Why are the French so unhappy?

Gray Paris with French flag
Philippe-Alexandre Pierre / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The unhappiness of the French is a great mystery.

Ever since eager psychologists started administering surveys in the 1970s, French people have been reporting surprisingly low levels of satisfaction with their lives. For a country that’s relatively wealthy, healthy, and educated, the rate of depression and mental disorders in France is a paradox. Even high unemployment can’t seem to explain this puzzle.

What could be going on?

In a famous 2014 study, Paris School of Economics professor Claudia Senik hypothesized that French unhappiness could come from one of two sources: either external circumstances—things like living conditions and government regulations, or perhaps all that rain in Paris—or internal circumstances—the attitudes and beliefs that make up culture.

To distinguish the two, Senik separately analyzed surveys of well-being among European natives and immigrants from 2002 to 2010. This way, she could differentiate how much of French unhappiness is driven by external circumstances—which immigrants and natives share—and how much is driven by culture—which they (presumably) don’t.

Ultimately, Senik found that culture is the culprit. Immigrants in France tend to be just as happy as the average immigrant in Europe, and actually happier than native French—all else being equal (which, of course, it isn’t; immigrants tend to face more challenges like discrimination and lower income, but the magic of statistics can scrub those differences). Meanwhile, French emigrants who moved to other parts of Europe still tended to be less happy than emigrants from other European countries.

“Unhappiness seems to be more than about life in France—it is something about being French,” she writes.

The longer immigrants had lived in France, though, the more their happiness—and their children’s—began to converge with that of the locals. Whatever mentality or cultural attitudes create French malaise, in other words, are slowly transmitted to people who move there.

What aspect of the French mentality dampens their happiness? That is the real juicy question, but this study can’t answer it. Some explanations that other researchers have proposed include low trust, elitism, and anti-capitalist sentiment in French society. Senik herself, though she avoids making any guesses, does hold the educational system largely responsible for transmitting French culture.   

If you asked a happiness scientist to point fingers, they might suggest a myriad of different attitudes—like gratitude, compassion, and mindfulness—that are known to influence happiness differences more than external circumstances. I’d be curious to see if the French tend to score low on positive traits like these.

This study, rather than being the “answer” to French unhappiness, is just a starting point. It lends credence to the stereotype of the moody Frenchmen, yes, but we still don’t know where their ennui comes from. That remains a mystery.

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