Hungarians try to pierce the gloom with a grin

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The Independent Online
After years of leading the world in suicides, alcoholism and downright misery, growing numbers of Hungarians have decided to try something else for a change - being happy.

In small groups up and down the country, more and more former depressives are getting together to think positively, act enthusiastically and, above all, exchange those scowls for smiles.

'Being cheerful all the time can sometimes be hard work,' concedes Peter Berek, the founding president of the Hungarian Optimists' Club. 'But it's a beautiful goal - and certainly beats being permanently pessimistic.'

Like many things in Hungary today, the Optimists' Club is an import from the United States. Mr Berek, a regular visitor to the US, was struck by the contrast between upbeat American attitidues and the despondency he so often encountered at home. In 1989, he opened the first branch of the club in Budapest. Since then it has mushroomed, now boasting 28 branches and more than 1,200 members.

'At first nobody here knew what optimism was,' said Mr Berek breaking easily into a broad grin. 'But given the challenges we faced in 1989, I thought it was essential we developed a new outlook.'

Mr Berek lays much of the blame for his countrymen's moroseness on the 40 years of Communist rule and the stifling of all initiative and hope. But the causes go deeper - as reflected by the much higher suicide and alcoholism rate here than elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Many Hungarian psychiatrists put the national mood down to centuries of military defeats and occupation at the hands of Turks, Austrians, Nazis and Russians which led to the development of a 'loser mentality'. According to Bela Buda, a Budapest psychiatrist, 'this country is suffering from a mass cognitive disorder that has institutionalised complaining'. Others attribute the collective depression to a feeling of linguistic isolation. Not belonging to the Indo-European family, Hungarian is almost unintelligible to other races.

Despite the efforts of Mr Berek and his friends, it is too early to talk of a turnaround. Last year, Hungarians continued to commit suicide in higher numbers than anywhere in the world. Moreover, despite a higher standard of living than almost all their East European neighbours, most Hungarians said they believed things had been better under the Communists.

'It is still an uphill struggle,' conceded Mr Berek. 'But you have got to look on the bright side of life.'

Like the members of the Hungarian Meteorological Optimists' Society. No, they do not quite go so far as to say tomorrow will always be sunny. But if rain is predicted, they point out that they have been proved wrong in the past - and hope they will be again.