A sumptuous haven of delicacies and art, with an air of cultural elegance and a government that heavily prioritizes the quality of life, France is, to say the least, a completely awesome place to be.
And although the infamous 35 hour work week doesn’t mean the French actually work less, they get compensated for the overtime. Plus the average French worker can expect about 30 days of annual paid vacation.
So it begs the question,
Why on earth are the French so unhappy?
A recent study showed that France is the most pessimistic nation, with 88% of survey participants saying that the country is going the wrong direction.
Even though the French enjoy high standards of living, they score high in negative dimensions of mental health, consume exceptional amounts of psychoactive drugs and has one of the highest suicide rates among Western European countries.
In a biannually published European Social Survey, France is ranked as the most dissatisfied countries in Europe after the much poorer Portugal.
Not only are the French dissatisfied, but they also have a long-standing reputation as a nation of whiners and protesters, famous for their frequent strikes and mistrust in politicians with roots going back to the French revolution.
Even the French think so themselves, as more than 72% believe that they out-complain the rest of the world.
Here are possible reasons why French people are Les misérables:
# 1 Stagnation in Economy
France is fraught with red tape bureaucracy and social security laws that are burdensome to businesses. It’s a highly regulated labor market has caused high unemployment rates.
As of 2016, France’s unemployment rate (9.6%) more than doubles that of Germany (3.9%) and the UK (4.8%). France is also visibly losing its influence in the EU, with a lackluster performance in reforming itself after the debt crisis.
Thing is, as soon as the government tries to carry out labor reforms to fix the problem, the French leftists would protest.
The French have a socialist entitlement to their labor rights, and when the government adjusts these in the interest of market performance, they whine like a rich kid whose toy has been confiscated.
But at least they’ve stopped cutting their leaders head off.
# 2 Unhappiness Taught in French Schools
Perhaps the tendency for sadness developed at a young age.
Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, had found that:
- French expats are less happy than migrants of other nationalities.
- Immigrants who went to French schools were also less happy than those who didn’t.
- People in other French-speaking countries (Canada, Switzerland, and Belgium) don’t necessarily experience this sort of pessimism.
Her report can be accessed here.
So it isn’t biological, and it isn’t really about the immediate living environment, and it is not about the language.
I have read that the French education system is extremely competitive and discouraging to those who don’t do well. Senik suggests that the harsh and critical approach in primary school has led to low self-esteem in French students.
As Peter Gumbel, author of “They Shoot School Kids, Don’t They?”, puts it: “It’s a culture you can sum up in three words: “t’es nul.” (“You’re worthless”). You hear these words all the time in France. You used to hear them a lot in other European countries, too, but in places like England and Germany, the old humiliating approach to education has long since been replaced by a more nurturing, positive one that seeks to encourage rather than to put down. ”
Maybe, but as someone who’s been through the ravages of the Asian education system, I am not entirely convinced.
# 3 Cultural Identity Crisis
What may bolster the 2 aforementioned reasons is the generational frustration that the French no longer live up to the cultural dominance of its impressive ancestors.
France used to be the cultural epicenter of the world. They were the drivers of the enlightenment and early leaders in human rights. In schools, the French are taught about their golden history, and to accept that things aren’t as they used to be.
In innovation and economics, they don’t live up to expectations as a critical nation in the EU. Modern France is forced to face the reality that it is but a small nation in a globalized world where it is far from calling the shots.
# 4 Culturally Self Critical?
I had come across the most interesting idea surrounding this issue in The New Yorker piece Glad to Be Unhappy: The French Case by Richard Brody.
I’m not going to pretend I’m cultured enough to decipher all the literary and cinematic references in this article, but here’s what I understood:
Basically, the French are idealists. Their culture is precisely built upon deriving art and energy from skeptical criticism, which demands dissatisfaction and the exploration of what could be.
So they are actually intelligent and reflective people who think too much, plunging themselves into self-critical misery.
Here’s the math for happiness:
Happiness = Expectation + Positive Outcome
Unhappiness = Expectation + Negative Outcome
So the best hack of happiness is… Make expectation 0.
No Expectation + Positive Outcome = Yay
No Expectation + Negative Outcome = No Big Deal
Obviously, there is a much broader spectrum of results here, but you get the idea.
Perhaps the French have a much higher expectation than their perceived reality, but then again, perhaps they actually enjoy all the complaining. It’s part of the joie de vivre!