Happiness in Russia: A Culture of Learned Pessimism & Unhappiness

The original blog post about Happiness in Russia was written on 31/01/2018, 4 years before events the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Still, given the latest interest in this blog post, I decided to revisit this topic updating it with the latest information about events in Russia.

I still tried to keep as much of the original post as possible as I believe that most of the information is still relevant and shouldn’t be biased by current events. Certainly, I added a quick note about the war in the last paragraph, which will be updated eventually everything calms down (last updated on 31/5/2022).

Regarding Happiness in Russia, we have a culture of learned pessimism and unhappiness

When I think of Happiness in Russia, I think of a country where people are unhappy due to their culturally learned pessimism.

Thus, I’m not saying that I dislike Russia, that Russians don’t want to be happy, or that Russia was voted the unhappiest country in the world on some happiness scale (it is actually ranked #73 on World Happiness Report in 2020, projected go down in upcoming years).

Still, I consider Russians to be culturally unhappy because they learned to be unhappy from everyone else, which is purely and simply the definition of culture.

(Un)Happiness in Russia With Locals

Unknown to some readers, I was born in Russia, where I lived there only for the first 10 years of my life. Yes, I have double citizenship, also being a child of Europe, where I lived pretty much the rest of my life until today. This makes me a native Russian speaker, as I have a strong personal connection to Russia, and this background gives me a unique perspective to discuss Happiness in Russia.

Happiness in Russia With Locals

Interestingly, outside of Russia, I regularly meet people who speak the Russian language but are not necessarily Russian. They can be people from Ukraine, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, and many other Slavic colonies, which, in one way or another, are deeply influenced by Russian culture.

In Russia, these people are often called “foreigners” and regularly are looked down upon. Abroad, they are seen as fellow Russian speakers and are considered to be one and the same. Generally speaking, all these countries share many similar characteristics, which is why when we speak of Happiness in Russia we are also talking about Happiness in these Russian-speaking countries. 

Moreover, this article was re-written several times as a result of numerous discussions with Russian speakers (2018 edition). As such, in the past, my words created some heated debate, which only lead to the improvement of the content of this post and this blog overall.

I even revisited Russia, as I haven’t been there for over 20+ years, to confirm that everything written here is correct and relevant. Today, I’m happy to report that this article is up to date, but if you feel like you disagree with something written, please leave your ideas in the comments below! 

Culture is a Slow Changing Beast

Today, technology changed the world into a global economy, unlike anything previously seen in the world. It connects us globally and influences us in virtually every aspect of our lives, changing even the most isolated parts of the world. Russia too has experienced huge progress over the last decade due to this global trend. However, as mentioned before, culture is a slow-changing beast (bear?) meaning that people’s minds often take longer to catch up with a new reality.

As such, I keep vigilant when I meet new Russians who I don’t know, even if they are acting friendly, as I had many instances where I was metaphorically stabbed in my back. This even happened if I was nice to them before and this negative attitude was completely unnecessary.

Russians just think in terms of “every man for themselves”. They don’t think in terms of how this or that will affect them or others emotionally, which, on a side note, I found to be rather traumatic when I was younger. Here, I must state that not all people are like this, but I found enough people like this to make me wary.

In fact, I believe that people learn this behavior from each other, which is why we call it culture. It is passed from generation to generation, almost like a Cold War mentality, and people live in a constant state of distrust, vigilance, and negativity toward each other and the government. They had to do so in the past if they wanted to survive. 

The Cold War Which Follows Russia to This Day

Old habits die hard. This is true also for Russians who bring some of their old traumas to the present day. As such, Russians have a history of ruling parties who don’t always have the best interests of their people at heart. For example, while in power, Joseph Stalin (or simply Stalin) executed over 700,000 of his own people. Grigori Rasputin (or simply Rasputin), was a Russian mystic and doctor, who gained considerable power with Nicholas II, in the end killing him with poison. Lastly, Ivan, The Terrible got his terrible title because of the fear he instilled in both his subjects and enemies abroad. 

Happiness in Russia on the Red Square.

This problematic leadership made Russians distrust their leaders and fellow men. After all, neighbors could easily report each other to the local authorities, which often would lead to dire consequences. This dynamic is partially still visible in Russia today.

For example, upon entering some local bars or restaurants, I notice people stopping to talk or lower their voices in order not to be overheard, even if they were not talking about anything noteworthy. Presumably, this is an old reflex designed for self-preservation.

Russian Literature Carries Past Traumas

Also, on my visit to Russia after 20+ years, I decided to take a look at some foreign books about Russia. One of such books was Understanding Russia by Lynne Ann Hartnet, an Associate Professor of History at Villanova University, where she teaches courses on Russian history.

In this book, the author reveals that many famous Russian writers, like Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin, wrote about the negativity of their times. For them, writing was one of the few ways they could talk about negativity in their lives and the state of affairs in Russia, without being persecuted. 

To this day, Russians are born and raised on these popular old books, yet they rarely understand the context in which they were written. Overall, this means that some of the most popular books in Russian literature are written with a seriously negative undertone. Respectfully, this reflects in national mentality and their culturally learned pessimism. 

Doing Business in Russia

If you will ever go to a store or to a business meeting in Russia you will be met with some of the grimmest faces on the planet earth. Why? Because it is in their culture to be “serious”. In fact, it is said that if you will smile while doing business, you will come across as weak and unprofessional, and this invites wolves (bears?) to take advantage of you, or at least so they think in Russian.

Doing business in Russia does not make people happy. Happiness in Russia requires people to be negative and grim.

As such, Russians associate seriousness and strength with negativity, but this is just not the case. It takes strength, energy, and courage to be happy, especially when everyone else around you is constantly negative. In fact, Russian toughness is just a facade. In reality, people hide their worries, insecurities, and traumas behind a curtain of strength. Instead, it takes strength to cultivate and maintain happiness, which is why happiness is a much stronger indicator that you are strong and prospering. 

So, when talking to Russians, it helps to understand their culture. This will help with communication. It is like realizing that French people are not “arrogant”, but it is just part of their “revolutionary” culture. They are arrogant to each other and to everyone else around them because they were culturally raised to be so. The same thing applies to Russians. Seeing past their facade of negativity and bull-like aggression will help you to see a human being. But stay vigilant. Even if you can understand how a bear acts, doesn’t mean that it won’t bite you, so a cautiously optimistic approach works best.

Culturally Learned Optimism

To oppose the culturally learned pessimism in Russia, we need to look overseas to Canada. If you have ever been to Canada or met any Canadians, you would see that, on average, they are much happier than other people in the world. They learned to be so from other Canadians, which is why we will respectfully call their form of happiness a culturally learned optimism.

Sure, there are incredibly negative people in Canada, just like there are incredibly positive people in Russia, but these are more of an exception than the rule. This is great news, too, not because all Russians should leave for Canada to learn optimism, but because optimism and pessimism are teachable, and because you can save yourself a trip to Canada or Russia and instead just read my book or participate in one of many programs we offer to learn how to be happy.

Moreover, the few Russians who were born or raised overseas, or just traveled abroad for a vacation, report to be way happier than how they feel in Russia, almost an overnight transformation. Respectfully, people who visit Russia can succumb to local negativity, as people will snarl at you on regular basis.

On a personal level, these experiences showed me how good my happiness teachings actually works, as they tested my positivity on a regular basis. Luckily, I’m happy to report that happiness works even in such places as Russia. You just need to know some of the basic concepts of happiness. 

“But Russia Is Not So Bad” – Some People Say

“Don’t be so harsh! I am from Russia / I’ve been to Russia / I have Russian friends and they are not victims of the culturally learned pessimism” – some people will say.

I will be the first person to admit that for every rule there is an exception and I am rather harsh with Russian stereotypes. Yet, there is truth in every stereotype as much as there is truth in every joke.

Solders in service of happiness in Russia

Thus, when I share my findings with fellow Russians, including the theory of a culturally learned pessimism, I often get mixed reactions. Some people say that I am exaggerating. They say that this negativity is just isolated cases and locals smile and laugh much more than they used to. However, they later admitted that while things did improve, most Russians are still considered to be very serious compared to people from other countries in the world.

Conversely, other people agreed that despite occasional smiles and laughter, most Russians are still quite grim, adding that you only need to go into a local train or metro station to find how true this is. Moreover, I was told that people predominately feel happy in the big cities, like Saint Petersburg and Moscow. There people have a higher purchasing power and access to the same products and services we have in Europe and the USA. However, if you are to go to smaller cities or villages in Russia, you will find them full of grim and unhappy people.

A Story of a Model, Bouncer, & Gold Digger

In addition to everything stated above, we are going to follow a different rather harsh Russian stereotype, which does not apply to everyone, but certainly to enough people to be mentioned in this article, and it is of the models, gold diggers, and bouncers. As you can imagine, when we are referring to models and gold diggers we are referring to women and when we say a bouncer we are referring to men in general. 

As such, many Russian women are pretty, almost model-like (good for them), but also they are poor. For a long time in Russia (and I guess everywhere else in the world), women were the breadwinners. As such, they developed certain tactics to win in life, such as to go after the richest and most successful men, often in detriment to many other personality traits, such as a sense of humor, good looks, and social skills overall. 

Respectfully, they exclusively focused on their winning characteristics, such as looks, demanding something in return—money, status, and power. As such, they became (and still are) quite materialistic, or in other words, gold diggers. 

On the other hand, men acquired a cutthroat mentality to get access to the above-mentioned qualities and become harsh, rude, and physically imposing. This is why I joke that models are often paired with bouncers in Russia.

Certainly, this stereotype exists everywhere in the world, but it is still going strong especially in Russia. It works, but only to a certain level, as it makes both men and women superficial, incomplete, and unsatisfied with their lives, whereas the only way to win seems to be to either become stupidly rich or super hot.

Russian Invasion of Ukraine

As this point, it is still hard to say about how the war will ultimately affect Happiness in Russia, but few things are already visible. On one side, we are seeing sanctions being imposed on Russia by many governments of the world. On the other side, Russia is entering into another cycle of self-isolation away from the rest of the world.

This affects everyday Russian as it reduces their purchasing power, access to some key products, and inability to escape the cold, as they are no longer welcome on the beaches in south of France (at least for the time being). Furthermore, many Russians are afraid of Russiaphobia, as they are afraid that other people will think bad of them, while they didn’t actually do anything wrong.

Ultimately, only the time will tell how this all will play out, which is why I leave this topic at it is for the time being.

Happiness in Other Parts of the World

Lastly, I received a lot of personal feedback on this and other articles about happiness in different parts of the world. This made me realize that people generally are interested in knowing about happiness in their / other countries in the world. 

As such, I started a whole investigation into Happiness & the World. I’m looking for eager local people who can share their experience, telling me what makes people happy in their parts of the world . As such, some of the other countries I wrote or still writing about are:

  • Japan,
  • India,
  • Bhutan (considered to be one of the happiest places in the world),
  • United Kingdom, and more!

Let me know in comments what country you would like to read about next, or send me a private message if you are interested in collaborating and writing about happiness is your country.

Stay happy and drink vodka!

Roman Russo

Roman Russo

Roman Russo is the founder, main author, and Chief Happiness Officer at Optimal Happiness. He is also the author of Optimal Happiness: The Fastest & Surest Way to Reach Your Happiest Potential, a revolutionary book about becoming the happiest version we can be. After studying this topic for over 8 years Roman believes that everyone can reach their happiest potential, challenging people to reach these highs. Are you ready to accept this challenge?

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