Who Are the World's Top Pessimists?
by John Feffer
Bulgarians are proud to be pessimistic. Many of the people that I recently interviewed in the country spoke with pride of the various polls that bore out this depressing conclusion. So, for instance, in a 2009 Gallup poll, Bulgaria ranked at the very bottom of the world in their view of what life would be like for them five years hence. Incredibly, Bulgarian pessimism outperformed that of Iraqis and Afghans. Given the huge rate of emigration from Bulgaria, it's also possible that all the optimists simply up and left.
If you look at more recent polls, it would seem that Bulgaria has been robbed of its dubious distinction. A quick Google search reveals that Greece has become the world's most pessimistic country. But looked at more carefully, the most recent Gallup poll reveals that, thanks to the sovereign debt crisis, Europeans have all become a little bit Bulgarian. The pessimism index shows that Denmark and Poland now rank at the same level as Bulgaria. And even lower down the list are France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece. Pessimism is becoming a European disease.
What distinguishes Bulgarian pessimism from the garden-variety strain, however, is that Bulgarians are gloomy regardless of the economic situation in their country. This paradox prompted a group of distinguished researchers to conduct an anthropological investigation back in 2003.
Their report, Optimistic Theory about the Pessimism of the Transition, points out that Bulgarians, even young people, measure their sense of relative wellbeing from 1989, rather than the economic crisis of 1997. Large portions of the population - pensioners, the unemployed, the poorly educated, public sector employees - believe that they have not profited from the transition out of communism. The reinforcement of negative attitudes in the media also contributes to the prevailing pessimism, particularly in creating the impression that "the few" have prospered because of their "connections" while "other people" are not doing well at all - regardless of how the respondent feels about his or her own life. Moreover, this research bears out the conclusion that Bulgarians generally don't appreciate the virtues of democracy while forgetting the vices of communism.
But perhaps the most compelling source of pessimism is neighbor envy: "An enduring sense of frustration arises from the considerable difference between economic conditions in Bulgaria and the developed countries. As a result, society focuses its attention on the country's lagging behind 'the developed countries' rather than on the relative improvement from earlier, more unfavorable economic periods. Contrasted with those countries, the Bulgarian nation views itself as a systematic loser."
Maya Mircheva works at the Open Society office in Sofia, helping with exchanges between people living in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. She was still in kindergarten in 1989, yet she has all the pessimism of her elders. She has said goodbye to many of her friends who have left the country. She has watched the emptying out of the countryside. She has witnessed the entrenched corruption and apathy.
"For my generation and the generation that has come after us, I'd say that it's a lost generation," she told me in Sofia back in October. "We had the misfortune, if I could put it this way, to grow up in a vacuum. For me, this whole period of transition, well, they say 'transition,' but I don't see the end of it coming. It's been 20 years. It's the longest transition in history! I can see that young people are very disillusioned. They lack this spark. They don't feel that anything depends on them or that they can do anything to change the world."
As the interview progresses, however, she indulges in a bit of cautious optimism. "Of course, I'm not saying that everything is doom and gloom, even though I might sound like this. I'm Bulgarian after all. There are also some things that give you hope and optimism. It gives me hope, for example, to see these grassroots movements emerging little by little. That people are engaging, though on a limited level, in some form of activism is also a very good sign."
The full interview can be read here
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