This paper studies the effect of regional unemployment rates on subjective well-being in post-Soviet Russia. Research conducted in Europe and the United States has documented that higher unemployment rates lead to lower reported life-satisfaction. By contrast, our Russian study finds a small but significant effect in the other direction. We estimate that during the period of our study (1995-2001), each percentage point increase in the local unemployment rate was correlated with the average well-being of people in the region increasing by an amount equivalent to moving 2% of the population up one level in life satisfaction measured on a five-point scale. Our intuition is that the so-called comparison effect drives this result: when individuals observe their peers suffering in a troubled economy, they lower their standards of what is good enough. All else equal, they thus perceive themselves to be better off in worse times. In highlighting the dependence of subjective well-being scores on expectations and reference groups, we sound a note of caution against using happiness data from economies in crisis to draw macroeconomic policy conclusions.
For the first time, a major economy is saying: We will be better off doing things by ourselves, and making our own decisions. And that's a bit of a shock to the system.