Why, despite greater economic wealth, people from post-Soviet states are not living happily ever after
Money can buy you happiness. Or at least in the UK, according to a study released last month by the Office for National Statistics. “Life satisfaction, sense of worth and happiness are higher, as the level of household wealth increases,” its authors say.
You would think these findings apply to the rest of the world, at least to some degree. And given that most people from the ex-Soviet bloc are richer today than they were under their old regimes – both in absolute and relative terms – you’d imagine life satisfaction there has now caught up with that observed elsewhere. While transition has rarely been a happy process, pundits have indeed long believed that economic and political reforms would in time be rewarded.
Well, it seems they haven’t. Despite strong income gains since the end of the 1980s, perceived welfare in post-communist states still hasn’t converged towards that of countries with a different historical baggage. Ukraine and Russia, for instance, are still to be found towards the bottom of most life satisfaction rankings; Armenians, Bulgarians, Georgians, Moldovans and Serbians are less happy than Peruvians and Indians. Why?
Another paper released last month provides a provoking answer. The enduring ‘happiness gap’ observed in post-Soviet states, its three authors reckon, is linked to the persistence of perceived corruption and government incompetence in the eyes of their citizens. Variables such as standard of living, life expectancy and religion, they find, play a much smaller part in people’s wellbeing than when their leaders are seen as performing poorly, breaking the law or endorsing nepotism.
Interestingly, perceived corruption in public services doesn't seem to matter much: petty bribery, while nagging and inconvenient on a daily basis, seemed to be better tolerated than grander cheating schemes. What makes post Eastern European unhappy, rather, is their disappointed hope that the quality of government would improve thanks to electoral freedom. In that domain expectations were high – and progress has been slow.
The paper’s conclusions have profound implications. For one, they suggest that the impacts of corruption are not only material, but also psychological: graft can more powerfully affect people than relative levels of economic prosperity. Second, they hint that a long-enough bout of government theft and incompetence can fatigue citizens as much as economic hardship, making future reforms potentially much harder to achieve. They also imply that the post-Soviet transition is not fully complete – at least in the mind of their citizens.
But there's probably another, simpler morale to the story: when money only helps a few buy happiness, it’s generally to the detriment of others.