“Effortless beauty is a Chanel way of life,” the French makeup ad proclaims. With just the right eye shadow, mascara, eyebrow pencil, foundation, powder, lipstick, gloss, contouring—neither too much nor too little—a woman can look completely natural, as though she were wearing no makeup at all. And hair is meant to be fashionably disheveled, as suggested by L’Oréal’s Messy Cliché hairspray and its French Froissé (mussed) cream. It’s all about subtlety. It’s about giving the appearance of being simultaneously relaxed, chic, and classy. But how to achieve that look?

To begin, there’s the getting dressed. Imagine the young woman who rises to contemplate the short pencil skirt or the loose, wide-legged denims, the ankle boots or the baskets (sneakers), the opaque tights or the patterned ones, and the way to make everything match without seeming too matched. As a last touch, she ties on a scarf, which must look thrown on (not carefully tied around the neck like a noose). First, the scarf must be fluffed up by shaking it, then folded in two, and then placed loosely around the neck. Then one end is inserted into the other end and turned over, then one of those ends is threaded back through the available loop, and then the scarf must be shaken again to look windblown. See? Effortless.

As for the man, he slips into his shirt, ensuring that it is unbuttoned a few notches for the artistic, relaxed look. Definitely not a tie unless he is in one of the rare professions that still require one—even the Assemblée Nationale has recently questioned the necessity of wearing a tie. The pants should be tight around the seat, but not too tight, and not too long, to show bare ankles if he is extremely stylish. With just the right gel, the hair can be combed and then shaken up, as though he has just come in from a storm, like Laurent Delahousse, the television journalist trendsetter in casual chic. Or like François Civil, today’s dimpled heartthrob actor with the perfectly tousled mane.

It’s all about subtlety. It’s about giving the appearance of being simultaneously relaxed, chic, and classy.

The French language might tell us something about the desire to look carefree. (If you can’t be carefree, at least you can appear to be!) The word insouciant must be difficult to translate since English has borrowed it. It has many definitions, but it literally means “being free of worry” (souci = worry). Insouciance is something to be aspired to: in his journal, the celebrated 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert expressed his regret about not having the ironic insouciance that many others possessed. French literature is filled with ostensibly insouciant characters, from Gargantua to Madame Bovary to Cyrano de Bergerac.

In every case, however, appearances deceive. Gargantua is faced with a horrific war, Madame Bovary becomes a victim of her own romantic imagination, and Cyrano de Bergerac suffers miserably for love. But all of them give the impression of living the carefree existence they hope to create.

In writing my book The French Art of Living Well: Finding Joie de Vivre in the Everyday World, I realized that part of the celebrated French “joy of living” stems from insouciance—not freedom from care (which might imply an indifference to people and things), but freedom from worry. Every human has concerns, to be sure, but the question becomes what to do with them. The response of the French seems to be to downplay them whenever possible, to savor the moment, and to fashion an effortless-looking life.

During my time in France, I have been struck by what first appeared to me to be a culture that lives for dinners, celebrations, and vacations. “What do you plan to do in August?,” I am frequently asked. Most French people take off the entire month of July or the entire month of August. French law guarantees a minimum of 5 weeks of vacation for virtually all workers, and in some cases, with seniority, up to 10 weeks. At first, I wondered how the French ever got anything done, but numerous studies have shown that French productivity is far above the world average. Somehow, the work is accomplished without excessive exertion.

Entire books have been written about the French not trying too hard and not caring, but for me those generalizations do not ring true. It’s more about giving the impression of not being burdened. The effort put into looking effortless reflects what I’ve come to see as part of the French way of being: do your work well but use your full vacation, take time each day to enjoy, and, after curating your uncurated look, walk out the door with flair to meet the day.

Cathy Yandell’s The French Art of Living Well is out now from St. Martin’s