A recent blog post by “Taste of France” had me considering the difference between contentment and happiness. As I commented, I see happiness as a momentary feeling, like excitement. Contentment is a sustained general satisfaction.
There are days, like today, when I’m not particularly happy. My wrist is getting better, but will take time to fully heal. I didn’t sleep well last night. I have a lot to get done in four days next week because our US headquarters never remembers that we have an annual summer shutdown. Yet, I’m still fully content with my life in France.
When I started to ponder why life in France has resulted in more general contentment than my life in the US, the following came to mind as key differences:
- The pursuit of MORE “things”
- I have a good job and make a decent salary. In the US, I can’t count the number of people who asked me why I had a small apartment when I could easily afford a “nice big house.” On the contrary, the French ask me why I have a smallish 3 bedroom house when I live on my own. Even at 100 square meters, they view it as a lot of space for just one person (realistically, it is a lot of space . . . but I like an uncluttered space)!
- The pursuit of MY “things”
- In the pursuit of “things,” it is clearly your personal pursuit of YOUR things that matters. Americans will support politicians who plan to pass laws that radically harm poorer people because it will give the person in question more. While this isn’t completely unheard of in France, it is much more common here to hear people mention that a certain law or change would be bad because it would hurt OTHER people.
- The pursuit of BETTER “things”
- There is also a lot of social expectations around having bigger and better things than someone else. I have had numerous people with bigger houses, fancier/newer cars, boats, RVs, etc. tell me that “it must be nice to be able to afford traveling like you do.” Well, being honest, I couldn’t afford it either if I owned expensive things. For me, experiences bring more joy than purchases, so that’s what I prioritize. Owning big, flashy things is not a priority in France – it’s viewed as somewhat obscene to flash your wealth.
- The pursuit of “things” over people
- A lot of the social values in the US prioritize things or status over people. You are a successful parent if your child has a university degree, good job, makes good money . . . too bad they have no time for a social life. We admire successful business people who are known to be real jerks. In France, there’s much more value placed on spending time with your family, having time off to raise your kids and keeping plans with friends. Even with a job where I’ve often worked long hours, when I mentioned that I needed to cancel plans with a friend, PB told me to go ahead and enjoy my plans – it could wait until tomorrow.
- The pursuit of “things” over health
- The majority of Americans have no regular exercise routine. Often, people will say they don’t have “time.” On the contrary, most of the French that I’ve met prioritize their exercise time. They usually have a “sport” (meaning anything from running to swimming to soccer) that they found they enjoyed as a child and they participate in it religiously still as adults. And they are very open about proclaiming the physical AND mental benefits of regular “sport.” Additionally, socialized healthcare exists in France and works quite well. Doing what is best for your health is the priority, even if it means missing work . . . even at a “bad time.” Your company may not be happy about it, but even PB has very clearly said that people need to do what is best for their health. It’s also amazing how cheap the “before insurance” prices are when being healthy is not a for-profit industry!
Of course, these are cultural generalities, but in terms of “normal” values, in roughly a year (total) of living here and interacting with many of the French, I have found them to be true of the majority.
When I first arrived, I was still working like an American. Ironically, I’ve found that I’m actually more productive working fewer hours and being under less stress. I’ve also found true contentment in a country that values striving towards balancing work, physical health and a social life.
As I am preparing to visit the US, I am excited because I’ve missed my family and friends. I have a niece who was just over one month old when I left and who is almost a year old now. I have two nephews who are three and I can’t wait to have their “French auntie” birthday celebration with them. A piece of my heart will always be in the US.
But my life is in France now. I’ve made friends here. I’m finally learning the language. One of my favorite people in the world lives here. And France just speaks to me – the people, the language, the culture, the food, the social values, the walkable towns and neighborhoods.
This upcoming weekend is a long weekend to celebrate the French national day. Ironically, I will be spending it in Portugal! See you next week for a European “Abroad Edition.”