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Central Asians Happier Than Russians

In Central Asia, subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction tend to be higher than objective wellbeing, and people in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan appear to be more content than Russians about their material circumstances and life in general. According to Tatiana Karabchuk, Deputy Head of the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR), and Daria Salnikova, Research Assistant of the same laboratory, relatively low levels of economic inequality in Central Asian countries may be one of the reasons for this paradox.

Subjective wellbeing is an important indicator of countries’ development and includes aspects such as satisfaction with one's life and financial situation, and levels of deprivation, stress and loneliness. In Europe, subjective wellbeing usually corresponds to objective indicators such as per capital GDP, unemployment and poverty rates, minimum wage, etc.

But the situation is different in the former USSR countries. In Central Asia, a mismatch can be observed between subjective and objective wellbeing, according to Karabchuk and Salnikova. Their comparative analysis reveals that despite low GDP, high migration, unemployment and poverty, people in three low-income Central Asian countries – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – tend to feel better off than Russians or Belarusians. 

According to the researchers, one of the reasons may be that economic inequality is relatively low in Central Asia, thus most poor people compare themselves to equally poor neighbours. In contrast, due to a widening income gap and plenty of information about the lives of the country's rich, even relatively affluent Russians report low subjective wellbeing.

The autors used data from the Eurasian Monitor and the World Values ​​Survey (WVS) in their reseach project* covering the period between 2004 and 2011. 

Figures and Feelings Do Not Match

Central Asian economies are lagging far behind Russia and Belarus; for example, in 2013, Russia’s per capita GDP stood at US$14,611 and was seven to eight times lower in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The latter three countries are also affected by the highest unemployment rate in the CIS, leading to intensive labour migration to Russia.

In terms of minimum pay, wages in the industrial sector stood at US$16, 38, and 40 per month, respectively, in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which is much less than in Belarus (US$167), Kazakhstan (US$118) and Russia (US$352).

Even from official statistics, the vast majority of Central Asians live below the poverty line. According to the UNDP data, 79% and 70% of people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively, lived on less than US$4.3 per day (the poverty threshold for Europe and Central Asia) in 2011.

In such circumstances, one would expect Central Asians to be less satisfied with their financial situation and life in general than Russians and Belarusians, but in fact, the opposite is true.

The study's authors examined two indicators of subjective wellbeing: satisfaction with the household's economic situation and overall life satisfaction. The Eurasian Monitor data indicate that Central Asians are more likely to be satisfied with their household's economic situation than Russians or Belarusians.

Available data from the WVS partly confirm this finding: in Kyrgyzstan, some 66% of the respondents were found to be satisfied with the financial situation of their households, compared to just 44% in Russia.

Table 1. Respondents reporting high levels of subjective wellbeing, %


% of respondents satisfied with life

% of respondents satisfied with the household's financial situation
















Source:  World Values ​​Survey, Wave 6

Likewise, in terms of life satisfaction, Russia and Belarus are lagging behind Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan according to the WVS data. The Eurasian Monitor shows a slightly higher life satisfaction in Russia compared to the low assessment of the household's economic situation, yet Central Asians, once again, report higher levels of life satisfaction than both Russians and Belarusians.

Inequality Undermines Satisfaction

The authors offer several possible explanations for this apparent paradox. One of them, based on the referent group and relative deprivation theories, suggests that people tend to compare their economic situation with that of peers from the same social strata; thus, since most people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are poor, they assess their own wellbeing by comparison with their equally poor neighbours.

In Russia, however, with its increasing income inequality and widening gap between rich and poor in terms of quality of life, people tend to compare their financial status with high-income groups whose lifesyle is widely covered by mass media. "Thus, they hold their own situation to a much higher standard," according to the study's authors.

Another theory is that the shadow economy and subsistence farming may contribute to subjective wellbeing in poor countries but is ignored by official statistics.

And finally, the authors do not rule out that data on subjective wellbeing in low-income countries may be affected by problems with measurement and indicator validity.

According to the study’s authors, more research is necessary to confirm any of the above theories and finally understand why the happiest people live in the poorest countries. 

*Based on an article for Sociological Studies

Author: Marina Selina, March 10, 2016