Recent headlines in Britain and Canada proclaimed that a French economist had solved the “puzzle” of her compatriots’ unhappiness. Despite an enviable standard of living, universal health care and free university, the French are consistently gloomier about their own lot in life than other Europeans or North Americans. For all their joie de vivre – and ready access to the best bread, wine and urban scenery on the planet – the French can’t shake their foul mood.
The origin of this collective grumpiness, according to Claudia Senik of the Paris School of Economics, probably lies in the French educational system. It’s in school and “other early socialization instances” that attitudes and outlooks on life are formed. The result, Ms. Senik concludes in her empirical study, is that living in France “reduces the probability of declaring a level of happiness greater than 7 on a 0-10 scale by 19 per cent.”
Although Ms. Senik doesn’t go into it, it’s not hard to see why the French school system produces such irascible graduates. French students are routinely humiliated by their teachers. The coddling of youngsters that goes on in North American classrooms is unheard of in France. Rather than being insensitive, this is seen as essential to toughening up kids for the real world.
Once they get to high school, it’s sink or swim for French students. If they make it to their final year of lycée, appropriately known as la terminale, all students (even those in the sciences) must pass a philosophy exam. French high-school graduates are expected to feel the burden of life’s “big questions” before they move on to university. You’d be touchy, too.
The likelihood, then, is that the French aren’t that unhappy. They’re just deeper than the rest of us. Any pollster patient enough to ask them about their level of contentment is in for an earful.
This raises questions about the utility of a “happiness index” as a potential substitute for GDP to measure national well-being. Ironically, it was former French president Nicolas Sarkozy who got the “happiness” ball rolling in 2008 with the appointment of a commission led by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz to come up with an alternative to economic output to chart a country’s progress.
In 2011, the United Nations followed up with a resolution declaring that GDP “does not adequately reflect happiness and well-being of people” and devoted a conference to the topic a year later. Inspired by tiny Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, a group of academics led by Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs produced a World Happiness Report to inform the discussion.
The good news for Canadians is that we’re among the happiest people on the planet, right up there with the Finns and Norwegians but with a ways to go to catch up with the Danes. The thrust of the Sachs report, however, was elsewhere. It concluded that humankind would get a much bigger happiness bang for its buck if it focused on alleviating poverty and sickness in the developing world instead of on increasing economic output in rich and emerging countries.
“The United States has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of its citizenry,” Mr. Sachs noted. “Should the world pursue [GDP] to the point of environmental ruin, even when incremental gains in [GDP] are not increasing much (or not at all) the happiness of affluent societies?”
Interestingly, that’s precisely the type of question a French lycéenne might be asked on her philosophy exam. And considering the failure of GDP statistics to take into account environmental effects or the sustainability of debt-fuelled economic growth, it’s one we should all ponder. Had European banks and governments considered the consequences of their debt binge earlier, the Greeks and Cypriots might have been spared the unhappiness they’re now enduring. Canadians might be asking themselves whether oil sands-powered growth will make them any happier.
Still, when Thomas Jefferson identified the “pursuit of happiness” as one of Americans’ unalienable rights, one suspects he didn’t mean fun. Capitalism and self-actualization are intimately linked. And the “pursuit” part is more important than the ultimate objective.
And as the French will tell you, happiness is overrated.