The Pursuit (and Measurement) of Happyness

"There's that @#*& tune again!"

“There’s that @#*& tune again!”

The title comes from The Pursuit of Happyness (deliberately mis-spelt), a 2006 film featuring Will Smith is based on Chris Gardner’s struggle with homelessness as documented in his memoir. It came to mind when reading Claudia Senik’s article in the Financial Times titled “What is about the French that makes them so unhappy?” Beyond that existential query, there is also the topic of the new but growing discipline of happiness research and measurement. For companies, employers and governments alike, it seems that the measurement of happiness (if not its sales, production, distribution, and after-sales service) is a growth industry. You know what process improvers say:  you manage what you measure.

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.

But the French are less happy than most other western Europeans and less happy than you would predict from their levels of affluence. Furthermore, if the  French condition were all about economics or politics, an immigrant who chose to  settle in France should be less happy than one who chooses to settle in another  European country. But it turns out that this is not the case: both are equally  happy.

So unhappiness seems to be more than about life in France – it is something  about being French. That comes through when we look at French expatriates. If  there is something about the culture that encourages unhappiness, we would  expect the French to be unhappier wherever they live. That, indeed, is what we  found. The French  abroad are less happy than other expats.

The French unhappiness is just one of the “national” issues that researchers need to explain. Other specialists have found unexplained clusters of high  happiness in Latin America and Scandinavia, and surprising misery in former  communist countries. These patterns, just as remarkably, seem to have been quite stable since the 1970s, when the data became available.

These national idiosyncrasies must be about something more than politics,  money, health or wealth. Happiness must be embedded in something a bit more  permanent. Researchers need to think more about intangible ideas such as  mentality and culture, rather than the neat, quantifiable economic and social  circumstances of each country.

In the French case, there are a few clues about the cause of the great unhappiness. There is a hint in the data that the French school system is playing a role in this: for instance,  immigrants who experienced early schooling in France are less happy than those who did not. Something in our school system is embedding our aptitude for  misery.

A tentative explanation is that in the French school system, all children are  supposed to be able to reach the same performance, but they find it very hard to obtain top grades and, later, to make it to the top schools. Obviously this  system is not creating self-confidence or self-esteem in our children.

A lesson from well-being research is that people’s happiness depends on whether they meet benchmarks that they set themselves. The French, it seems, set  themselves high standards. Maybe they evaluate their lives against the idea of  French “grandeur” – the expectation that France should be a cultural superpower.  This makes for a stimulating life. But it is not making us happy. The French need to lower their expectations if they want to cheer up.

 If you’re curious, here’s the top 25 countries out of 178 measured using the Satisfaction with Life (SWL) scale as measured in 2006 ( By the way, France checked in at #62, Brazil #81, China #82, Japan #90, India #125, Russia #167, and pulling up the rear at #178 was Burundi.

Denmark 273
2 Switzerland 273
3 Austria 260
4 Iceland 260
5 The Bahamas 257
6 Finland 257
7 Sweden 257
8 Bhutan 253
9 Brunei 253
10 Canada 253
11 Ireland 253
12 Luxembourg 253
13 Costa Rica 250
14 Malta 250
15 Netherlands 250
16 Antigua and Barbuda 247
17 Malaysia 247
18 New Zealand 247
19 Norway 247
20 Seychelles 247
21 Saint Kitts and Nevis 247
22 United Arab Emirates 247
23 United States 247
24 Vanuatu 247
25 Venezuela 247

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