An Interview With the French Author Who Has Happiness Figured Out

Couple hugging along Seine River, Paris, France
Couple hugging along Seine River, Paris, France Photo: Tom Merton/Getty

For decades, the French have ranked among the world’s most pessimistic people, so it’s fitting — in a life-is-a-farce-and maybe-also-merde kind of way — that a Frenchman should write a provocative, possibly even helpful, book about happiness. Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide was a best seller when it was released in France last fall, and this month, it’s been published here, in English, courtesy of Melville House.

Lenoir, a magazine editor, France Culture radio host, and professor at the elite L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, spoke on the phone from Paris about American culture’s contentment problem, happiness science, and The Bachelor

It’s a gross, rainy Monday in New York City. What reason is there for hope?
Ah, in Paris, it’s so sunny!

I guess accepting that other people have it better is an important part of finding happiness, so thank you for that.
Yes, I’m sorry. It’s beautiful weather here.

I’ll muddle through. So in your book, you write about how it’s essential to let the mind wander, and that undirected thinking is an important part of finding happiness. But it’s not like we’re all the Buddha, wiling away our time under the Bodhi tree. Social media is pervasive, work seeps into our time off, responsibility is never far away. Is American culture too time-consuming for happiness?
That’s the problem of modern life! I’ve noticed that in New York, people say, “Yes, I’m searching for happiness,” but they don’t then do what is absolutely necessary to try to be happier — and the most important thing is to observe yourself, to practice meditation, to be very aware of what you’re doing, not thinking of the bad things or the pressures you’re under. I stayed recently for a month in New York, and it was very interesting, because I asked all the people I met, “Are you happy?” And everyone says, “Yes! I’m great!”

But if you observe them, it’s clear they’re always under under pressure — to work or succeed or produce in some fashion. Advancement is all they have time for. It doesn’t seem like they’re enjoying life. And I thought maybe they always say “I’m happy” because it feels necessary to say that. If you say “I’m not happy,” people might think you’re a loser. So in America there’s even pressure to be happy, which is not the case in other countries. 

One of the main strategies of your book is making connections between various thinkers from different parts of the world and from different eras. Like, for example, how Schopenhauer is similar to Confucious, and how the stoic philosopher Epictetus is similar to Buddha, and yada yada. Which seems reasonable enough, in the same way that a lot of the core principles of the great religions are similar — they pretty much all agree on things like generosity and contemplation as being paths to contentment. But if there’s so much across-the-board agreement on how we find happiness, why is your book necessary? Why aren’t these messages getting through?
There are two simple answers. The first one is that it’s not enough to hear what you have to do. You also have to understand the lessons through your own experience. You can say to a child, “Do this and you will be happy,” but if the child doesn’t feel that, it won’t be work.

Spinoza has something to say about that.
Yes. He said that if you want to change, if you want to do something difficult — and being happy takes work — then reason is not sufficient. Desire is also necessary. We have to desire something in order to obtain it. So if we have a deep desire to be happier, to feel better, we will make a lot of effort to do it. And if it’s just reasons compelling us — it would be good to do that — we won’t make the effort. You have to say, with your full being, “I want to do that.” My nephew says he wants to be a rock star. But I ask him, “How many hours do you play every day?” He says it’s one or two. It needs to be ten.

I had the same problem.
Me too! It’s difficult to get what you want. Even if we desire something, most of the time we don’t take the right steps to get it — that’s the problem with pleasure. We want to be happy, but we prefer pleasure. But pleasure and happiness are quite different. There is no happiness without pleasure, but if you want to be happy, in a deep way, you have to choose not to search for short pleasures, but to make the effort required for greater pleasure, which is where real happiness lies.

Did you watch True Detective?
No, the only American TV I’ve seen is The Bachelor.

Both those shows suggest that happiness is an illusion. But True Detective, as far as I can tell, introduced a certain sort of anti-natalist nihilism to pop culture. The idea that we’re all just bags of meat and bone, making choices based on biological and sociological pre-determination, and therefore life is meaningless. Does that feel like a valid position?
It’s a part of the truth, but it’s not correct if you think it’s the whole truth. Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics said that happiness is in very small part about external conditions, the place where you were born, your family, things like that. That’s half of it. The other half is the decisions you make in your life. And I think that second part is where the truth is. There are happy people everywhere in the world, living under every condition. You can say that if you have good genes that produce above-average levels of serotonin and dopamine, you will be happier than your neighbor, who doesn’t have those genes.

But you can work on yourself. You can make good decisions, you can have faith in things, and, over time, if you work on it, you can be happier. So I am absolutely sure that scientists are right when they say that there are some things about personal satisfaction that are beyond our control, but it’s not just that. Your questions are very curious!

The idea that people living under adverse conditions can still be happy is a point you make a few times in the book. You bring up a holocaust victim, Etty Hillesum, who maintained a sense of hope and wisdom under unimaginably horrible conditions, as evidence that external circumstances don’t have to dictate mental states. But isn’t someone like that an incredibly extraordinary example? How can that be a model for the rest of us?
I don’t know, really. I gave that example because there are many philosophers, especially the Greeks and Spinoza, who said that happiness is a state of being. You are happy because you love life. Whatever happens, you love life, and you accept your situation as being part of the good and bad of life. In her letters from Auschwitz, Etty wrote that I love life, I feel free, I enjoy life even in this terrible situation, and that’s an example for hope. But it’s not easy, and maybe very few people can be like that. I don’t know. Your questions are very curious. It’s interesting for me.

Sorry — I’m predisposed toward pessimism. What’s one piece of practical advice about being happier that you can share right now?
I would say to “let go.” It’s important to have intentions to know what you want to do, to try to do your best, but you just can’t control everything. And if you let go, go with the flow, and are very flexible and open to the possibility that something you hadn’t anticipated might provide you joy, then you’ll be much more relaxed. The Taoist philosophers — Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu — say that flexibility is the most important quality to be happy.

One of the points you come back to often in the book comes from Montaigne and Spinoza, who explain that you have to know your true nature before you can satisfy it. How do we understand what our true nature is? I might feel in my bones that I want to be professional basketball player, but it’s not going to happen.
The trick is honest introspection. You have to think diligently about yourself, observe yourself. There is a way to tell, though: When you grow in the direction of your true self is when you feel joy. The joy is proof that the action is good for you. If you feel sadness in what you’re doing, or despair, that’s a clue too. Move in the direction of joy.

Another method for attaining happiness that comes up in the book involves the idea that if we’re consciously aware of our thoughts and emotions, we can then select among them more smartly. Which I guess is another way of saying that we should be mindful about discarding negative and non-useful emotions and thoughts. But how can we logically say that only one set of thoughts is valid? If happiness is rooted in deeper truth, and we say only our positive thoughts have value, aren’t we being untruthful about the negative thoughts? Why can we just say “that doesn’t count”?  
Let me answer with an example. I’ve been practicing meditation for 30 years. When I meditate, sometimes I feel emotions. I feel angry or upset. With meditation, mindfulness, you can learn to just observe that emotion and let it go. I don’t grasp it; I just let go. I realize that I am not the emotion. There’s something inside me deeper than the emotion.

So during the day, when someone tells me something very bad, I certainly feel very angry. But because of the meditation, I have the discipline to observe the anger, but also to know that I am not the anger. Then I can decide, is this emotion good or not? I don’t think it’s a logical fallacy to pick from a set of circumstances the one that feels best for me. I’m not saying that you have to give the thoughts unequal weight. I’m saying that meditation can help you observe them more objectively, and then make conscious decisions that will lead to more happiness.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being suicidal despair and 10 being full-body bliss, how happy are you?
Seven. But when I was a teenager, I was maybe a four.

Most teenagers are probably about a four.
Yes, but it gets better with time. I saw a very interesting study that said that most people feel happier between 50 and 70 years old. With time, with the experience of life, we can know ourselves better, and that leads to happiness. There’s a part of the book where I explain that sociologists do experiments where they ask people to rate their happiness, exactly like you just did. And they’ve observed that if people don’t work on themselves, if they don’t try to change their minds, to practice the meditation, to do something special to improve their happiness, then the rating they give will always be the same.

It’s like how lottery winners revert to their old levels of happiness over time — the external, material circumstances don’t affect their happiness in the long-term. It takes mental work. Like scientists say, we as individuals may have fixed natural levels of happiness. But you can change it if you work on it. So in all senses, your happiness depends on you.

The French Author Who Has Happiness Figured Out