Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dissatisfied but not unhappy

Last week Maureen Dowd wrote a column about how the France had fallen into a mood of general malaise.  Today Roger Cohen wrote a column saying that he'd said the same thing back in the 1990s, but now realized that pessimism or cynicism was an enduring characteristic of the French.    Dowd seemed to say the same thing at the end of her column--the difference is that Cohen seemed to think it was just a foible while Dowd seemed to think it indicates something profoundly wrong with the French (which is not to single out the French--she seems to think there's something profoundly wrong with virtually everyone).

There have been quite a few international surveys that ask people about happiness or related issues.  The World Values Survey includes both a question on happiness--"taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy, or not at all happy?"--and one on satisfaction "all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" (rate on a scale of 1 to 10).  On average happiness, France ranks 14th out of 57 countries in the 2005-6 wave.  That is a bit low given its economic level, but not remarkable (ahead of Italy, Spain, and Germany).  But France is only 34th on satisfaction, the lowest of any "Western" nation (Western Europe plus Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand) in the survey.  The figure below gives more detail on those nations:

France and Britain are (relatively) more happy than satisfied; Germany, Spain, and Finland seem to be more satisfied than happy.  Surprisingly, Americans and Australians, who have reputation for being optimistic, don't rank all that high on either, and the British, who have a reputation for grumbling, rank first in happiness among these nations (second in the whole sample, behind Mexico).


  1. Does the World Values Survey provide the actual wording of the question as asked in the instruments used in various countries? English "happy" and "satisfied" can both be (and I would say idiomatically usually are) rendered as "content" in French. "Zufrieden" is similarly ambiguous in German. I don't know Finnish or Italian but this seems like a semantic area that can easily generate some uncertainty in the responses.

    1. It does seem likely that linguistic differences are a factor. The questionnaires used in different countries are on the WVS site.

      In France, the exact questions were "Tout bien considéré, diriez-vous que vous êtes…

      Très heureux
      Assez heureux
      Pas très heureux
      Pas heureux du tout"


      "Tout bien considéré, dites-moi à l’aide de cette carte, à quel point êtes-vous satisfait ou
      pas satisfait de la vie que vous menez en ce moment?"