Happiness

THE FRENCH ARE TAUGHT TO BE MISERABLE: EVIDENCE FROM HAPPINESS SURVEYS

France’s education system and its cultural ‘mentality’ are to blame for the French being less happy than their wealth and lifestyle would suggest. French people who live elsewhere in the world report lower happiness than the natives, while immigrants who move to France report greater happiness than their native counterparts. This suggests that there is something in the culture that makes French people miserable.

These are among the findings of research by Claudia Senik, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2013 annual conference. Her study seeks to explain the fact that the French are less happy than would be predicted by their level of affluence, by analysing data on people’s life satisfaction from the European Social Survey.

Her central finding is that in France, ‘mentality’ is responsible for a large part of the country’s relative unhappiness. Whereas French natives are less happy than Europeans on average, this is not the case for recent immigrants to France, who are just as happy as immigrants to other European countries. But the longer the immigrants live in France and become part of society, the less happy they claim to be.

The research also finds the reverse situation in other countries. It shows that the French who live abroad are consistently less happy than other European ex-patriots.

Professor Senik suggests that the French school system plays an important role in the making of the national ‘aptitude’ to relative unhappiness – immigrants who attended school in France from an early age are less happy than those who did not.

The research also finds that French unhappiness is not due to language. For example, French-speaking people in Switzerland or Canada are not less happy than the other communities in those countries.

The survey contains other findings about the different attitudes and values of European citizens. It suggests that French unhappiness is mirrored by ‘multi-dimensional’ dissatisfaction and depressiveness and by a low level of trust in the market and in other people.

A recent WIN-Gallup Poll found that people’s expectations for the coming year ranked lower in France than in Iraq or Afghanistan. The author suggests that a large part of the differences in national happiness can be explained by ‘mental attitudes that are acquired in school or other socialisation instances, especially during youth’. She concludes that policies to address unhappiness should start at school and in early childhood.

More…

It is well known that the French are less happy than would be predicted by their level of affluence, such as measured by national income or the Human Development Index. More generally, international differences in happiness are large but essentially unexplained.

This study tries to disentangle the influence of objective circumstances versus ‘mentality’, that is, psychological and cultural factors. It hinges on a survey of seven European countries containing happiness statements by natives and immigrants of each country (European Social Survey, 2002-08).

The main finding is that, in some countries, such as France, mentality is responsible for the best part of the country’s unobserved specific unhappiness.

For example, whereas French natives are less happy than European in average, this is not the case of immigrants to France, who are just as happy as immigrants to other European countries. Identically, the French who live abroad are also less happy than other European expats.

The school system plays an important role in the making of the national aptitude to happiness: for example, immigrants who experienced early schooling in France are less happy than those who did not.

The French unhappiness effect is not due to language and translation effects. For example, it is not the case that francophone people in Switzerland or Canada are less happy than the other linguistic communities in the country.

The study also checked that measures of short-term emotional wellbeing (instead of happiness) lead to a similar ranking of countries as subjective happiness.

The survey contains information about the different attitudes and values of European citizens: the French unhappiness is mirrored by multi-dimensional dissatisfaction and depressiveness, by a low level of trust in the market and in other people, as well as by a consistent set of ideological attitudes and beliefs.

Overall, these observations suggest that a large share of international heterogeneity in happiness is attributable to mental attitudes that are acquired in school or other socialisation instances, especially during youth. This points to school and childhood environment as a valuable locus of public policy.

ENDS


Contact:

Claudia Senik: + 33 616 557 515 (senik@pse.ens.fr)

RES media consultant Romesh Vaitilingam:
+44 (0) 7768 661095
romesh@vaitilingam.com
@econromesh

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