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  • Writer's pictureGaili Schoen

The French Art of Living Well: Finding Joie de Vivre in the Everyday World

"At all levels of class and society, the French seem to hold secrets to finding moments of joy in their daily lives."

I find the subject of happiness fascinating. Finland always seems to top the list in the World Happiness Report, and this year was followed by Denmark, Iceland, Israel (pre-judicial overhaul), Netherlands and Sweden. I am always so curious to learn what it is that makes people happier in these countries than in ours. Beyond well-run public services, low unemployment and low crime rates, what are people in these countries getting that we don't get? How do governments make their inhabitants feel safe, connected and content?

As you might guess, I have read many books on the subject: The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well; Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life; Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, My Hygge Home; The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu; The Blue Zones of Happiness; and the books that offer happiness tips from multiple countries, The Atlas of Happiness and The Happiness Passport. I love them all - they are all full of wisdom and inspiration for living our best lives. After reading them I try to become more social, because being social is always high on the list of what makes people happy across the globe. But bookish people are often introverts and for introverts, sometimes reading about happiness is easier than getting out and participating in our communities!

My latest read on the subject of happiness is The French Art of Living Well: Finding Joie de Vivre in the Everyday World by Cathy Yandell. Even though France didn't make it into the top 20 in the World Happiness Report this year, and we know Parisians to be - shall we say - somewhat abrupt at times, I've always thought of the French as having great values. They take their time in preparing, as well as eating gorgeous and delicious meals, even snacks. Yandell tells us that until the pandemic, it was illegal to eat lunch at one's desk at work!

"Whereas in the United States, we often go to a dinner and then to a show, in France the dinner is the show....the message is "Enjoy!"

They take time off from work without qualms -- they know how to relax and enjoy life:

"For the French on the ship, the purpose of the voyage seemed to be the pleasure of the journey and one another's company, while most of us Americans were ticking off the days until we landed."

Yandell discusses some of the quintessential French mannerisms and activities such as faire le bise, the ritual of double or even triple or quadruple cheek-to-cheek air kisses, and their deep appreciation for fashion, sexuality and intellect. The French love their bookstores and publish "60 percent more books per capita than the United States." Their stories tend to have fewer "happy endings" than American novels.

"France has cultivated a public and interactive culture of readers who discuss books over coffee and on park benches....'Do not read as children do, to enjoy themselves, or as the ambitious do, to educate themselves,' wrote Gustav Flaubert. 'No, read to live.'"

Everyone buys their bread and pastries fresh from the local bakery (no Wonder Bread or Hostess Twinkies here!) and the weekly or twice weekly farmer's markets are not only filled with fresh produce and meats, but also act as a social gathering for French villagers.

In an interview, when asked about what she loves best about France, the author answered, "I love the French sense of time – even if their calendars are full, they still have time for a little conversation, 'un petit café,' or a walk." Yandell dives deeply into the writings of Baudelaire, Montaigne and Duras, she explores French history and culture, and warns about some of the faux pas we Americans tend to make while visiting, such as forgetting to say, "Bonjour!" when starting a conversation or asking a question. I loved learning that spa treatments can be covered by French health insurance, and that the French are building many more drinking fountains to discourage people from buying plastic bottles.

Joie de vivre is translated as "the joy of living" and Yandell offers many examples of slowing down, savoring the moment, questioning our priorities and living well that we Americans might consider adopting in our own lives. The French Art of Living Well was a pleasure to read and gave me much to ponder!

Hardcover 224 pages, Audiobook 7 hours.


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