African nations that are living through war and genocide and their people are some of the happiest in the world.

      So many factors play into happiness, it’s so much more complicated than it should be.

      And yeah, wearing black doesn’t often lead to giggles and lightheartedness!

      True, though, some of the happiest people I’ve met are French, who truly embody the “Joie de vivre.”

      Thanks for reading. I love your blog, by the way!

  3. I agree with your husband, I would say “I know what comes next”. It probably sounds arrogant but isn’t mean.
    There many factors, yes… Some of them are when you grow up into the idea of equality (liberté, égalité, fraternité) and notice everyday at schoo that the teacher provides/teaches anything but equality, well you don’t “believe” in it. You just “think”. Being a young woman, your competences at work aren’t well considered because you’re a young and a woman. Are those a handicap?
    One of my german femeale friend recently left France after 7 years of passion: she never gain her boss’s recognition. Now she has a better position and salary in Germany but deeply miss France. I left my country 3 years ago, I miss it sometimes never have regretted my choice.

    Thank for your posts!

    • Thank you for reading! My husband and I keep developing theories about why the French have such high rates of depression, and we, too, keep coming back to the school system. Seems like researchers out there are coming to the same conclusions!

  4. I believe that the reason for France’s unhappiness is related to it’s lack of civility and social mobility. Possibly related to the selection of the most insidious people behind the revolution(s) as mentioned. As a Brit working in France for over a decade, I see a general and very warranted mistrust between everyone. You have to see behind people’s politesse to their dark plan (which usually involves you giving your money/stuff to them) and cut them off. I have been scammed, cheated, overcharged by everyone near me until this was carefully explained to me. My french collegues still don’t understand why I refuse to scam ‘pre-emptively’, as my neighbour/school chum/ family are obviously plotting! This is how the french think! Suspicion is not an ingredient for a happy life. The mobility issue just crushes what hope you had left. If you were not born into an already established family, you will never be anything other than a low level worker. Unlike other countries, to become a doctor in france your father/mother needs to have been similar. My friend was refused a place at medical school not for lack of grades, but because her parents were not ‘ of the right background’Forget politics or business, if your parents were not there neither will you be. There are a series of glass ceilings. If you are a foreigner, well, I could write a book about that. So you see, despite the champers and chanel that only the elite can afford, life in france has no hope, self determination or real humanity. I plan to leave and never return. Best of luck to you all.

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