By Joe Linstroth / Illustration by Mäité Franchi

The last few years have been stressful, to say the least. Heading into this academic year, Professor Juliette Rogers recognized the need for a course devoted to positivity and how people find happiness and meaning in life. So the professor of French and Francophone studies created one, turning to the time and place she knows best: nineteenth-century France. Dr. Rogers explains what we can learn about the pursuit of happiness from French thinkers, writers, and artists who hailed from an earlier period of great change.

Why is it instructive to look at how the French search for happiness?

Generally speaking, I think the French are viewed as kind of a gloomy group. In surveys about happiness, the French consistently rank lower than their European neighbors, and even worldwide neighbors. The way that the French have thought about happiness since the revolution—and yes, it is a generalization—is very different from what we consider the norm in the United States.

Why focus on the nineteenth century?

With a lot of things happening today, we can find roots in the nineteenth century. Like now, it was also a time of great change in French thought. The French Revolution ended up a real deception and letdown. There were great ideals in 1789, but they were followed up by the Reign of Terror and then Napoleon’s empire. By the 1820s, people were unhappy with what they had thought was going to be a great new world. As a result, there was this shift in nineteenth-century France toward looking for utopian societies and a better world. That’s when the search for happiness—and also a lot of the gloom and doom—began and is still reflected today, 200 years later. The French still have this idea that life could be better and it’s not, but they’re going to keep looking for ways to make it better.

What does the story of Cyrano de Bergerac teach about the pursuit of happiness?

Many of the film adaptations have happy endings, so the students were surprised that the original story ends tragically. But Cyrano’s decision was out of desire to make Roxane and Christian happy, not himself. It was a way of changing his life for the better, but also making life for others around him better too.

Obviously the story speaks to people all over the world to this day. They know about Cyrano de Bergerac because they can see themselves feeling insecure and yet still trying to find a place and some happiness in the world. It’s one of those French tales that has universal appeal.

What radical ideas were the French Socialist Utopians exploring that would make people happier?

There was a group of thinkers who wanted to create intentional communities that would focus on social well-being rather than individual liberties. For example, Étienne Cabet wanted to eliminate all private property, and this was in the 1830s before Marx and Engels. Charles Fourier eliminated all gender roles in his utopian model, so women and men could be married, but they didn’t have to be. There could be same-sex marriages. There could be women and men in power. Many ideas, however, were flawed with racist, sexist, and colonialist ideas of the time.

There were intentional communities built on these theories in France, and also several important ones in the United States, including the Icarian communities in Iowa and California. They didn’t last that long, but they were incredibly powerful to readers during that time.

This is the first time you’ve taught this course. How have the students responded?

They were fascinated to study art from this perspective, especially Impressionist paintings. The students discovered there were two kinds of Impressionists. Some who were focused on social gatherings in the countryside and leaving the city to find happiness. Then there were others who found happiness in a very urban, almost modern way, by going to cabarets and nightclubs. The students were impressed that the French could seek out happiness in different ways through these varying kinds of artistic expression. I was impressed that they saw that.

How do you encourage students to connect all this to what’s relevant in their lives today?

The students write regularly in their “gratitude journals’’ about three things that day for which they are grateful. It’s an exercise in slowing down and thinking about the small, positive things in life that make them happy.

What can we learn from nineteenth-century French thinkers that might apply to our own pursuit of happiness?

I think nineteenth-century French thought encourages us to try not to focus so much on the individual, on things like “making it” or being “successful.” Instead, perhaps we should focus more on happiness for others like Cyrano did, or happiness for larger society, as in a play we read by Pierre Faubert about the Haitian revolution where the main character sacrifices his personal happiness for the good of the cause.

We can also think about the Impressionists like Berthe Moristo who left their studios in Paris and went out to the country and found beauty in everyday things like going to the beach with their kids. It’s not about the grand successes. These more day-to-day, mundane activities make you happier than you would think.

March 6 2023

Back to top