La Joie de Vivre

Eduardo Porter, The Price of Everything:

Americans have not always worked more than everybody else. In the 1970s European workers labored more than their counterparts in the United States. Some economists suggest higher tax rates in Europe discouraged work there. Others point to stronger unions that pushed social democratic governments in Europe to create more leisure time, including mandated holidays and shorter workweeks. In the late 1990s, the French Assembly passed the thirty-five-hour workweek as a strategy to combat unemployment—based on the idea that more people would work if each worker labored fewer hours. While the effort failed to promote job growth, it did give workers more time off.

Oliver Blanchard, the French chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, who spent much of his professional career in the United States, argues that Europe and the United States made different choices as they became richer and more productive. Americans chose to deploy their higher productivity to earn more money and buy more goods and services. Europeans “spent it” on more leisure time and more time working on household chores.

Many economists will understand these choices as rational manifestations of different preferences. The French chose time and the Americans money because they preferred it. Their choices should make them both happy. But there is another possible reading: Americans chose an unhappier path.

Some of the same studies that show Americans stuck in a happiness rut since the end of World War II suggest that the French have become happier with their lot. The French work 440 hours a week fewer than Americans partly because they take seven weeks’ vacation, compared with fewer than four in the United States. They sleep the longest of all citizens of the industrial world. They spend two and a quarter hours a day on meals, an hour more than in the United States. And they devote almost an hour a day more to leisure than Americans do.

French women spend more than twice as much time as Americans on meals and almost 50 percent more on active leisure—like doing sports or going to shows. American women spend about 10 percent more time working and a third more on passive leisure activities like watching TV. As it turns out, Americans like the French life better than their own. Researchers found they if American women were to reorganize their days to spend time as the French do, they wouldn’t be quite as happy as the French, but they would be happier than they are with the lives they lead.