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Who Are the World's Top Pessimists?

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 Interview

Do you feel as if there is a missing generation here in Bulgaria? So many people of your age have left Bulgaria. Do you feel that as a palpable lack? When you get together with people of your own age, is there any sense of pride about being here in Bulgaria instead of somewhere else?

I definitely feel that there is a big lack, that all these people are no longer here. This is one of my major concerns. This brain drain is one of our biggest problems. People of all sorts emigrate, of course, but especially the most educated ones are mostly likely not to come back. I've read that there's a trend of more and more people coming back, especially people from the first emigration wave of the early 1990s when the borders opened. Opportunities for doing business here are relatively better now than before.

But for my generation and the generation that has come after us, I'd say that it's a lost generation. 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. There are very few idealists who have the potential to become leaders and do something. Most young people have this passive attitude toward life. They live life from day to day. They believe that there is no future for them, without realizing that they are the ones who make their own future.

Of course you cannot just generalize. There are also many people who stay here on a matter of principle and may feel proud of this. But I don't think that the majority of young people feel very optimistic about the future here. Maybe it's because, as I said, at the time when they grew up there was also this value shift that came with the changes. The old values are no longer there. But also the new values are still very unsettled. The beginning of the 1990s was a time for these shady millionaires. For a long time, even today, many young people believe that the reason for living is to get rich very quickly. This is all they care about.

I don't know if you're aware of this phenomenon of chalga. If you want to study Bulgaria, this is something you need to look into. I call it a social cultural phenomenon. It's a kind of music. But it's more than just music for me. This music became very popular during those years. On the face of it, it's pop music. It's a mixture of Balkan styles: Serbian and Greek melodies with a pop feeling. I find this music horrible and tasteless. That's just my personal opinion and the opinion of many other people, with taste. But there are a lot of people who love this music.

They don't just love the tunes. They subscribe to the whole culture, the whole concept that this music is transmitting. When you look at the videos of these songs -- the style of the singers, the lyrics -- then it gets pretty obvious. Because they sing about money, about sex. It's kind of subtle. Actually it's not so subtle! It's a social phenomenon as well. A lot of young people listen to it. They don't just listen to it. They behave like it. Girls like to dress like these singers. They're role models.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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