It’s taken 25 years, but the “happiness gap” between post-Soviet countries and their peers has finally closed

Finding satisfaction at last.
Finding satisfaction at last.
Image: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov
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Transitioning from a centrally-controlled economy to one based on market forces was meant, ultimately, to improve the quality of life for people living in the former Soviet Union. And it did. It just took a really, really long time.

A new report from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development finds that, as of this year, a persistent “happiness gap” between people from post-Soviet countries and those from peer countries has finally closed. 

The report is based on 51,000 interviews across 34 countries conducted in 2015 and 2016 and it found, for the first time, that people in post-Soviet states no longer report lower levels of life satisfaction than those in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Greece, as they did in their country’s transition periods. Such transitions tend to be marked by increased unhappiness, as people who had previously been assured of certain social structures, like jobs, found themselves in a newly unstable world. (These transition periods were defined as taking place between 1992 and 1995, depending on the country.)

Levels of life satisfaction have risen with income levels, but money is by no means the only factor. Some of the countries compared have higher levels of income than the post-Soviet countries, but report lower levels of satisfaction. In fact, a drop in life satisfaction in countries such as Germany and Turkey, where satisfaction fell despite income growth, is part of the reason for the closing of the gap—a phenomenon the researchers called “happiness convergence.”

Across all post-Soviet countries, 51% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “All things considered, I am satisfied with my life now.” The unadjusted figure for Germany and Italy is 57%, but when income is removed as a factor, there is no significant difference.

The EBRD found that deprivation during the depths of these countries’ transitions was bad enough fundamentally to affect people’s health and development. To discover the extent of this deprivation, the bank measured the adult height of people who went through the transition periods of their countries in their most formative years, compared to those born before and after. Formative years are defined as the first two years of life, and shorter adult height can correlate with early-life socioeconomic deprivation, when other factors are adjusted for. They found that the cohort who were born into these transition periods was on average 1 centimeter shorter than those born before or after.

But, they found, deprivation had been balanced out in later years by other factors, including increased eduction. Those in the shorter cohort were likely to be better educated, and happier, than those born just before.