Are the French less miserable than they used to be? The battle against positive thinking in France.

20 Dec

Last Monday The Times reported that French intellectuals are up in arms about the growing popularity among their fellow citizens of books about happiness  (‘Intellectuals horrified as ordinary French people look on bright side of life’, December 15th 2014) .

Self-help works like And don’t forget to be happy, by psychiatrist Christophe André, and Christine Lewicki’s I’m giving up complaining, are apparently flying off the shelves. This development is denounced by French theorists as an outbreak of American-style positive thinking quite unsuited to the Gallic temperament.

French economist Claudia Senik disagrees. She has argued in the past that the French probably need  to cultivate a bit of optimism, but that their education system in particular militates against this (see this blog, April 5 2013).  ‘The French are in a spiral of self-fulfilling pessimism,’ she says.  ‘Their high social ideal is unrealistic and this makes them unhappy.’

Some French people may well benefit from cheering up a bit. But I do tend to side with the intellectuals in this. Not because trying hard to be happy can in the long run make you miserable – it may in fact work well for some people, and I hope that it does. But I also believe that a streak of pessimism is vital if we’re to avoid becoming smug, self-satisfied, and resistant to change. One reason why the French have produced so many great artists and philosophers is probably that they’ve never been prone to settling back on their chaises longues and thanking heaven for their good fortune and general contentment. 

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