Dissertation Abstracts

Geography of happiness A comparative exploration of the case of France

Author: Brulé, Gaël R, gael.brule@gmail.com
Department: EHERO
University: Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands
Supervisor: Johan Heilbron/Ruut Veenhoven
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Happiness , Life satisfaction , France
Areas of Research: Historical and Comparative Sociology , Education , Communication, Knowledge and Culture


The average reported level of life satisfaction in France is fairly low in comparison with most nations within the group of developed nations. In this dissertation I have explored such differences and have tried to identify explanatory factors that can account for them.
I identified some determinants in the structure of the French society and the psyche of French people to explain this situation. These two environments, one intrinsic and one extrinsic, are linked and continually interact. I have established correlations between levels of reported happiness and macro-determinants of happiness which can explain some of the variation in the levels of happiness.
A fertile approach to comprehend happiness is to consider it through the lens of freedom. This approach was proved to be particularly relevant in the case of France. A first step was to realize that the perceived freedom in France is low for a developed nation, as developed nations typically show high levels of perceived freedom. The next step was to question the reasons of this perception. Using Bay’s ternary classification of freedom(social, psychological and potential), I realized that if the three types of freedom matter almost equally for happiness within developed nations, part of the low happiness of the French is sited in their psyches and in their relationships with their fate.
I also found several factors related to freedom in how a society is structured. The link between the type of teaching at school and adults’ happiness was particularly striking. I looked at participatory teaching, a pedagogic strategy that leaves room for children to develop and that does not consider them just as empty vessels to be filled. Participatory teaching seems to prepare future adults to make choices and helps them as adults to build a sense of mastery of their environment; participatory teaching is the least developed in France of the prosperous nations.
Another reason for the comparative low level of happiness in France is the weight of the hierarchy of organizations on people; the vertical polarization of organizational structures seems to diminish people’s happiness. As the freedom of actors is reduced in a top-down hierarchy, their happiness declines.
Finally, the family systems present in France also contribute to its unexpected low rating on the happiness index. The prevailing of the nuclear egalitarian model, libertarian and egalitarian, is linked with lower happiness.
Having looked at the various values of happiness, I finish with a look at the distributions of happiness etc. and identified the cultural differences in the way people respond to survey questions.Whereas this does not give us immediate additional information on the relatively low happiness of French respondents, it does seem to indicate that some knowledge of the cultural measurements biases may help explain the happiness rating situation in a particular nation or set of nations. In the case of the 10-excess, if extreme responding is present in some nations, it is clearly not present in France, unlike Latin America. This opens new horizons in the field of happiness research.