Wednesday, May 12, 2010


(Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1906)

Since coming to France last August, the four of us have learned an entirely new way of living our life as a family. By settling in here, gradually stepping out of the role of tourists and into the unfamiliar rhythms of a new place, we have slowly discovered not only a new language, but also different ways of experiencing all of the elements of everyday life: food, school, friendships, color, light, health, growth, and even our very own family.

At the start of our adventure, I named this blog in a lighthearted burst of cynicism, assuming that I would drag my own little bagful of likes, dislikes, quirks, hopes and disappointments wherever I went. Bill could take us three girls out of Brooklyn, I thought, but we would be defiantly the same wherever we went.

But that hasn’t been the case. It’s different here in more fundamental ways than any of us could have imagined. And therefore, I am different. We are different. Even our happiness is different. (Thanks again to Five for Ten for the thematic inspiration.)

I believe in the setpoint theory of happiness, which is that each of us has a happiness thermostat. As individuals, we tend to hover around the same degree of happiness, despite even radical changes in the circumstances of our lives. As Daniel Goleman put it, writing in The New York Times, in July 1996,

“There is…scientists contend, a set point for happiness, a genetically determined mood level that the vagaries of life may nudge upward or downward, but only for a while. With time, the grouchy tend to become as cranky as before, and the light-hearted cheery again.”

When we came here, I assumed that this would be true – that despite embracing a life centered around my family, away from the stresses of work, and in a totally idyllic location, I would find myself swinging between ebullient and cranky just as I have my whole life.

If you read this blog start to finish (as I am sure only a few members of my own family have done) you would see that that has in fact been the case. My glass is generally half-empty or half-full from day to day, but rarely overflows and never ever runs totally dry.

But the precise quality of the happiness I have found here is different. It feels more steady, somehow. More daily and rhythmic. Fewer amusements rise like soap bubbles, only to burst into the air as disappointments. As an armchair anthropologist, I’ve tried to puzzle through exactly why.

I have to credit the French. It’s not for nothing that people love to come here, as the French have preserved and cherished a landscape and a lifestyle to which the rest of the world likes to escape, on the order of 85 million tourists per year.

The people who have lived in this countryside for basically all of human history appear to me to have a different way of being happy from the way Americans define the word. While the U.S. Constitution reminds us of our right to pursue own own innovative forms of happiness, the French seem dead serious about insuring the preservation of their shared vision of bonheur.

American-style happiness is individually-defined. Mine may look like yours, but it might not. Our happiness is also often fleeting and elusive. It is characterized by enormous smiles, fulfillment in one’s career, good times rolling on the weekend, and a feeling of freedom of expressing one’s emotions and ideas. Americans are often surprised – shocked even -- when the forms of happiness we promised ourselves we'd find are shattered, or turn out to be hollow. But, hopeful as ever, we get up the next day and pursue happiness again. There is always something more amazing on the horizon to consume or achieve. And we're just the ones to invent it.

In contrast, the Bonheur of the French appears to be the sum of a long series of carefully thought-out shared cultural decisions about how to eat, what to drink, when to work, and how to love. It is less about smiles, about individual choices, or the pursuit of the next amazing thing. Instead, it’s much more about a comfortably shared sense of how the moments, seasons, and years of life should unfold.

In its true form à la proveçal, bonheur is maintained in a series of careful steps from one pleasant, comfortable moment to the next. In the morning, the churchbells chime and we all open our shutters in pretty much the same way. We take our coffee and croissant in the café, sitting down and chewing and gazing out languidly into space. The stores open and we all get big straw baskets to collect the day’s worth of whatever is freshest. (Fruits and vegetables here are bred for their taste rather than for their shelf life: they are ripe and perfect one day, and mush the next.)

School and work happen for a few hours in the morning, but then lunch is long, and relatively leisurely. It is taken at a real table, often followed by a nap. (A nap! I’m not kidding!) Here in the South, the stores close for a few hours in the middle of the day, after which everybody learns or works again in the afternoon. Later, there are aperitifs and dinner and salad and cheese and the pulling shutters closed to mark the end of the day.

Bonheur is sustained through the process of these milestones of daily life being reached and savored fully and in turn. A true French person moves deliberately from shutters to coffee to shuteye after lunch, recognizing that this order of life – so carefully developed over generations of habit and cultural agreement – is the cornerstone of his or her share of the joy of life. Happiness is not located in novelty, and it isn’t individual. (That is passion and pleasure – another thing entirely in France.) Rather, happiness is found in a carefully choreographed series of pleasant and predictable tried-and-true experiences.

To an American, this all has a touch of the boring. How could happiness be so predictable? Someone French might answer: this is just how we do things. Fewer promised peaks, perhaps – but also fewer perilous tumbles into the depths.

I would also add that the rigidity and the specificity required to preserve the French way of life hasn't been my favorite aspects of this year: the French may have bonheur, but they aren't exactly likely to be cheerful, friendly and fun about it.

French president Nicholas Sarkozy got a lot of press back in the fall for suggesting that nations measure themselves (and one another) not just on the basis of gross domestic product, but also by the degree of bonheur of their citizens. To the degree that any Americans even paid attention to Sarkozy, they rightly saw this as a shot across our bow – and just as quickly dismissed his serious argument as typically French fol-de-rol.

But he meant something a lot deeper than most Americans would care to seriously entertain – for example, how might the quality of life change for typical Americans if we had the kind of security provided by universal health care and low-cost university education? To put it another way: how many leisurely lunches could we enjoy in our lives if we weren’t struggling to hold onto our health insurance and pay off enormous college loans?

But I digress.

When we were living in Brooklyn, our little family took our happiness where we could find it. Since we were then wholly occupied by the process of being a two-career, two-kid family, running ourselves ragged during the weekdays, we generally took up the pursuit in little bursts of a dance party each evening after dinner, or a Coney Island trip on the weekend, or a vacation with our families. In between to get us through, there would be the fleeting joys of on-line shopping for the grownups, or Poptropica for the kids.

We saw happiness as an escape from the routine, or the routine's successful completion.

Here France, bonheur has been the routine in itself.

Sometimes back home we found the happiness we pursued in our escapes or our achievements, and sometimes we were thwarted. We were reminded to find happiness in the little things, for sure, (and we certainly did.) But we were also routinely encouraged to covet other people’s happiness, and then purchase our own, ideally in supersized quantities, in the form of an ever-improving panoply of amusements, objects, and rarefied experiences. America holds out the promise that there is always a bigger happiness in store. This is especially true in the city of New York.

Don’t get me wrong – I love New York, and precisely 51% of me can’t wait to get back. I love it even when I hate it, and I’m convinced that life there is its own version of perfect. American happiness is unpredictable. It's magical. I stand ready once more to pursue it with vigor to the heights and to the depths.

But maybe, just maybe, when we all return, I'll find a way to infuse the routine of our lives with the balance of bonheur.


  1. I think I must move to France! And pronto. I love the idea of daily naps.

    I find the idea of a happiness thermostat to be very compelling. I think that many of us, most of us even, do hover around a certain degree of happiness. And I find this reality to be so interesting - that we are wired or cultured in some way to experience a certain amount of joy on any given day.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  2. Stopping by from the five for ten event.

    You just made my list of blogs I need to read everyday.

  3. “Bonheur is sustained through the process of these milestones of daily life being reached and savored fully and in turn.” I love the idea of being able to savor the moment. And there is comfort and joy in the predictable. Before baby, it was always about the next big adventure but now, settled in our little family of three (plus pets) and nestled comfortably in the tick-tocking rhythm of our daily lives, I have never been happier.

    Great post. Oh how I want to live in France! I’m sure you get that a lot. :)

  4. My husband and I often dream of moving to France. I think other cultures in general just have a more balanced view on life and how it should be lived. Great post. Thank you!

  5. "Fewer promised peaks, perhaps – but also fewer perilous tumbles into the depths."

    There is a very important wisdom in that, one that I think every mother should learn.

    I'm entranced by this post and quite delighted to have found you here as part of Five for Ten. When all the craziness of reading these posts is done, I'll be back to explore and read more. My husband and I are just starting to entertain the idea of a year-long sojourn to Europe. We don't know where to start, and so I'm keen to read all about your own adventure.

  6. Lovely post, Launa, and one that resonates.

    Another factor that occurred to me, is that not only are the lives of french individuals marked with fewer peaks and troughs -- but the nation's economy is managed in a similar way. Labor laws, fiscal policy, banking, etc are structured in a way that from an american perspective seems overly conservative and impedes agile responses to the markets and opportunities. But these factors also provide some dampening of the oscillations of the french economy, compared to the US -- which in turn provides some greater stability and overall bonheur. Or at least that's the argument, and I think there's something to it.

  7. I love your point about how American happiness is so tied to the idea of MORE. The American Dream. Being able to love more, buy more, try more, more more more.

    I love that so many of us are opting out of that capitalistic view of happiness, choosing instead to savor and appreciate what we already have, what the Earth has given us, what our children have given us.

    I think there's some bonheur in those decisions.

  8. Frankly, I am kind of tired of this whole "pursuit of happiness" idea. Why not STOP pursuing and START seeing.

    I think I like this "bonheur" idea.

  9. "It is less about smiles, about individual choices, or the pursuit of the next amazing thing. Instead, it’s much more about a comfortably shared sense of how the moments, seasons, and years of life should unfold.". I adore this concept; thank you for articulating it so beautifully.

  10. I'm so in love with this: "Here France, bonheur has been the routine in itself."
    We need a little more of that in our lives.

  11. I am absolutely envious and !!! in every way of your year in France. Your Bonheur = my !!! and that right there is a beautiful thing.

    And Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence rocked my world. We humans are so simple and complex all at once. It's daunting and it's !!!

  12. Hello fellow bloggers --

    I'm so grateful for these responses -- I'm glad that these thoughts resonate so powerfully.

    Anybody who wants travel advice or encouragement about how to get out of Dodge, with kids in tow, ask away...

    And THANKS.

  13. I really agree that there is happiness in routine. Sometimes, it exists because you're breaking the routine, but often, it exists in the knowledge of routine reoccurring. (I love the routine of my coffee in the morning, my wine in the evening. Knowing that these two things will come to my day makes me infinitely happier.)

    And wow, what an exciting adventure you are on!

  14. There is so much contentment in rountine. I always think of this translation being more tightly woven with Bonheur. Contentment, from which happiness bubbles gently to the surface.

    Your experience in France is so encouraging to me. Opens up possibilities in so many ways. Looking forward to reading your reflections about your return home.

  15. Who's all popular and widely read now? I feel a little possessive now... like my comments come days and hours too late.

    Oh yeah - your post. Great stuff, as always. We do need more contentment and bonheur in our lives. We need more family meals and game nights and fewer trips to Walmart and BJ's. I hope and pray that as a nation and a culture, we will begin to make time and create space to do that right here at home without having to live overseas in order to begin that habit. Although a year in Spain would not be such a terrible thing...

  16. I'm so happy to see all these people reading you! And thanks for your words and thoughts about what we've gained from spending this year here, even when it's been hard. xoxo