Is Central Asia Really Stress-Free?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because statistics aren’t always what they seem.
Central Asia probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when most people plan a relaxing getaway. Landlocked and under-developed, it’s equal parts arid and vast, mountainous and forbidding — a great expanse where history’s most brutal armies terrorized populations for centuries.
Then came more modern regimes that forced their own brands of heavy-handed rule, eventually leaving locals far behind their Western counterparts in terms of living standards. Corruption remains widespread, spurred on by poor governance, while socioeconomic mobility is rare. That’s in addition to the dominance of deeply conservative values that often stifle personal freedoms, as well as the various environmental issues — like pollution and poor water access — that threaten sustainability. Yet somehow:
Four of the world’s five least stressed countries are in Central Asia.
According to Gallup’s latest Global Emotions Report, released in April, Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan claimed the top five spots, respectively, with no more than 13 percent of residents reporting that they’d experienced feelings of stress the day before. It’s one of the measurements that falls under the report’s broader Negative Experiences Index, where at least some of those countries have consistently scored low over the past several years.
Meanwhile, Greece, the Philippines and Tanzania are on the opposite side of the spectrum, with 59, 58 and 57 percent of respondents, respectively, saying they experienced stress during the previous day. The U.S. isn’t exactly relaxed, either: There, 55 percent of respondents were stressed — on par with Albania and Iran.
But consider some of the issues they face. Turkmenistan is perhaps best known as one of the world’s most restrictive regimes, ruled by an eccentric dictator whose bizarre whims guide state policy. Uzbekistan is only just emerging from nearly three decades as a police state, but forced labor in the country’s cotton fields remains widespread. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are doing slightly better, depending on how you look at it: The former’s decades-long ruler finally stepped down this year, though elections remain rigged, and after two revolutions in five years in the mid- to late-2000s, the latter — the most democratic of the bunch, relatively speaking — is still struggling with the rule of law.
Here’s another telling quantitative measurement: The highest that any of those countries rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is 124th out of 180 (that’s Kazakhstan). OZY itself has reported on many of the region’s pressing issues: Take the Kyrgyz activist fighting to end the controversial tradition of bride kidnapping; the Bishkek-based youth journalism collective struggling in a country flirting with authoritarianism; or the Tajik dam whose inevitable failure could result in humanity’s worst natural disaster.
So what gives? One explanation revolves around what experts say is a universal human characteristic. According to University of Kent sociologist Balihar Sanghera, people who face prolonged duress, and who lack the agency to change it, often normalize their experience as a coping mechanism. “They tend to depoliticize it,” he says. “They tend to legitimize their situation, and to treat it as the order of things.”
Yet Sanghera, who’s conducted fieldwork in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, also urges caution when interpreting the results of the survey, noting that methodology — that is, exactly how the questions were asked — always matters. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why locals remain so stress-free in some of the dire circumstances he’s personally studied, which include the construction of shanty towns to make up for the lack of proper housing, electricity and sanitation, as well as the high levels of household indebtedness.
Fellow sociologist Cynthia Buckley, a Eurasia expert at the University of Illinois, wonders whether Gallup’s findings are down to so-called optimism bias. In raising questions about the survey’s validity, she similarly cites a closely studied litany of issues that plague the region: Levels of heart disease, drinking and smoking — all at least partially stress-induced — are on the rise. That’s why Buckley believes the results highlight “a cultural reflection of denial” rooted in the region’s patriarchal societies that aren’t exactly known for exposing weakness to outsiders (or at all).
So if Gallup’s results come with major caveats, does that mean we should write it off? Not so fast, adds Buckley, who believes they contain an instructional message for Americans and other affluent Westerners she says are accustomed to sweating the small stuff.
“With all due respect,” Buckley says, “if taxi drivers in Tashkent think they’ve got it easy, then I better shut up.”