Is ‘Joie De Vivre’ the French Secret to Happiness?

A look at the concept of joie de vivre and how to incorporate its principles into your life.

Credit: iStock/praetorianphoto

Remember French Women Don’t Get Fat? Mireille Guiliano’s bestseller struck a chord with Americans because it played on one of our most deeply held cultural truisms: French women possess a certain je ne sais quoi that allows them to indulge freely in brie and red wine without gaining a pound.

The idea that all French women are as effortlessly glamorous as Brigitte Bardot dancing the cha-cha in “Voulez-Vous Danser Avec Moi?” might be outdated. But like most myths, the chic French girl evolved from something very real: a deep-rooted cultural notion called joie de vivre — the joy of living. Cultivating this way of life will help you achieve goals that go way beyond looking cool in a beret. A study by University College London concluded that it could even help you live longer.

What is joie de vivre?

Vogue once quipped that French girls are “an eternal paradox devoted to ultimate goodness.” A deeper look reveals that there’s nothing paradoxical about French women or their approach to life. It all comes down to joie de vivre: a deep, almost defiant commitment to appreciating the good things in life.

Here are a few guidelines to help you approach life with more joy, the French way:

Prize quality over quantity

French cuisine is celebrated for its delectable pastries and generous use of butter and cream. But the country’s obesity rate is less than one-third of America’s.

The “how” has a lot to do with quality. French people tend to eat smaller portions, but take the provenance and freshness of their ingredients seriously. While Americans were busy replacing traditional ingredients with synthetic alternatives, these never caught on in France, largely because the French prefer to enjoy small quantities of the real thing.

French women also spend less on clothing than most other Europeans — just 3.7% of their income. Thanks to cheap fast fashion, the average American woman doesn’t necessarily spend more on clothing, but she does own more — about 30 outfits. According to Mireille Guiliano, French women “much prefer a few pieces of simple, good quality clothing that [they] can accessorize with and wear forever.” Strutting down the street in a well-stitched item is considered a bigger fashion statement than cycling through dozens of mediocre outfits.

Be more minimalist

When’s the last time you tried cleaning out your closet, only to fall into the same old mental trap: “I haven’t worn this in years, but it could be great for my sister’s baby shower! Well, if I find the right heels to go with it. And if my sister ever has a baby…”

We can be pretty attached to our possessions. But the psychological and practical benefits of owning less stuff are well-documented. And more pared-down consumption habits actually go hand in hand with the French emphasis on quality experiences, food, and possessions.

Enjoy the small moments

The idea of wolfing down a sandwich before running to another meeting is horrifying to most Western Europeans. They’d rather spend meals in the company of friends and family, chatting and catching up on news.

Think of this as the French interpretation of mindfulness. When you’re focused on enjoying what’s right in front of you (close friends, the delicate endive salad tickling your palate) you’re reclaiming your life — rejecting the notion that your time is someone else’s, or that you should always be striving for the next thing. When you focus on the now, you take control of your body and mind. And that’s truly empowering.

What You Can Do Now to Start Living With More Joie de Vivre

Sadly, we can’t all afford the leisure of a 2-hour lunch break. But you can still savor the time you have. Instead of a neglected deli sandwich, try packing your own simple lunch a few times a week. Sit down to eat, close your work email, and put your phone away. Chat with coworkers or read a good book while you enjoy your meal — even if it’s a modest one.

Take pride in your clothing. You don’t have to reinvent your wardrobe, but start being more mindful when you shop. Ask yourself: “Will I still want to wear this in five years?” Forget the latest trends and invest in classic pieces that represent you, and that you’ll love enough to wear over and over.

Honor the people, possessions, and experiences that bring happiness to your life. Try scheduling lunch with a colleague you’ve always found hilarious, preparing a fancy dinner on a random Wednesday night, or wearing that flattering pair of jeans even though they’re no longer “in.” You’ll be surprised at how many of life’s joys are right under your nose!

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Freelance writer, bookworm, passionate about sustainability and promoting the rights of all living creatures.