Happiness in Russia: A Culture of Learned Pessimism & 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 don’t say 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).

No, I was born in Russia and have many Russian friends. Everyone wants to be happy and everything we do is for the sake of happiness, or at least to be less unhappy, which is also the case of Russians. Additionally, there are many other countries at war, extreme poverty, and where citizens are denied their basic rights. These countries are generally considered to be way more unhappy than Russia on virtually every happiness scale.

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

2018 World Cup Mascot showing Happiness in Russia

Happiness in Russia With Locals

Unknown to some readers, I was born in Russia, where I lived there for 10 years. Yes, I have double citizenship, also being a child of Europe, where I lived pretty much the rest of my life until today. 

My father, on the other hand, stayed in Russia to pursue his business ventures and he is there to this day. This makes me a native Russian speaker (also speaking 8 other languages), I have a strong personal connection to Russia, and this background gives me a unique perspective to discuss Happiness in Russia, which is also the biggest country in the world overall. 

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, Kazakstan, 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, these countries also have many similar characteristics, which is why when we speak of Russia, which can generalize our conclusion to these Russian speaking countries, too. 

Moreover, this article was re-written several times as a result of many discussions with Russia speakers. 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 went to Russia myself again, so I can observe how much this country changed over 20+ years, to confirm that everything written above was correct. Today, I’m happy to report that this article is very much up to date, but if you feel like you agree or disagree with what is stated here, please leave your ideas in the comments down below! 

A bear, symbol of Russia, in Happiness in Russia

Culture is a Slow Changing Beast

Today we have technology unlike anything previously seen in the world. It connects us globally and influences us in virtually every aspect of our lives, changing even 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 peoples minds often take longer to catch up with a new reality.

I mean, I meet Russians on regular basis and while most of them smile and act friendly, they can also stab you in the back if this helps them in any way. This can even happen if you were nice to them before and that this attitude was not necessary. 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 you will find enough people like this to make you wary.

In fact, I believe that people learn this behaviour from each other, which is why we call it culture. It is passed from generation to generation, almost like 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, Russian have a history of ruling parties which didn’t always have the best interests of 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 poisoning him in order to promote his interests. Lastly, Ivan The Terrible got his terrible title because of the fear he instilled in both his subjects and enemies abroad. 

All these people and more made Russians somewhat distrusting of their leadership and fellow men. After all, some of their neighbors could report them 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 noticed people inside would stop talking or lower their voice in order not be overheard, even if they were not talking about anything noteworthy. Presumably, this is an old reflex designed for self-protection, since if I was an officer in disguise, I could overhear them speaking about something they shouldn’t.

Russian Literature Carries on Past Negativity

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 of the old and famous Russian writers, like Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin, wrote a lot about the negativity of times they lived in. In their times, writing was one of the few ways they could talk about negativity in their lives and 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 in a seriously negative undertone. Respectfully speaking, this reflects in national mentality and their culturally learned pessimism. 

shaking hands in front of Russian flag supporting Happiness in Russia

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 of 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 that will take advantage of you, or at least so they think in Russian.

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 around you is constantly negative. In fact, Russian toughness is just a facade. In reality, people hide their worries, insecurities, and vulnerabilities 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 this blog.

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 it often happened to me, when someone would snarl at me, and it happened on regular basis.

On a personal level, these experiences showed me how good my happiness teachings were overall, 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. 

Vladimir Putin waving Russian flag in support to Happiness in Russia

“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 as you may describe them” – some people will say. I will be the first person to admit that for every rule there is an exception and when it comes to this post I am rather hard with the stereotypes. Yet, there is truth in every stereotype as much as there is truth in every joke.

Thus, when I shared my findings with other Russians, including the idea of a culturally learned optimism and pessimism, I got mixed reactions. Some said that I was exaggerating. They said that this negativity was just isolated cases and the locals smile and laugh much more than they used to. However, most of them later admitted that while things did improve, 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 tram stop 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. These 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, Russian women are pretty, almost model-like (I know, good for them), but also they are poor. For a long time in Russia, and I guess everywhere else in the world, women were not earning money and they relied mostly on men to be the breadwinners. As such, they had to adopt certain tactics to still win in life, such as to go after the richest and most successful men, often in detriment to many other personal qualities, such as a sense of humor, good looks, and social skills overall. 

As such, they exclusively focused on their winning characteristics, such as looks, demanding something in return—materialism, such as money, good cars (preferably Mercedes, which are popular in Russia), and power. As such, they became (and still are) quite materialistic, or in other words, gold diggers. 

On the other hand, men required a certain cutthroat mentality to get access to the above-mentioned qualities women were demanding and started to become harsh, rude, and physically imposing. This is why I joke that models are often paired with these men who resemble bouncers.

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 (hopefully but not necessarily both). In every other case, there is enough room for people to suffer. 

Picture of father and mother together with their baby, happiness in Russia


Marriage and Babies at 21

Russian history lives strongly in Russia and influences Russian people still to this day. One of such old historically imposed way of thinking is to get married at around 21 years old and to have children immediately after. And since people are going to have one child anyway, why not make it two? 

On the positive side, scientists today believe that our ancestors used to have children at a relatively young age, which is why to this day we are biologically predisposed to having children at around age 18-25. After this point, the reproductive cycle of women starts to decline, meaning that it gets harder to have children by the year. Surely, it is still positive to have children at an older age, but they have a higher risk of coming out with some unexpected health complications. This is in addition to women’s prime starting to decline after around 25 years old. 

On the negative side, we are no longer living in the old ages and now people take longer to reach maturity, which is probably somewhere around 25 to early age 31. This means that at 21 people are still expected to attend university and, for the first time, considering holding their first full-time job. In other words, they are still not ready mentally or financially capable to make any serious life decisions, while marriage and babies are exactly that—a serious life decision. 

Moreover, anyone over 30 will say that 21 year old’s are still babies in terms of what they know about themselves, the world, and what is still to come. Psychologists will even add that 21 year old’s are still not ready to give up the life of partying, self-exploration, and changing overall as human beings. As such, it is only at their late 20s that all of these personal characteristics start coming together, such as career, financial independence, and knowing exactly what people want from life. 

As such, it is only in their 30 ‘sthat people become somewhat ready for children, which is off from a biological standpoint, but it is good in terms of having the time, money, and energy to raise a healthy baby. In this respect, still to this day, many Russian have babies around the age of 21 y.o., but they are completely unready for this responsibility, which leads to unhappy children, miserable parents, and broken Russian families overall. 

Happiness in Other Parts of the World

Lastly, I received a lot of personal feedback on this and other articles about happiness I wrote about other countries 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 about happiness in different parts of the world, looking for eager local people who can share their experience and help me find out what elements. As such, some of the other countries I wrote or I am still writing about are Happiness in Japan, India, Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, and more! To find more about these countries see our Happiness & the World catalogue. There, if you still can’t find the article about the country you are most interesting reading, let me know in comments about what country you want to read next, or send me a private message if you are interested in collaborating about writing such an article.

Stay happy and drink vodka!

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