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Unhappy with your life? You might be French

In Southern Europe, unemployment is rampant. In the north, particularly Germany, the public is grumbling that they are bailing out the fiscally irresponsible. And everywhere on the continent, Europe‘s vaunted welfare states are under threat.

Austerity, disillusionment, joblessness: across Europe the mood is dour.

But while devoid of the panicking and protesting sweeping other countries with a safety net still tightly woven, it is France where – psychologically – the crisis appears to be felt the most.

A staggering 80 percent of French say they’ve been personally impacted by the economic crisis, according to a new poll by the academic pollster YouGov-Cambridge. That compares to 57 percent of Britons and 54 percent of Germans surveyed who say they’ve been affected by their country’s economic woes in the past five years.

It’s yet another piece of what Claudia Senik, who studies the intersection of happiness and economics at the Paris School of Economics, calls the “French unhappiness puzzle” – the persistent pessimism in a country where people have it a lot better than most. “Here, there are the same shocks or less, but the French feel it more,” says Ms. Senik.

The French consistently rank as some of the least upbeat citizens on the globe, despite a 35-hour work week and generous social benefits that range from free preschools and swimming pools to universities and healthcare. A 2011 WIN-Gallup poll revealed the French to be less optimistic than war-torn Iraqis and Afghans.

“You will realize that the French are never happy. Complaining should be a national sport,” says political journalist Christian Malard, who was partly educated in the UK and Canada, has traveled and worked extensively in the US, and sums up his nation as one of “whiners.”

And it’s a nationality trait that goes far beyond the current business cycle. A low-level of life satisfaction of the French, especially when adjusting for GDP, has been recorded since the 1970s.

Learned unhappiness

So Senik recently set out to answer “why,” drawing on statistics published biannually from the European Social Survey, in which France ranks among the most dissatisfied countries in Europe, with only Portugal as unhappier (but also much poorer).

She compared the happiness levels not just of the French but of French emigrants and immigrants in France. French emigrants abroad, when adjusting for exterior factors, are less happy than the average European migrant. At the same time immigrants, she finds, trained in French schools report being unhappier than those who were not.

She concludes that French unhappiness is something that must be taught.

“There is some ideal that French people have that reality is not living up to,” she says, something causing what she describes as “idiosyncratic French unhappiness.”

She faults an education system that is rigorous but overly rigid – demanding excellence in math and French and leaving those who aren’t excellent in those subjects feeling inferior. “By definition, not everyone is the best,” she says, “and it creates a lot of frustration.”

Senik is not the first to try and tackle this puzzle. Nicolas Tenzer, a political affairs analyst who authored “The End of French Unhappiness,” says it hails from stubborn hierarchical social structures that breed distrust and envy.

“The French compare themselves to their neighbors. They say, ‘this one is richer, this one has a better situation, this one has a better car, this one’s children are better in school and that’s not fair,’” he says.

At the same time, France is undergoing an identity crisis of sorts. Once the epicenter of arts, language, and diplomacy, it is now clinging onto that power. “You see yourself as someone who set the rules, but now you are a small country in a globalized world that does not set the rules,” says Senik.

As a result, Mr. Tenzer says, “French people are asking themselves, ‘Where are we in the world today?’”

A reasonable pessimism?

Of course, external factors play a role too.

Joel Faulkner Rogers, academic director at YouGov in the UK, says that the results of their recent poll reflect a year of renewal of national pessimism in France, as President François Hollande has failed to convince the French that he can take charge of the economy.

“It’s possible that French public opinion currently reflects a more acute sense of immediate crisis than its Western counterparts in this study, where stagnation and flat-lining have for years been the dominant economic watch-words,” Dr. Rogers says.

Yet his poll indicates that, in looking towards the future, France is on par with the three other countries studied, the US, Germany, and Britain. Fifty-nine percent of the French say the younger generation will find it harder to enjoy a reasonable standard of living. But the majorities expressing the same sentiment are higher elsewhere: 64 percent of British, 65 percent of American, and 66 percent of Germans say the same.

The French themselves are divided when it comes to describing their national personality. Some acknowledge a culture bent on being miserable. Others say that it’s only in the capital, Paris, where a bad mood – think harried commuters and humorless shopkeepers – is seen as the metropolitan norm.

Pierre Pommé, a dapper retired French man with a handkerchief peering from his coat pocket, says he thinks France is just like anywhere else.

“There are optimists and pessimists,” he says. And himself? “I’m neither.”

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