Toll of Transition in Eastern Europe and Former USSR

by Angus Deaton, Ph.D.

Populations less content than their average incomes would suggest

PRINCETON, NJ -- Gallup data from around the world show that, as a rule, a country's average income can help predict how satisfied its residents are with their lives. But every rule has exceptions, and in this case many of them can be found in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The graph shows the relationship between a country's average income (per-capita GDP in 2003, plotted on a logarithmic scale) and its residents' average life satisfaction rating (on a zero-to-ten scale). The circles represent countries, with diameters proportional to population. The regression line through the middle is the best fit between the two variables among all the countries studied; the closer a country is to the line, the better it fits the overall pattern.

The green circles, representing Eastern European and former Soviet Union (EE/FSU) countries, show how they tend to score lower on life satisfaction than their average incomes would predict. In fact, the two countries in the bottom 20 on average life satisfaction that have significantly higher average incomes than the rest are Georgia and Bulgaria.

Growing Pains

Former Soviet republics also have among the most unreliable income estimates, so it's possible that their GDPs are somewhat overstated by the estimates used for this study. But even so, it's undeniable that economic conditions have been improving in many of these countries; 12 of the world's 20 fastest-growing economies between 2000 and 2003 are in this group, as are three of the top five (Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Ukraine). In fact, low satisfaction ratings from high-growth countries in these regions largely account for the seemingly paradoxical finding that overall across the 132 nations studied, income growth is negatively related to life satisfaction.

Drops in life satisfaction with age are also particularly striking among EE/FSU countries. In Russia, for example, the average life satisfaction rating for 15- to 19-year-olds is 5.99, while the average rating for those aged 65 and older is 4.3; in Hungary, the corresponding figures are 7 and 4.95. Whatever aspects of the economic transition are making the citizens of these countries dissatisfied with their lives, the effects are much more pronounced among the elderly. Perhaps it is they who have suffered the adverse consequences of disruption, who were most satisfied with their old lives, and who cannot expect to live long enough to see any improvements that might occur in the future.

Health Worries

The unusual negativity from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is not limited to overall life satisfaction -- it is even more evident when respondents are asked to say whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with their personal health. Countries in this group represent 11 of the world's 20 lowest countries in terms of health satisfaction.

In six of these countries, life expectancy declined somewhat between 1990 and 2005. However, as noted in a previous article (see "Rich World Aging More Contentedly Than Poor" in Related Items), the lack of health satisfaction cannot be attributed entirely to the objective decrease in life expectancy. In numerous sub-Saharan African countries, health satisfaction is much higher despite that life expectancy has dropped far more sharply. The low ratings from EE/FSU countries seem to say less about their current health conditions relative to other regions in the world, than about declining health conditions among populations that were used to a better state of affairs.

In terms of both life satisfaction and health satisfaction, these global data suggest that the outlook of populations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been profoundly affected by the changes their countries have experienced over the past 20 years. Their status as outliers in the global relationship between income and life satisfaction is evidence of the unique trauma these countries have experienced in their transition to more open political and economic systems.

Angus Deaton is a Gallup Senior Scientist, as well as the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Professor of Economics and International Affairs, both at Princeton University.

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