Why are French people so unhappy?

Waarom zijn Fransen zo ongelukkig?

Why are French people relatively unhappy, despite their high standard of living? That is the question discussed by Gaël Brulé in his PhD dissertation, which he will defend at Erasmus University of Rotterdam on Thursday, 11 February 2016. Brulé’s study shows that the low French happiness rates are due to the top-down hierarchy that characterises French society. This hierarchy can be observed in the top-down one-way lane that is the French education system, as well as in the ‘power distance’ that affects professional relations in French workplaces.

For his dissertation, entitled Geography of Happiness, Gaël Brulé compared happiness rates in many countries, focusing mainly on France. In defining ‘happiness’, Brulé distinguishes two components: the extent to which people generally feel well (affective happiness) and the extent to which people feel they have realised their goals (cognitive happiness).

His research into patterns of happiness across the globe shows that developed nations rate highly in both components, whereas Islamic countries rate poorly in both components. Other geographic clusters rate more highly in one component than in the other. For instance, Latin Americans tend to report as generally feeling well, but only report medium contentment in terms of cognitive happiness.

In the second part of his dissertation, Brulé discusses the relatively low happiness rates in his country of origin, France. French people report being relatively less happy than one might expect, given their high standard of living. Brulé shows that this is largely due to their lack of freedom. French people report that they feel considerably less free than people in other developed nations. They receive particularly low scores in terms of psychological freedom, i.e., self-confidence and perceived control of their fate.

Brulé has identified the hierarchical nature of French society as the main limiting factor to happiness. This hierarchical approach is instilled in French citizens by the French education system, which is generally top-down. This curbing of French people’s psychological freedom appears to negatively affect their rate of happiness. On the other hand, participatory teaching, which is common in Scandinavia, seems strongly related to their adults’ powerful sense of happiness. It fosters psychological freedom in the long term, helps prepare future adults to make choices and helps them develop a sense of being in charge of their own fate.

Another contributing factor is the relatively significant ‘power distance’ in French workplaces. Homo hierarchicus is less happy than homo aequalis, and the former type is still dominant in France, says Brulé.
According to Brulé, the French example corresponds to a wider Southern European pattern, with countries like Spain and Italy being almost as hierarchical as France.

About the PhD candidate
Gaël Brulé studied environmental engineering at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées in Rouen and at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Since that time he has been active in the field of sustainable development, among other places at Delft University of Technology. He was the co-founder of an architecture firm which seeks to achieve sustainable development and well-being. In addition, he is the scientific director of La Fabrique Spinoza, a Paris-based think tank promoting happiness for citizens. He is a visiting fellow at the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization (eHERO).

More information

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