Why are the French so miserable? We are proud of our culture and our economy has fared better than most through the economic crisis. Yet the still-young discipline of happiness research confirms there seems to be something about life in France that makes people more anxious and less cheery than those in other places.
Whenever I look at data on happiness levels that cover several countries, I am always struck by how much contentment differs between countries. The French malaise comes through when you ask people to rate their sense of well-being on a scale from nought to 10. This type of survey, similar to the technique with which doctors ask patients to rate their pain, is well tried and tested by researchers.
You can spot it again when French subjects are asked about emotions that they felt yesterday. They feel a lot of negative emotions (anger, worry, stress) and less positive sentiment (enjoyment, happiness). And surveys going back as far as 2002 show a deep pessimism in the French. Long before the current crisis, they agreed more often than other Europeans that "for most people in the country, life is getting worse", or that "it is hard to have hope for the future of the world". If that were not enough, my countrymen also consume staggering volumes of psychoactive drugs.
When I started working in this field, I thought that by accounting for the economic and political circumstances of each country, it would be possible to explain away these differences. After all, happiness researchers have shown how unemployment, illness and poverty make people sadder, and France does have a longstanding problem with unemployment
in certain groups.