Forget New Year’s Resolutions. Just Be More French.
How French attitudes toward food, exercise, sex, living well, and even resolutions themselves can help us build better, longer lives.
Never mind why or for whom, but over the past six months, I have been steeped in the language of AlAnon. As part of my research, I read The Big Book. (Well, most of it. Some of it, as a non-addict, bored me.)
All of this steeping and reading and reflecting was not only illuminating with regard to the mechanics and struggles of addiction—in which zero-tolerance guardrails are the only way forward for addicts—it also made me think about all the ways in which those of us who are not addicts, particularly here in America, do New Year’s resolutions all wrong. When we wake up on January 1, determined to eat less and work out more, we are, by virtue of the puritanical, black-and-white way we judge ourselves, our choices, and our progress toward meaningful change, setting ourselves up for failure. Every time.
How many of us have eaten a bite of a cookie on January 6 and been like, whelp! There goes the whole year! Might as well eat six more. Pass the donuts. But what if an entire year of self-improvement were not at stake with each bite of a delicious treat? What if zero tolerance were considered absurd or even harmful for self-improvement, in realms outside of alcohol and drug addiction, and we could reframe the occasional lapse in resolve to be better in the name of living better.
This is the French way. And it is instructive.
Before moving to Paris after college, I struggled with all of the things we Americans, incorrectly and to our detriment, shove under the umbrellas of hedonism, laziness, and sin. I was either eating too much or too little. I was either on a strict exercise regime or being a slothful slug. I was either sleeping around joyfully or feeling guilty and secretive about my joy. I was either pushing myself to the outer limits of what I was capable of doing work-wise or lying in bed, paralyzed with exhaustion and inertia.
This was no way to live. I came down with mono. I broke out in hives, then shingles. I weighed 90 pounds at one point, 125 at another. I self-castigated, felt shame where shame had no place, fell into frequent pits of despair. I lived in a world of rigidity, absolutism, fear, and judgment.
It was only after I moved to Paris and started absorbing the French attitudes and credos toward living a good life, rather than “being good” (aka self-abnegating), that my health, both physical and mental, immediately improved. Food in France is not just sustenance, it is an excuse to savor nature’s bounty around a table, slowly, with friends, including a tasty dessert now and then but not always. Exercise happened nearly every day not because France has more gyms per square inch but because the French wear comfortable shoes and walk (and walk and walk and walk) through streets designed for humans, not cars. Sex in France is considered neither shameful nor something to hide from others but rather hygiene: as necessary to the maintenance of the human body as food and water. As for work, a job is merely the thing you do to earn money. It is not your identity. It is not your home away from home. Most Parisians never even talk about their jobs, and asking a stranger, “What do you do?” is considered obtrusive, even rude.
But don’t take my word for why living à la française is healthier than life in the U.S. The proof is in le pudding. Even taking all kinds of data points into account—access to healthcare, country living versus city living, wealth versus poverty, etc.—the average French person lives 3.5 years longer than the average American.
With this in mind, and because so many of my fellow Americans are about to set themselves up for failure or even further damage to body and soul with our typically tyrannical, win-or-lose resolutions, I’ve taken the liberty of reframing, through a French lens, seven of the promises we Americans tend to make on New Year’s Day:
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