Some years ago when we were living in Hungary I came across a study that surveyed people from every major region of the world to assess how happy or unhappy they were with life. Eastern Europe turned out to be the region with the unhappiest people in the entire world. That's not a surprise for those of us who have lived in that part of the world and are familiar with its history and culture. It wasn't that long ago that Hungary, for example, had the highest per capita rate of suicide in the world. While things have improved somewhat in that regard, Hungary still ranks 5th or 6th in the world for suicide these days.
Today, however, I came across this video by Reuters on a study of the unhappiest nations in Europe. Out of 19 European nations, only Russia and Bulgaria were ranked as being more unhappy than Hungarians.
But what makes Hungarians so unhappy? Is it their economy? While it's true that Hungary's economy has struggled in recent years, even drawing comparisons last week to Iceland (which was on the verge of bankruptcy until the IMF stepped in), I don't think that's the reason. After all, there are places which are much poorer than Hungary but where people are much happier. My first ever missions experience was in the Philippines. I visited many very poor people there, but in general I noticed that their level of happiness seemed to be higher than in North America. If suicide rates are any indicator Filipinos, with one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, are happier than North Americans. Why?
In my non-expert, unprofessional opinion, it's because relationships are so important to Filipinos. The family unit is still largely intact, and is of central importance to the Filipino culture and way of life. Latin Americans also have much lower rates of suicide than North Americans, yet these are generally nations which are much, much poorer than North America and Western Europe, and even poorer than the perennially depressed Eastern Europeans. But relationships in Hungary are fractured. The family unit is broken and fragmented. Even today the cultural decimation caused by decades of communist rule is still evident. The book by James Michener, The Bridge at Andau, gave a shocking portrait of life in Hungary under communism. People couldn't trust their next-door neighbor, and life was ruled by fear of the government. And while Hungary became a free country in 1991, the fragmented culture never fully healed. My own experience with Hungarian families is that the only healthy ones are ones where the whole family is committed to Christ. It's a rare thing in Hungary to be sure. Many Hungarians call themselves Christians (as do many Americans), but have not experienced the healing and reconciling power of the Gospel in their lives.
Eastern Europe doesn't need more religion, but it does need the Gospel.