Why are the French miserable?

A pro-Sarkozy sticker, after being defaced, in...

According to a recent slew of books, French children don’t throw food. And French women don’t get fat. I have noticed that they often have nice scarves. So chic.

But does that make them happy? No. According to happiness surveys, self-declared happiness is lower in France, Portugal and Germany than other European countries. But France and Germany in particular score reasonably well on GDP per capita measures and the UN’s human development index (which takes into account education and health, as well as income). So why so sad? Economist Claudia Senik set out to investigate this in a recent paper, The French Unhappiness Puzzle: The Cultural Dimension of Happiness.

Claudia Senik’s theory is that the differences in happiness across countries are to do with culture. She tests this theory by comparing the happiness of “natives” against immigrants – the premise being that if different cultural backgrounds are important, this would show up as differences in happiness between natives and immigrants in a particular country. And it does indeed turn out that first generation immigrants in France are happier than French-born inhabitants – and are close to the European happiness average. This is significant, because previous studies have suggested that immigrants are usually less happy than natives. Second generation immigrants are not so happy though – as might be expected if a French cultural upbringing is to blame, their happiness levels tend to be more similar to that of French natives .

Is it a language issue? It could be that people in different countries simply interpret the survey questions in different ways. But Claudia Senik finds no evidence for this in the data for Belgium and Switzerland, where different languages are spoken in different regions.

The paper argues that: “‘happiness policies’ should take into account the irreducible influence of psychological and cultural factors. As those are -at least partly- acquired in school and other early socialization instances, this points to some new aspects of public policy such as considering the qualitative aspects of the education system.”

So, living in France reduces self-declared happiness by 0.23 happiness points. But British people, contain the impulse to crow. We don’t exactly come out all that happy on these surveys either.

The full paper is here

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