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?