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Il faut être Charlie

11 Jan

I’m feeling a bit embarrassed now about the tagline of my last post (December 20th).  Today the French have an even greater right to be miserable than they did before the shocking events of last Wednesday. I’m not sure from what I’ve seen of them that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo had any point to them that was worth going to the stake for, but to slightly misquote the great French philosopher Voltaire, I do defend their right to publish them. Unlike Voltaire I don’t think I’d be prepared to defend that right to the death, but I greatly respect the journalists of Charlie Hebdo who thought differently. At the moment freedom of expression seems to me to be far more important than individual happiness. 

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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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Les Miserables? Why are the French not happier?

5 Apr

I’ve always thought that  for most people ‘dreaming the impossible dream’ was probably not a reliable route to happiness. By all means be aspirational, but pinning all your hopes on widely recognised success will surely leave a lot of people believing that they have failed in life.

Some evidence in support of this view is now being reported from France. Last Wednesday Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, gave a lecture at the Royal Economic Society in which she argued that the ‘mentality’ of the French makes them less happy than other European peoples.

The self-declared happiness ratings of the French are low, and their suicide rate is high, in spite of a good standard of living and generous welfare provision.  Interestingly, Senik’s study of data drawn from the European Social Survey reveals that French people living in other European countries are less happy than the natives, while people who move to France are happier than the indigenous population. But the longer they stay in France, the less happy they claim to be.

Senik believes that there is something in the culture that makes people living in France miserable. One factor, she argues, is the high bench mark which they are encouraged to refer to. This is partly the fault of the schools. These are academically demanding and at the same time egalitarian. Everyone has the same opportunities, and everyone is expected to do well. So those who don’t get high grades feel miserable. As Senik says, ‘Not everyone can be in the top 5%’.

Confirmation of this view was provided on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme last Friday by Ken Tatham, the English mayor of a French town. His children were educated in both British and French schools. In the French ones the schedule is punishing: the children have to graft from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and there is little time for sports or leisure.  British schools, Tatham claims, are breeding a happier child.

I hope the government ministers who were arguing last summer that too many children were doing well in GCSE exams, and that the standards need to be raised, will take note of the happiness issues at stake here. Do we really want our education system to be creating a set of ‘winners and losers’?