A couple of years ago, an interesting article appeared in the Economist, titled “The rich, the poor and Bulgaria.” Well, bottom line (apart from all the other interesting information) is that Bulgaria, relative to its income per person, is the saddest place on earth. Ok, that article is 5-year old by now and the statistics might have kicked us out of the bottom but from my own observation, things would at most be marginally better.
Now, after I have myself done research on well-being and on what makes people, on average, happy, I keep on pondering what it is that makes living in Bulgaria worse than in Afghanistan.
In general, surprisingly to some, income is not necessarily the key to happiness. Once the basic needs of people are met, the more money you have, the less its contribution to your well-being. And with income, two factors kick in. First is your aspirations. Basically, the more you earn, the more you expect your income to be increasing in the future, and the larger the increase you need to stay satisfied. For instance, if people win the lottery, they become very happy, but that happiness does not last too long. In the end, money does not buy happiness per se.
Second thing that matters is how well you fare compared to others in your comparison group (peers, friends, co-workers, family, so on). Basically, if you lose your job, that is likely to disturb you a lot, but if the unemployment rate is relatively high, you see it as a less of your own fault perhaps, so your life satisfaction reduces less so. Or, if those bullies from high school are doing bad in life, you might feel good for your current situation, even if you are not where you expect to be in life.
Now, in the case of Bulgaria, it is true that there are many people living in poverty or barely making ends meet. The key perhaps is that there is a lot of inequality within the country. We are also the poorest country in the European Union. And in most cases, those enjoying high income did not honestly earn it. Add to it the corrupt and heavily dysfunctional political, social, and every possible-you-can-think of system. No wonder people are so dissatisfied.
But most of all, if you ask me, it is about the attitude, the attitude and the choices you make to live your live. Every time I get back, I am overwhelmed by all the complaining, whining, nagging, impoliteness, and pointless shouting. My nerves are always on edge and my energy is drained in no time. The lady behind the desk in any institution you go to is taking offense by your mere existence. The taxi driver goes at warp speed, cursing at any pedestrian who dares to cross at a zebra pad, cursing at the mayor who never bothers fixing the streets so that the cars break down in no time. The fact that leaving (and, of course, locking) a bike outside for maybe a minute, is equal to never seeing it again. The lady at the hair-dresser complaining how she paid the cable providers to fix her internet 7 days ago and still nothing has happened. The teacher complaining about her low salaries and how for so little money is not worth the effort.
I am getting a headache just going through a few of these scenarios in my head. I think the problem is the attitude, not the complaining part. The part where all you do is sit on your behind and complain about it without doing anything to change at least your own situation. Another characteristic, very typically Bulgarian (according to my humble observation, of course), is that people are always striving to reap results with minimum efforts possible. Why should I do this extra exercise when I can copy it from the nerd in the class? Why would you contribute to a present when you can free-ride? Why would you invest in getting something when you can steal it from somewhere (public or private property)? Basically, there is this belief that if you can, free-ride, if you really cannot, put minimal efforts, just enough to get you pass a course, pass a grade, get a diploma, get a job. So as children grow up having adapted the minimal efforts approach, of course, when they get a menial governmental job, they will be offended at you for disturbing their peace and quiet and asking them to do their job. However, free-riding from an economic point of view leads to a market failure — one way or another.
Bulgaria is not the saddest place on earth. It is simply the grumpiest.