Monday, June 23, 2008

Why are Ukrainians unhappy?

According to a recent major world survey, happiness in Ukraine, along with the rest of the post-Soviet nations, rates near the bottom of the selected countries that were surveyed and ranked. The survey authors have posited that Ukrainians are unhappy because of poverty and because they are comparing themselves to Western European nations.

Financial Hardship and the Happiness Paradox

At the same time they also claim that United States is unhappy because it's so materialistic. I think it's simplistic to assume that unhappiness comes from the fact that people who are richer simply want more, although that's probably a factor. It's also simplistic to assume that post-Soviet people are unhappy simply because they are comparing themselves to Europe, as some have posited, although that's probably a factor as well. (In terms of national income levels most post-Soviet nations are at, close to or above the level of income during Soviet times, so comparison to the past is probably not a major factor anymore.) I doubt there is much to support the conjecture that materialism and envy is mainly to blame for unhappiness in US or the post-Soviet world.

I think there are deeper and more fundamental factors these surveyors need to look at. If I were to make a guess, I would guess that the poor (and rich) nations that have the highest levels of happiness also happen to be the nations with the strongest families (high percentage of marriages, low divorce rates, birth rates above replacement levels, etc.) and higher religiosity levels as well. There are many research studies showing these two factors being closely connected to levels of happiness, and that shouldn't be suprising given how important relationships are to human happiness - both strong relationships with people and a sense of a transcendent connection to a Higher Power. And those two factors also reinforce each other. More religious nations have stronger families and nations with a stronger culture of the family also tend to be more religious. Welfare states can take mitigate the poverty problem to some extent, but they can never replace a loving family.

So, while the United States is richer than Denmark, Switzerland and Austria, its divorce rate is also higher, so the people are less happy. There is significant psychological research showing that people who divorce tend to remain just as unhappy decades later as they were immediately prior to their divorce. (And those who considered divorce but decided to work it out are actually happier than those who never had serious relationship problems. Psychology Today did a major report on this a couple years ago.) And Switzerland which has the highest level of happiness also has dramatically lower rates of divorce than either US or Ukraine - only 25%.

The scholars who posit that wealth increases happiness are correct, but only to a point. For example, in US the happiest people are in the middle class, not in the upper middle or upper classes. Basically, levels of happiness tend to increase until they hit about $50,000-60,000 of family income, after which the level of happiness slowly declines with every dollar of increase in family income. (If you are interested in reading more on this particular topic, I would recommend a book by David G. Myers called "An American Paradox".) So, the optimal level of income that tends to support the highest levels of happiness is in the middle class of the nation that you live in. The middle class is important not just as the guarantor of democracy and stability, but it is also important in insuring national happiness. It would follow that nations that have a large middle class will tend to be happier nations than those that have great disparities of incomes, as in the communist and former communist nations.

Another factor to consider is the size of the country. It would seem to me that people in smaller countries tend to be happier than people in larger nations. After all, the happiest countries of Denmark, Switzerland and Austria are all rather small countries, all with populations under 10 million. That would be an interesting relationship to study.

The Philippines, India and Iran are happier than Moldova or Ukraine, because of greater social capital (family) and spiritual capital (experience of transcendence and/or community of faith). After so many years of communist rule, much of both social and spiritual capital has been destroyed in post-Soviet societies. China has seen a major drop in happiness, and much of it can be explained by the same factors. The reality is that where the state used to replace the family (state-run daycare, youth organizations, homes for the elderly, etc.) and the church (communist propaganda, official triumphant atheism), today it doesn't do that anymore to any significant extent. And Chinese families are beginning to disintegrate along with economic development, as divorce rates in China have doubled in just a few years. And there isn't much spirituality left after communism. Which is why underground Christian movements are booming in China, as documented by formed TIME Magazine Bejing Bureau head, David Aikman in his last book, "Jesus in Bejing": . The same thing is happening in Ukraine, except that given the high degree of religious freedom in Ukraine, Christians in Ukraine are not underground, but actually quite open and public.

To sum it up, Ukrainians are unhappy because:

1. They are poor - the Ukrainian economy is behind the rest of Europe at this point in history. The closer Ukrainians get to middle income nations, the happier they will get.
2. Ukraine's middle class is still fairly small and undeveloped. The middle class is the happy class. As it grows, Ukraine's happiness levels will grow.
3. Ukrainians are seeing a high disparity of income levels developing in the post-Soviet period. This creates negative tensions in society and is not good for harmonious social development. A strong family life tends to create a major offsetting effect for this phenomenon.
4. Ukrainian family life is quite unhealthy. The nation is experiencing a high level of relational rejection as seen in high rates of divorce, coupled with a very low birth rate, one of the lowest in the world. A strong culture of the family is needed for the formation of significant stores of social capital in Ukraine.
5. Ukraine's spiritual capital was seriously damaged during the years of Communist rule, although not as heavily damaged as in Russia. There's a much greater degree of religious freedom and the rates of growth of churches and religious organizations in Ukraine are much higher than most of the rest of the former Soviet Union. And this portends well for Ukraine's future.


  1. Good analysis. I also think that Ukraine still seems so divided on a lot of issues, ideas and ideals that the culture almost seems split because of this. In the US, we all have our differences, but when it comes down to it, people all see themselves as American. Hopefully, as the newer generations amke Ukraine their own, they'll all come together as Ukrainians to help make it a better and happier country.

  2. It is true that Ukraine is divided in many ways. But it can also be seen as a blessing in disguise, because it prevents anyone from dominating the entire country, (like Putin and Medvedev have done in Russia). This makes it possible for democracy and freedom to grow.

  3. It is an interesting point of view.
    I am inclined to agree, but not 100%.

  4. Ukrainians will once again become richer and happier like they were during the 1920's and earlier.
    1.Ukraine will become a major world producer/exporter of grain, since Ukraine is the "Breadbasket" of Europe, so after much investment from Ukrainians and foreigners alike, Ukraine will be a major producer/exporter of grain,
    2. Ukrainians are unhappy due to the fact that they are at this point like the vice-Prime Minister Oleksandr Tyrchinov said, "Ukarine is experiencing a type of "rebirth" in which they will either embrace Ukraine or become assimilated into other nations.

  5. The 'breadbasket of Europe' is an old stereotype. Russia produces 3 times as much grain and other agricultural output as Ukraine today and Kazakhstan about the same as Ukraine. Although Ukrainian farming is fairly outdated still and definitely could benefit from the infusion of new technology and significant capital.

    In any case, the real wealth is in the brains and in the freedom to use them, as well as in the social capital - families, churches, civil society.

    In that respect, Ukraine is looking promising. The percentage of college-educated people in Ukraine is roughly equal to that of Western European countries today, although the quality of education is uneven. That number should continue to increase if Ukraine is to become very successful and college standards should continue to be increased, as they are now. The societies of the Asian nations that have become major success stories have a much higher percentage of college-educated youth. Technology in Ukraine is booming, and in several areas, such as rocketry, tank technology, stem cells research, and others, Ukraine is in leading positions in the world. But investment in basic research needs to increase significantly if this edge is to be maintained and increased in the future.

    Even more importantly, another condition that is highly important to economic and cultural success is the rule of law, and it is still quite weak in Ukraine. It's important to have simple laws that are respected by everyone. Ukraine's laws are complicated and contradictory, and there are simply too many of them. By simplifying and correcting its laws, Ukraine will strengthen property rights protection, significantly decrease bureaucratic redtape, and cut out most of the corruption that continues to plague Ukrainian society.


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