Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Unhappy with Your Life? You Might Be French

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Unhappy with Your Life? You Might Be French

Article excerpt

In Southern Europe, unemployment is rampant. In the north, particularly Germany, the public is grumbling that they are bailing out the fiscally irresponsible. And everywhere on the continent, Europe's vaunted welfare states are under threat.

Austerity, disillusionment, joblessness: across Europe the mood is dour.

But while devoid of the panicking and protesting sweeping other countries with a safety net still tightly woven, it is France where - psychologically - the crisis appears to be felt the most.

A staggering 80 percent of French say they've been personally impacted by the economic crisis, according to a new poll by the academic pollster YouGov-Cambridge. That compares to 57 percent of Britons and 54 percent of Germans surveyed who say they've been affected by their country's economic woes in the past five years.

It's yet another piece of what Claudia Senik, who studies the intersection of happiness and economics at the Paris School of Economics, calls the "French unhappiness puzzle" - the persistent pessimism in a country where people have it a lot better than most. "Here, there are the same shocks or less, but the French feel it more," says Ms. Senik.

The French consistently rank as some of the least upbeat citizens on the globe, despite a 35-hour work week and generous social benefits that range from free preschools and swimming pools to universities and healthcare. A 2011 WIN-Gallup poll revealed the French to be less optimistic than war-torn Iraqis and Afghans.

"You will realize that the French are never happy. Complaining should be a national sport," says political journalist Christian Malard, who was partly educated in the UK and Canada, has traveled and worked extensively in the US, and sums up his nation as one of "whiners."

And it's a nationality trait that goes far beyond the current business cycle. A low-level of life satisfaction of the French, especially when adjusting for GDP, has been recorded since the 1970s.

Learned unhappiness

So Senik recently set out to answer "why," drawing on statistics published biannually from the European Social Survey, in which France ranks among the most dissatisfied countries in Europe, with only Portugal as unhappier (but also much poorer).

She compared the happiness levels not just of the French but of French emigrants and immigrants in France. French emigrants abroad, when adjusting for exterior factors, are less happy than the average European migrant. At the same time immigrants, she finds, trained in French schools report being unhappier than those who were not.

She concludes that French unhappiness is something that must be taught.

"There is some ideal that French people have that reality is not living up to," she says, something causing what she describes as "idiosyncratic French unhappiness."

She faults an education system that is rigorous but overly rigid - demanding excellence in math and French and leaving those who aren't excellent in those subjects feeling inferior. …

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