French mime artist Marcel Marceau performs

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.

The writer is a professor at the Paris School of Economics and the University Paris-Sorbonne

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