COIMBRA, Portugal — To millions of tourists who flock here from northern Europe, Portugal appears to be a land of good fortune, blessed with endless sandy beaches, a balmy climate, fine wines and abundant seafood.
The local view is decidedly less rosy.
According to two recent surveys, the Portuguese are Western Europe’s most miserable people.
Only 46 percent of Portuguese are satisfied with their lives, according to a poll released by the European Union in February. Within the EU, only Bulgarians have a higher glumness rating.
Less than a third of Portuguese think their family finances are in good shape and barely a quarter expect life to get better in the next 12 months, levels of gloominess exceeded only in Hungary.
Portuguese rate their happiness level at just over 6 out of 10, the lowest outside Eastern Europe, showed a separate study published in March by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.
Does the data give evidence to the theory that the Portuguese are born to be blue? This, after all, is the land of “saudade,” an untranslatable state of mind forged by centuries of emigration that evokes a longing for cherished losses.
Then there is fado, the unique musical style epitomized by women in black mourning lost love over a background of weeping guitars. Take for example the classic lyrics revived this year on the latest album by new wave fado diva Tereza Salgueiro: “With which voice shall I cry my sad destiny, which has entombed me in such heavy passion?”
Here is late, great fado singer Amalia Rodrigues:
Some see the current fado revival among young Portuguese as one more sign of the nation’s dark mood. However, for all the melancholy cultural references, the current despondency may have a more obvious cause: the economy, stupid.
“You just can’t say that this is in our genes, that we were born to spend our days gazing out over the Atlantic and weeping,” said sociologist Sofia Gaspar. “There are many factors why the Portuguese would give these pessimistic or unhappy responses, but the first is economic.”
The recession has hit the Portuguese particularly hard.
While last year’s Wall Street meltdown brought a sudden halt to boom times in many European nations, Portugal was only just beginning to claw its way out of an already deep downturn when the global crisis struck.
Portugal basked in growth rates that averaged about 4 percent for 15 years after it joined the EU in 1986 due in large part to investment attracted by cheap labor. By 2002 the good years were over as Portugal’s cut-price factories faced competition from China and soon-to-be EU members in Eastern Europe.
After five years of stagnation, growth was creeping back up when the world economic crisis dragged Western Europe’s poorest nation back into recession.
The opinion polls seem to show that money can buy you happiness. Rich northern nations led by Denmark, Sweden and Finland are the EU’s most cheerful despite the prevalence of long winters, pickled herring and Ingmar Bergman movies.
“The higher the wages are, the more secure the jobs, the better educated people, the more optimistic the country will be,” argued Gaspar, an expert at Lisbon’s Center for Research and Studies in Sociology.
Gaspar also sees a demographic factor. Many older Portuguese were denied a decent education under the right-wing dictatorship that ruled the country from 1928 until a bloodless revolution in 1974. They often feel alienated from modern society and disappointed with progress made since the establishment of democracy.
“Expectations after the revolution and after the entry into the EU were very high,” Gaspar said. “There’s no doubt things have improved a lot, but they haven’t met people’s expectations, people are disappointed.”
The younger generation seems distinctly less gloomy. Students coming out of class at Coimbra’s historic university were upbeat on a recent spring evening.
“The Portuguese have got so many reasons not to be sad. We’ve got a great climate. We've got a fantastic country. The only thing that that's getting people down is this economic crisis,” said Marisa Augusta, 23.
Andrea Andrade agreed. “The current conditions are not favorable, but even with that we’re still optimistic, at least, that's how I feel and that's how my friends feel,” said the 19-year-old law student. “We're hopeful that things will change for the better."
More on Portugal: