The French are different from us. When I first saw Paris, I was instantly enamored with this magnificent metropolis - as, I would imagine, any first-time visitor would be. What impressed me most, however, was not the grand architecture, the rich history, the cultural versatility. Rather, it was the ability of the Parisians to maintain a sense of tranquility, even leisureliness, in the midst of all the razzle-dazzle of big-city life.
The countless street cafés along the crowded boulevards are filled at all times of the day with patrons nursing espressos or wine. There are inner-city farmers markets where you can haggle with the locals over the price of just-harvested vegetables or fresh fish, as if you were out in the country.
People take time for the things that matter to them the most. Interrupting someone's lunch for any reason is sacrilege. An hour or two for an afternoon nap, especially during the summertime, is considered some sort of birthright. Visitors unfamiliar with these customs may think of such behavior as laziness. And yet, when you compare statistics, the French are counted among the most efficient and productive workers in the world. It's all part of what they call "savoir vivre" - knowing how to live.
On the other hand, many Europeans, especially the French, tend to think that we Americans are all work and no play. True, on average, we do work longer hours and more days in the year than our counterparts over there. We're also known for taking shorter and fewer vacations than workers in most other industrialized nations.
That doesn't mean that we feel chronically deprived of the pleasures of life. As studies keep indicating, most Americans are happy or reasonably happy with their lives at work as well as at play. In fact, from its inception as a nation, America has given special value to the notion of personal happiness. The pursuit of happiness has always been at the center of how we define ourselves individually and collectively.
In our culture, of course, success is largely measured in economic terms. The rapid accumulation of ever greater wealth is a goal (or dream) of many. A number of recent surveys, however, have shown that only a minority of those interviewed named "making lots of money" to be the most important goal in their lives. "Good health" ranked usually very high, followed by the importance of having good friends, a happy family life as well as work that is fulfilling. When asked what changes they would like to make in their lives, most people said they preferred to have more "time" for themselves. Surprisingly, many said that they would be willing to accept a reduction in income in return for more free time. Clearly, the ability to buy more possessions ranked far behind the desire for more time. So, would we become like the French after all, if we had the chance?
In truth, it's probably not all that relevant how much time we spend working or relaxing in order to be happy. It all may depend on how we feel about the work we do or the time we spend at home. Running a successful business, writing books or creating beautiful art can be exceptionally rewarding - even though it may absorb a lot of time and energy. On the other hand, wasting time and getting bored can be terribly frustrating.
Inevitably, work turns into stress whenever we would rather do something else but can't get away. Boredom occurs when we can't fill our time with something interesting or meaningful. After a while, life becomes unbalanced either way. So, achieving good balance is the key - whether you're French or not. Beyond that, there are once in a while those little sparkles of sheer bliss. They don't come often, but they can happen to everyone. This is better described by this quote by Ashley Montagu: "The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us."
imi Gustafson R.D. is the author of "The Healthy Diner - How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun." Her book is available in bookstores and on the Internet at www.thehealthydiner.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org