Sunday, February 6, 2011

Final Thoughts on Bulgarian Unhappiness

About six weeks ago, I asked a simple question on this blog: Why is Bulgaria, relative to its income per person, the saddest place in the world? Since that time, I’ve had the chance to ask numerous Bulgarians this same question. Not surprisingly, many Bulgarians disputed the premise. But many others did not. Other opinions on this topic can be found here and here, but these are some of the more thoughtful and interesting explanations I was given.

Bulgarians Know too Much

According to the Bible, "with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." Put another way, "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

As a whole, Bulgarians are very well educated. They know what life is like in places like Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. It is these places with which Bulgarians compare themselves, and, when doing so, they tend to look upon Bulgaria unfavorably. They understand concepts such as democracy, capitalism, and meritocracy both as theoretical ideals and as practical systems of societal governance. And they are aware of the widespread corruption within Bulgaria which has kept such ideals from being realized. So, while most are appreciative of the political freedoms the past twenty years have brought to Bulgaria, many are resentful that corresponding economic freedoms have, in large part, been limited to a select group of politically connected elites.

Unhappiness is Part of the Bulgarian National Psyche

Bulgaria was under the Turkish yoke for nearly five centuries. In other words, Bulgarians were slaves to the Turks for almost five hundred years. When you are a slave and someone asks you, “How are you?” what do you think the answer will be? When has anyone been happy to be someone else’s slave? According to some Bulgarians, because of this history and the many years under communism, the concept of happiness has seeped out of Bulgaria’s national psyche.

Personally, I think this may be changing. There are some Bulgarians who, no matter what, answer the question, “Как си? (How are you?)” by saying, “Горе-долу (So-so).” But these folks tend to be older. When I ask my students the same question, most answer by saying, “Добре (Good),” “Супер (Super),” or “Екстра (Extra).” On those occasions when one does answer, “Горе-долу,” he or she is typically having a bad day or is sick.

Bulgarians are Very Superstitious

Many Bulgarians are extremely superstitious. The Bulgarian paranoia with “течение (drafts)” has been the bane of my existence since I got here, and it’s just one of many Bulgarian superstitions. The longer I’m here, the more I learn.

For example, last year, a friend who attends my adult English classes was having a birthday the day after one of our classes. I informed the class of this fact and wished her a happy birthday in front of everyone. I was surprised when no one else followed suit. After class, I walked with my friend toward our respective homes. When we went our separate ways I again wished her a happy birthday. This made her very upset and she scolded me for wishing her a happy birthday before it was actually her birthday. This, she told me, was sure to bring her bad luck.

I wasn’t surprised then when several Bulgarians said that, even if happy, some Bulgarians won’t admit to it for fear it will jinx them and bring them bad luck.

Bulgarians are Immoral

More than one philosopher has opined that to attain true happiness one must make morality his ultimate concern. Several of the Bulgarians I spoke to believe that Bulgarian unhappiness is corollary to the country’s immorality.

Bulgarians are Honest

This hypothesis seems contrary to several of the others, but more than one Bulgarian suggested it as a possibility. Ask a Bulgarian a question, and you’ll generally get a straightforward, honest answer. It might not be the answer you wanted to hear and you might have to listen to an earful, but what you’ll hear will most likely be the truth.

Bulgaria is Doomed by the Stars

Mundane astrology is a line of astrology that holds that countries, like people, have horoscopes. Some Bulgarians believe Bulgaria’s current condition is a result of the country’s horoscope.

Some of these explanations make more sense to me than others, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide what you believe the answer to my question is.


  1. Well, I didn't know countries had horoscopes =) And, speaking of drafts, here's a post on that.

  2. I wouldn't name bulgaria the saddest place in the world... greetings :)

  3. Every time I go back to Bulgaria, I find myself encouraging my mom to smile more especially when she's dealing with customers in our family's animal hospital. When I came to Canada, I had to learn how to smile more, a lot more than i used to. A Bulgarian friend of mine who also lives in Canada says that if you walk down the street in Bulgaria and smile at random people, you'd come across as weird to say the least.

    I have never heard the part about Bulgaria being doomed by the stars...

  4. On the contrary - do you prefer fake smiles or no smiles at all? When I was studying in the US the number of fake people and fake smiles I saw was amazing. I'll take the my friends' gore-dolu over any fake smile any day. Cheers to the peace corps falks - can't understand thousands of years of history in a year or two so you can make inferences about a whole culture.

  5. First of all, thanks for your comment.

    Second, as noted, the views posted on this blog are my own and do not represent the Peace Corps.

    Third, I don't pretend to know or understand everything about Bulgaria and its history or culture. All I'm doing is trying to learn. That's why I asked Bulgarian friends, colleagues, and students for their thoughts on this subject. I'm curious what inferences you believe I made about Bulgarian culture?

    Fourth, I don't disagree with you about the number of phony Americans, but there are also plenty of Americans who are genuine and kind (and happy, which is what this post was about ... happiness). I wonder if you see the irony in your comment - jumping to conclusions about an entire society based on limited, personal experience.

    Finally, there is plenty of science showing that smiling actually makes you happier. Try it sometime.

  6. I think the question "fake smiles or no smiles at all?"could be a great title for your article Sir! Indeed this sums up the bulgarian psyche. If someone smiles they must be faking it. It is immoral to be happy. It means that you are not sticking to the traditional values of working your ass off, in which case you can't be happy. After all only the fool works hard. And if you are not a fool and work hard, you must be a cheat. Then you could be happy but only secretly. If you show it publicly everybody will know that there is something immoral about you... Our national values are cliches, and we do it to ourselves as a nation. Positive thinking is generally labelled as americam spam. The bulgarian ego is so hudge, really - we think we are the best but either the world is wrong or the country is cursed... But we are honest and hardworking and hard done by our presumably "terrible" destiny... So you must be crazy or profane if you consider happiness as something fit for public display...