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’?