Quelle Surprise! The French Are Quite Happy!

September 12th, 2013
in Op Ed

Written by

If one were told that the French score 72 out of 100 on a happiness scale, I think most people would regard that as demonstrating that the French are, well, pretty happy actually.

The Germans, you learn, are on the same level, in round figures, and the British are are at about 73. One might declare that one is not a bit surprised they not really any happier or unhappier than the French (bar a decimal point or two), despite everything one has read in the newspapers about the French depression.


Follow up:

That, however, is not the way the world sees it, or the French either. It is a recognised "fact" that the French are much less happy than everyone else in Europe. There are tens of thousands of articles in
newspapers and magazines to prove it.

Ah, yes, says some know-it-all, but the Danes are much happier and so are the Finns and the Swiss. They score about 83 and the Finns and Swiss 80 on our scale.

The rest of the pack, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, are in the 76-78 bracket, with Portugal an outlier at about 66 (and this was before the financial crisis, compounded by austerity policies, had driven them to desperation).

My crude scale of 100 is based on the figure on page 30 of a seminal work by Claudia Senik, of the Paris School of Economics (Working Paper No. 2011 - 44, "The French Unhappiness Puzzle: the Cultural Dimension of Happiness" - 2011). She actually uses a 10 point scale - see the chart - and if you want to chase up the decimal points, it is all there in this paper.


So why do all those people who write articles on this subject find that the French are much unhappier than everyone else, including Claudia Senik, who writes on Page 4:

"It has become common knowledge that the French are much less happy and optimistic than their standard of living would predict".

Well, there you have it. She is not actually saying they are much unhappier than everyone else, although that may be the impression left in the reader's mind. They are just not as happy as one would predict from the looking at the country's GDP.

But then again, that actually applies rather more neatly to the Germans (the standard of living of the British and the French is about the same, measured by per capita GDP), while the Norwegians ought to be much happier than they are.

I suspect that what we have in this endless instance on the unhappiness of the French is a case of confirmation bias, a trap which affects much sociological research, by which the findings of the researcher support the researcher's own prejudices (in this case the researchers include all the journalists and others who right this stuff about the French).

Is this the case for Claudia Senik, too? Perhaps, but she nevertheless wrote an excellent paper, full of interesting observations and discussion that throws much light on French attitudes.

However, there is a big element of subjectivity in studies of this type, and it does not come only from the researchers. It also comes from the people who answer sample surveys.

Some people get satisfaction from telling other people that they are dissatisfied; others get more satisfaction from saying they are satisfied.

I suspect the first of these applies quite well to the French (who are, shall we say, never as satisfied when telling you they are dissatisfied) and the second to the Danes (they love to tell you that in everything they do they are the best in the world, adding "and we are more modest than all the others too").

My strictly subjective observation after living for 35 years in Denmark and 15 in France is that if I had to draw up a scale of moroseness for the two peoples, the French would not come off worse than the Danes, perhaps a point or two better.

Perhaps one should see human societies as systems that are in a constant state of turbulence. Physicists maintain that there is no meaningful way of defining an average temperature of a system in constant turbulence (not that this stops the climate scientists from doing so).

The average happiness of European societies on any given day may well depend more than anything else on whether all those who go to a supermarket get a smile from the lady at the check-out. That alone would go far to explain why I do not think the French are more morose than the Danes, where the check out girls rarely even look at you, let alone smile.

The last thing is the thing you remember when you leave a supermarket (visit to the theater, to your mother in law, or whatever), so you leave a Danish supermarket in a state of mild depression but feel quite cheerful when you go from the French one. And that's the truth!


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