French psychiatrist Christophe Andre a self-confessed pessimist, unlocks the mystery of what makes us happy.
Peter Van Dijk | March 2008 issue
For the second time in two weeks, I took the train from the Netherlands to Paris, and for the second time in two weeks I missed my connection in Rotterdam due to a screw-up by the Dutch railway system. The first time I got pretty irritated. The second time I didn’t.
The key was simple and as old as the hills, but it works like a charm: Try to enjoy the moment. During my second trip, I was reading Vivre Heureux (“How to lead a happy life”), a book by Christophe André, the French psychiatrist I was going to interview in Paris. In the first chapter he quoted Voltaire, who wrote, “I’ve decided to be happy because it’s good for my health.” Reading another of Andre’s books, L’Art du Bonheur (“The art of happiness”), convinced me I needed to interview him.
André has written some 15 books. Vivre Heureux and L’Art du Bonheur are targeted to a general audience. He also writes scholarly books and has done a comic book with the artist Muzo, in which André explains and clarifies a number of psychological disorders such as paranoia, narcissism and hysteria for laypeople in a surprisingly light and funny style.
Arriving in Paris, I make my way the next morning to his home in the suburb of St. Maurice near the Bois de Vincennes park and ring the bell at the gate of a beautiful villa. A couple of minutes later the gate is opened by André, who is strikingly bald, and he leads me through the garden into his large house. We sit in the sunny kitchen just off the garden in which a lonely cherry tree is also quite bald.
André looks like a Buddhist monk, which makes sense because he has studied Buddhism closely.
André, 51, the father of three daughters, spent his youth in Toulouse. Like many people raised in the Occitan region of southwest France, he is proud of his roots. He played rugby for 15 years, which is more popular there than soccer. “We’re different than the northern French. We stand around the squares or sit at cafés and chat about rugby. Our identity is partly based on the camaraderie of this sport.”
André developed a close bond with nature growing up near the Pyrénées mountains. “When we decided to buy a house here in Paris, I absolutely had to live near the woods. I need to take a walk every day to find my inner peace, to enjoy.”
In addition to writing books and giving lectures, André works two and a half days a week in Paris’ Sainte Anne Hospital as a psychiatrist, where he does a great deal of group therapy, and teaches half a day each week at the University of Paris X, Nanterre.
Why did you start studying happiness?
“All my books are based on discussions with my patients. In my first books, self-esteem is key; it’s a problem shared by many of my patients. I treat all kinds of related symptoms: fear of failure, poor self-image, social phobias. These patients suffer a great deal and don’t have the capacity to feel happy. I thought about how I could help them. In my own experience, happiness does take effort; you need to do your best to see happiness, experience it, absorb it.
“The first time I used a painting in my therapy was with a woman with agoraphobia. We were walking across the Saint Suplice square in the heart of Paris and we entered a church where the giant Eugène Delacroix mural Jacob Wrestling with the Angel can be admired in the semi-darkness. We talked intensively about all types of associations that arose from viewing the painting and she was thus able to start a process of self-reflection. After that experience I used paintings more frequently.”
Do you think people are naturally happy?
“We tend to be naturally gloomy. Melancholy is la condition humaine. Biologically oriented psychologists agree there’s a good evolutionary reason for this. When we were all still hunters and gatherers, a certain degree of concern was useful. It was prudent to remain alert to dangers and problems, which is why we’re geared to focus on the negative. It appears that the Christian church understood this early on: There’s no point looking for happiness on Earth; heaven is where you’ll find it. It is the reason why Sigmund Freud wrote: ‘Happy is not included in the plan of creation.’ It has also been proven that happiness and unhappiness are registered in different parts of the brain.
“And parents don’t often teach their children about happiness. Have you ever been on vacation and seen them stop the car, point and say: Look what a beautiful mountain valley. See that old tree and how beautifully it’s catching the light? They’re more focused on how well their children are doing in school.”
So you’re not a happy person by nature?
“There are people who are spontaneously happy. I don’t know many who are, but they exist. I’m more prone to depression than happiness; I’m more a pessimist than an optimist. I don’t have a happy temperament. My family background plays a role. My father was fairly violent. I’ve never taken anti-depressants, but I consider myself emotionally fragile.”
What about now? Do you experience moments of happiness?
“It’s hard work but it’s pleasant. You’ve got to put your mind to it. Working on happiness acts as an anti-depressant.
“You can spend an evening with friends and only realize once you get home that you had a good time. That means you’ve missed your moments of happiness. You need to realize that there are many opportunities to be happy. You have to realize: This is enjoyable, this is a nice moment, I’m having fun, this is a little bubble of happiness. I know people who have a nice weekend and cannot be happy because on Sunday afternoon they’re already -starting to think about going to work on Monday. And at work they’re thinking they’re not happy because they don’t see their children enough. Those people never have their minds in the present. You have to tell yourself: I’m going to enjoy this for a moment. My child is here and I’m going to stop thinking about my work. I’m emptying my mind and listening to what my child has to say.
“This can be learned. The English call it ‘mindfulness.’ Concentrating helps; meditation is very good. It takes hard work every day, but it works. Happiness can be learned. It’s within reach. When I get too nervous, too excited, too eager, then I know I need to rest and take a walk. When I walk, I need to stop occasionally and look around. Look and be open; absorb nature.
Happiness is about the little things. Happiness tends to be calm and peaceful. You don’t jump up and down with happiness, but with joy. Yes, there is such a thing as intense happiness, but it doesn’t happen often in one’s life. Striving toward absolute, huge, oceanic happiness, le bonheur fou, can be discouraging and distract you from little happiness.”
André can provide a definition of “Happiness” with a capital “H”—in his book Vivre Heureux, he writes, “The experience of Happiness exceeds that of pleasure; it inundates the personality, escapes its control and limits, both psychologically and physically”—but it is clear that is not how he likes to address the topic. “Would you like another cup of coffee?” he asks, thus guiding me back to a modest yet tangible experience of happiness.
André jumps from topic to topic, from little to big happiness, from evolution to practical life lessons, from art to rugby.
Among leftist intellectuals in France, happiness gets a bad rap. In Vivre Heureux, André notes that the deadly sin of happiness according to these critics is
petit bourgeois. Marcel Proust was gentler: Happiness was good for the body but bad for creativity. And any French intellectual worth his salt thinks happiness is selfish, for how can you be happy in an unhappy world?
André likes to quote playwright Henrik Ibsen: “To crave for happiness in this world is simply to be possessed by a spirit of revolt.”
André believes the root of the problem is that happiness dissolves differences between people, and French intellectuals, or the people who claim they are intellectuals, are afraid of being swallowed up in the mass of office clerks. “If a society places great emphasis on happiness being something anyone can achieve,” he says, “then those people who are always searching for a way to be different can do nothing but criticize and reject this striving toward universal happiness.”
Why has there been such a strong focus on being happy and living a good and conscious life in recent years?
“The interest in happiness emerged at the same time as the interest in health. Now that Westerners don’t have to worry as much about pure survival, they’re much more interested in the quality of life. But there’s also a long-term trend here. Happiness also is part of democratization. Since the 18th century, everyone has a right to happiness. The American Constitution speaks of the pursuit of happiness.
“Nowadays, happiness is a topic addressed by the consumer society. Happiness is everywhere, which of course leads to a deeper interest. This is undoubtedly because the need for meaning is more keenly felt since the role of religion has
What are the indispensable ingredients for happiness?
“Food and shelter are absolute conditions, of course. I distinguish between poverty and misery such as I have seen in Africa. You can still experience moments of happiness in conditions of poverty, but not in misery: it’s a near-constant wasting away. Human beings are social animals, so our ties to other people are important. And we are children of nature. Many happy moments are experienced in the outdoors. It’s no accident that in Christian heaven, we see our loved ones, friends and family again, and that this takes place in a natural setting of bubbling mountain streams and grassy meadows, the Garden of Eden.
Has there been progress in happiness? Are we happier than we were 100 years ago?
“The social sciences have been working with indicators of happiness for more than 30 years. All the studies find that people are reporting increasing levels of happiness. On average, Americans are happier than Europeans, and Northern Europeans are happier than Southern Europeans. The West is aging, and the majority of older people say they’re happier than they did in the past. They also understand happiness better, because they understand what is and isn’t important.”
“There are plenty of objective reasons, too: In the Western world, illness, violence and war determine our chances of happiness less than they did in the past.
“And then of course we have drugs to fight depression. Prozac doesn’t make you happy, but it does make you less unhappy. It decreases negative feelings so there’s more room for experiencing happiness. I see that my patients suffer less when they’re given good medication. Now, as an individual you have to work hard for -moments of -happiness. I don’t rule out the possibility that in 20 years there will be other serotonin-based drugs that will take over that function.
“What I’m saying isn’t politically correct—society will have to debate the matter, like with fluoride in drinking water—but I don’t think it’s impossible that there’ll be some kind of happiness pill. I see so many people being eaten up, destroyed, by suffering. Alcohol, drug and domestic-violence statistics are much too high in our society. There are so many problems, so much unhappiness. If pills can change that, I won’t reject it out of hand.”
How can optimism play a role here?
“Optimism is an ingredient for happiness. It’s not the same thing as happiness. There are pessimists who are happy and unhappy people who are optimists. Optimism is the human capacity to anticipate, and it’s stored somewhere in the brain. Spontaneously, I’m a pessimist. If you ask me what the future holds for Africa, I’ll start talking about famine, violence and misery. But if I concentrate, I think, What were things like in Europe 100 years ago? War, unemployment, illness, poverty. Things have changed here now, so why not there?
“Optimism gives you the power to try for happiness, and then when you get a little, you understand that trying to be optimistic was worth the trouble. In the end, it’s about making an investment in yourself. The Italian writer Primo Levi survived a concentration camp in spite of his despair, because he believed in life, saw something positive in it, and he held onto that.”
What is the purpose of happiness?
“It has no purpose—only that you’re happy. It gives you a more interesting life. We don’t live for happiness, but life is possible, beautiful and rich because it exists. When we’re happy, we don’t think about tomorrow; we enjoy it here and now. And we’re only able to do that because we know that there could be more suffering tomorrow. Happiness is only possible against the background of death; only we human beings know that we’re going to die, and that in itself is a good reason to strive
“You could also say, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ Everyone gets to decide that for themselves. But, again, meaning and happiness are not the same thing. A big hero of the Nazi resistance has given a lot of meaning to his life, but that doesn’t mean he’s a happy person. To paraphrase Diderot: Happiness is a state of well being you wish would last forever.”