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Who is Happy in Post-Socialist Slovenia?: Political Legitimacy and the Dynamic of the “Happiness Gap”

Who is Happy in Post-Socialist Slovenia?: Political Legitimacy and the Dynamic of the “Happiness Gap”


Brina Malnar, Public Opinion and Mass Communication Research Centre at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana,

Slavko Kurdija, Public Opinion and Mass Communication Research Centre at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana,

Ivan Bernik, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana,

ISSN: 1335-3608


The article starts from the premise that the legitimacy of the post-socialist order is strongly related to its ability to generate a level of happiness among the lower social strata that is not significantly lower than the happiness enjoyed by the privileged social strata. We used three waves of the Slovenian Public Opinion Survey and seven waves of the European Social Survey to explore the hypothesis that the average level of happiness in Slovenia is higher in the post-socialist period than during the socialist period, due to Slovenia’s relative prosperity and new democratic circumstances. Whereas mature socialism was characterized by a rather egalitarian distribution of happiness, we would expect that in a post-socialist society inequalities would be increasing also in this area of personal wellbeing. This expectation is based on the assumption that growing inequality in the distribution of happiness is one of the consequences of the emergence of a more competitive economic, political and social order, which has led to the accumulation both of advantages and disadvantages. In other words, the growing gap between transition winners and losers should be reflected also in their respective levels of happiness. However, this growing gap may not be fully or significantly reflected in the overall trend of happiness, as the decrease in subjective well-being (SWB) in some social strata could be “masked” by its increase in other strata.

World-wide happiness analyses by Inglehart et al. (2008) also addressed the link between levels of life satisfaction and system legitimacy. The authors conclude that society’s level of well-being is intimately related to the legitimacy of the socioeconomic and political system. If the SWB in an entire society falls sharply below its normal baseline, it can destabilize the entire socio-political order. As transition in Slovenia has been characterized neither by extreme economic stagnation nor political instabilities, we expected that average level of happiness will be higher in the post-socialist times compared to the socialist period, due to relative prosperity and new democratic circumstances. This would indicate that the new regime has been able to fulfil the basic expectations with regard to material well-being and create the economic and political conditions which facilitate a greater trust in the future.

In addition to examining the general trend, we set out to explore the social distribution of happiness over time, i.e. the happiness (trend) distinguished by two basic social strata. The sequence of surveys across time is such that it covers several significant historical periods. The first wave dates back to the socialist era, the second and third wave were carried out in the 1990s when transition-related social stresses reached their peak, the fourth and fifth are from the period of social stabilization and economic prosperity after 2000, while the last two waves were fielded when the global economic downturn that began in 2008 was already under way. In this way we could observe the relationship between happiness and socio-economic position in two political systems, as well as examine whether this relationship is affected by major episodes of social stress and economic crises.

Our key dependant variable was the following: ‘Taking  all things together, how happy would you say you are?’ The answers were measured on an eleven-point numeric scale (ranging from 0 to 10), with labelled ends (0 ‘very unhappy’ and 10 ‘very happy’). Our results show that overall levels of happiness are relatively high throughout the entire measurement period; with the aggregate value consistently remaining at the 2/3 of the scale range. This is true for the only measurement carried out in the socialist regime, as well as for the successive measurements in the period of democratic transition. Nevertheless, even though some of the cross-time differences between years are rather small there is some moderate-scale dynamic in the overall trend, such as a slight dip in the first half of the 1990s, compared to the ‘socialist’ starting point. A more pronounced shift is observable in 1999. Until then the mean value hovers around 6.7, then jumps to 6.9 and later on to 7.1 and 7.2.

In light of the transition effect, we explored another explanatory factor; namely optimism. In times of rapid social change an important mediating factor for personal happiness is likely to be the perception of future opportunities. If those whose expectations have not (yet) been met believe that this will happen within the foreseeable future, their current disappointments may lead to a smaller decline in their level of happiness than in those individuals who have less trust in the future. Our analysis confirmed that optimism plays an important role in the subjective self-assessments of happiness. With the exception of health, optimism is the strongest predictor of happiness, which suggests that an optimistic outlook does have the potential to compensate for the current lack of material standards among the ‘losers’ of transition.

In summary, our data indicates the remarkable stability of the overall happiness levels, despite key historical changes that have taken place between 1992 and 2014. We believe that the relatively smooth nature of Slovenia’s transition in terms of economic and welfare performance is the most likely explanation for this result. Nevertheless, the transition did result in specific structural dynamics with regard to the distribution of happiness among different social strata. Our analysis captured a gradual underlying process of differentiation between class-specific happiness trends. The between-class gap has been growing steadily over the twenty-year period, supporting the theory that the overall level of happiness may disguise contradictory sub-trends. While in the upper educational group happiness has grown more or less steadily since the mid-1990s, it remained largely stable in the lower one. At the end point in 2012 the average level of happiness is actually slightly lower in this group than it was thirty years before. This confirms our expectation that the moderate rise in overall happiness in Slovenia observed after 1999 was not equally socially distributed, but was mainly a result of a rise in happiness in the wealthier groups. The ‘happiness gap’ between both social groups increases with time, most notably in 2006.

However, during the period of economic recession which began to affect Slovenia in 2009, the gap has shown a peculiar dynamic. We would expect it to grow even further under economic pressure, but the distance between the two social classes was in fact slightly reduced during the worst period of the crisis. A more detailed insight into how the crisis was handled by the national government reveals that the observed phenomenon is in fact a logical consequence of the type of austerity measures taken; namely, the measures did not so much affect the most vulnerable social groups as they did the middle class, which can be illustrated by the figures from several international institutions. Moreover, even with the recent recovery of economic growth and the cessation of the austerity measures law, some of their elements remain in place and they are precisely those that target primarily the middle class. It should therefore be interesting to see to what extent future happiness levels will be affected by the recent period of economic crises and the erosion of trust in institutions that it has brought. If the aftermath of the recession will begin to adversely affect individual and household wellbeing and the prosperity of the middle classes, happiness levels are bound to settle into a downward trend and the legitimacy of the democratic system will suffer.

Bibliografické informácie (sk)

MALNAR, Brina – KURDIJA, Slavko – BERNIK, Ivan. Who is Happy in Post-Socialist Slovenia?: Political Legitimacy and the Dynamic of the “Happiness Gap”. Človek a spoločnosť, 2017, roč. 20, č. 4, s. 42-60.

Bibliographic information

MALNAR, Brina – KURDIJA, Slavko – BERNIK, Ivan. Who is Happy in Post-Socialist Slovenia?: Political Legitimacy and the Dynamic of the “Happiness Gap”. Individual and Society, 2017, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 42-60.

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