The Art of Serendipity: The Nonpursuit of Happiness
As Edith Wharton observed so astutely, “The Frenchman . . . is not afraid of anything that concerns mankind, neither of pleasure and mirth nor of exultations and agonies. . .. The French . . . have no idea that life can be evaded, and if it could be they would not try to evade it. They regard it as a gift so magnificent that they are ready to take the bad weather with the fine rather than miss a day of the golden year.”
That might sound a tad grandiloquent but she’s got a point. Perhaps if the French have so much joie de vivre, it’s because they’re not looking for it. There’s no idea that happiness is something that can be pursued, or even that if pursued would be found. Joy is where you find it. It may turn up, and it may not. And when and if it does, it may or may not stay. Americans have the “pursuit of happiness” inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, and so naturally we think it’s out there, something we can grab, and are disappointed when it eludes us. As my friend Debra Ollivier, an American who lived in France for ten years and now lives in Los Angeles, remarked, “Americans are unhappy because they spend so much time trying out all the recipes for happiness and they don’t work.”
She recounted a conversation she had with French friends that she said would never have happened in California. One friend was lamenting about how she so loved her partner but that he was a difficult, complicated man. To which her friends replied, “But you must go all the way with this to the very end no matter how much it hurts.” Debra laughed and said, “That was just so remarkable. In California, the friends would have been wary of complexity and suggested that he’s no good for her; they would have put the emphasis on protecting herself.” The lack of pragmatism, the willingness to plunge into a situation that may be enriching and passionate but may also turn out to be painful, is a form of joie de vivre. As Debra sagely observed, “You can still have joie de vivre and not be happy.”
Happiness in suffering? It does indeed sound very French.
Excerpt from the chapter Savoir-Vivre: Life as an Art Form in Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French by Harriet Welty Rochefort (St. Martin’s Press)
Harriet Welty Rochefort is an author, speaker, freelance journalist, former professor of journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and longtime resident of France. Her latest book on the French, “Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French” was published in October 2012 by St. Martin’s Press. It was preceded by two light-hearted but informative books, French Toast and French Fried, also published by St. Martin’s Press. A French-American dual citizen, Harriet lives with husband Philippe in the trendy east of Paris in a garden apartment with a tiny lawn just big enough to mow and a fig tree that has miraculously defied both Paris weather and pollution.