Anyone who has spent time in Bulgaria – especially on a long-distance train ride – knows that complaining is a national pastime. As your fellow passengers gripe for hours on end about the miserable state of the country, interrupting their grumbling only to answer their state-of-the-art mobile phones and to take sips from their flasks of homemade rakiya, you may wonder: do they really have it so bad?
The answer is yes… if believing something makes it so. According to the results of the European Social Survey, or ESS, Bulgarians set a new record among EU countries for their sense of poverty, dissatisfaction, distrustfulness and lack of self-criticism, sociologists and teachers from the ESS-Bulgaria consortium indicated.
The survey, which tracks the attitudes and values of Europeans, is conducted every two years in European countries. In 2006 and 2007, the survey team conducted personal interviews with 1,400 Bulgarians from 200 different communities across the country as part of a larger project including some 20 European nations.
Bulgarians are the least satisfied with their lives.
In terms of living conditions, on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is “completely dissatisfied” and 10 is “completely satisfied,” Bulgaria received 3.7 points – the lowest score among the countries surveyed.
Fellow EU newcomer Romania beat Bulgaria at 5.5 points, while happy-go-lucky Scandinavians topped the scale with scores above 7.5. Bulgarians were also in last place in terms of their satisfaction with life in general at 4.7 points. Once again, Romanians outranked them with a score of 5.8.
Bulgarians' confidence in the government is “alarmingly low,” but they have more faith in the EU
Confidence in governmental institutions and the judicial system in Bulgaria is alarmingly low, notes Associate Professor Liliya Dimova of the Agency for Social Analyses, or ASA. Bulgarians' faith in politicians, once again on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is “no confidence” and 10 is “absolute confidence,” rated a pessimistic 1.8, while trust in the judicial system earned a distressing 2.2 points. These indicators are the lowest among the countries surveyed. Due to perceptions of domestic corruption, Bulgarians have a relatively high level of confidence in European institutions. Dr Dimova points out that the opposite is true in Scandinavian countries, where trust in the EU is lower given the high level of faith in national institutions.
Bulgarians are suspicious of their neighbours
Bulgaria is the most mistrustful nation and Bulgarians are the most suspicious towards others in general, the survey indicates. Interviewees rated their level of trust in their neighbours at a wary 3.3 points, while in Denmark faith in others received a score of seven.
Money is the main concern for one-third of Bulgarians
Out of those surveyed, 36.5 percent considered personal wealth and luxuries to be exceptionally important. In this respect Bulgaria resembled other new EU member states such as Hungary, Poland and Estonia. The most materialist Europeans, however, are the Romanians: a full two-thirds of those interviewed, or 65.7 percent, ranked wealth as their top priority. Bulgarians once again brought up the rear in terms of satisfaction with local economic conditions, earning a score of only 2.6 compared to 7.6 in Scandinavian countries. The survey found similarly dismal results in terms of Bulgarian satisfaction with health services and national governance.
Bulgarian retirement: not exactly the golden years Bulgarians' biggest fear was a poor quality of life in old age. This concern scored 7.3 in Bulgaria, while in Denmark it rated a mere 3.5. However, Scandinavians believe that the individual is responsible for securing a satisfactory level of comfort during his retirement, while Bulgarians think the government should play the leading role.
Most Bulgarians think highly of themselves
All that existential dissatisfaction still couldn't shake Bulgarians' self-confidence: 72.4 percent, or three-quarters, of those interviewed rated themselves positively. The French turn out to be the most self-critical, with only every other Frenchman, or 54.6 percent, viewing himself as très bien. The survey places Bulgarians in the centre of the pack in terms of their sense that their neighbours respect them. They also hold an equally average position with respect to friendships with those nearby and closeness to neighbours. Perhaps the reason for Bulgarians' positive self image lies in their pride in the past. A high percentage of Bulgarians surveyed – 89 percent – believe it is important to preserve religious and familial traditions.
Bulgarians – the most miserable Europeans
Bulgarians feel the least happy in comparison to citizens of other European nations, according to the survey results. On a happiness scale from 0 to 10, Bulgarians scored a lukewarm 5.2, while ecstatic Swedes and Danes topped the scale with more than eight points. Bulgarians are cautious optimists, on par with the French, Slovaks, Poles, Portuguese and Belgians: 59.6 percent of Bulgarians responded that they were optimistic about their own future, notes Liliya Dimova. So does this mean Bulgarians are a bunch of whiners?
Not necessarily. According to ESS-Bulgaria consortium member Professor Nikolay Tilkidzhiev, Bulgarians' dissatisfaction with life is not so much a national psychological trait as an objective response to the fact that Bulgaria has the EU's lowest minimum wage and smallest GNP. Living conditions in Bulgaria are among the most difficult in Europe, which in his opinion gives rise to dissatisfaction and distrust toward institutions.
So next time you're stuck in a train compartment with Bulgarian grumblers, give them more ammunition for their favourite subject and tell them about the survey. You might even cheer them up so much that they'll switch to their other pet topic: how wonderful Bulgaria is.