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Making Time for Life: Even Down in the Dumps, the French Maintain Their Joie de Vivre

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When I told a French friend I was writing a book about his compatriots entitled Joie de Vivre, he smiled and asked "Is it fiction?" Yet another French friend reacted with a pained look, lamenting that "we used to have it."

Au contraire, I find that the French still have plenty of joie de vivre. However, there's a disconnect: One poll shows that while the French are overwhelmingly depressed about their economy (the number of French on unemployment recently topped 3 million), 83 percent are immensely happy with their private lives, families, and friends. Strange? Not really. If you watch French TV news (depressing) or ride the metro (glum), you might begin to have serious doubts about the much-vaunted French joie de vivre. When I told a French friend that I was going on a trip to the States, he rolled his eyes: "I hope the atmosphere there is more cheerful than it is here."

Mon Dieu, I'd be worried that the French had completely lost their joie de vivre if I didn't see it everywhere -- starting at the top. François Hollande's first act as president was knocking off for a full three weeks of vacation -- just like all "normal" French (although "normal" French people have a minimum of five weeks paid vacation and then some). Imagine! He couldn't make his private life disappear so not a day goes by, it would seem, without a highly publicized spat between his ex-partner and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, and his new partner, Paris Match journalist Valérie Trierweiler. Long vacations taken for granted? Dramatic love triangles? I call that joie de vivre !

Maybe the French are so vocal about their collective unhappiness because at heart they'd like nothing more than to enjoy life --- and have a social structure that allows them to do so. But France is a country with a long history, of feasts but also famine, peace but also wars and invasions. So in every French person's mind is this knowledge that although things may be good now, bad may be lurking around the corner. Maybe that's why they describe wonderful things as "pas mal " (not bad). Things can be worse --- but they can be better as well.

I asked a young Frenchman about the "happiness gap" one day. His mournful response: "We haven't had any good news since France won the Soccer World Cup in 1998." "Come on," I countered, "Surely something pleasant has happened since then." He shook his head desperately trying to recall some joyful event. I would have felt terrible except that it was a beautiful spring day and we were sipping Perrier on the terrace of a café on the place Gustave Toudouze in the ninth arrondissement. The fellow was young, healthy, good-looking, employed, with a fine educational background, and a nice girlfriend. He told me he was working hard on renovating a little house he and his father had purchased nearby. And I thought, How French this all is. He was bemoaning the bad state of life in France in general when his life in particular was dandy, even enviable. I don't know about you, but I can think of a lot of people who would love to be under the age of 30 and renovating a house they've bought in one of Paris's most sought-after neighborhoods -- not to mention living in a society where if you lose your job, you don't lose your health insurance and a year of university doesn't cost a small fortune.

But there's more than that: the French are on to something with their joie de vivre. Joie de vivre is both simple and revolutionary. It's simple because it can be lunch with a girlfriend. How easy is that? It's revolutionary because for work-driven, vacation-and-long-lunch deprived Americans, it almost requires brain surgery. Why? Because to make that lunch a moment with a French touch it has to be just for fun, no rush, no agenda. An American friend told me that her French women friends, who are physicians, "work long hours but find time to meet their friends, take vacations, and indulge in the life part of life, which is as important or perhaps more important to them than work."

As the famous American writer and Francophile Edith Wharton wrote : "No civilized race has gone as unerringly as the French toward the natural sources of enjoyment."

"Amen," I think, as I sit on the terrace of the Café Marly sipping a glass of wine, watching the world go by. As the sun sinks in the west casting its light on the Pei Pryamid, for a fleeting moment I think I'm becoming French. I know things "out there" are bad. But right now in this moment of pleasure? They are "pas mal du tout."

Harriet Welty Rochefort is the author of 'Joie de vivre: Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French' to be published by St. Martin's Press in October 2012 and from which this essay is adapted.