Pinoy happiness

The other night, while walking around the acacia-lined oval of the University of the Philippines Diliman campus, I found myself trailing behind a group of young people lost in cheerful conversation.  They moved unhurriedly and seemed completely oblivious of everything around them.  Every stride they made was marked by laughter. I had seen this before in many places abroad where overseas Filipino workers congregate on their free days.  It became clear to me suddenly what happiness means in our culture.  Our happiness springs from good conversation, story-telling, and joking with relatives and friends.

Happiness, says the Greek philosopher Aristotle, occurs when our human capacities function well.  For him, the most distinctive of these capacities is reason, and so happiness must be the contemplation of the results of reason.  But he wavered between equating happiness with contemplation and seeing it as the outcome of other human functions.  Had he been a Filipino, Aristotle would have concluded that the good life is one lived in conversation.

The eminent American guru of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin E. Seligman, was the guest of Stephen Sackur on BBC’s “Hardtalk” this week.  He talked of three forms of happiness:  Positive Emotions, Total Engagement, and Meaning and Purpose.  They are interrelated, he says, and indeed he talks of them as if they were stages.  Of these, the easiest to achieve is the first – cheerfulness and laughter. The most difficult is anchoring life’s meaning to a purpose that you believe to be larger than you.  This concept of happiness is fascinating, but I think it is culture-bound. It is still resonant of the Western accent on the primacy of reason and the intellect.

Survey after survey has shown that Filipinos rank very high in the happiness index.  But we are not really sure what happiness consists of for the average Pinoy.  The most recent Social Weather Stations survey reports that 64% or more than 2 out of 3 Filipinos expect Christmas to be happy this year.  This is, says SWS, comparable to the 62% of the previous two years, but much lower than the recorded 82% in 2002.  I am certain that the Pinoy’s capacity for happiness even in the most adverse circumstances would still be significantly higher than the scores for the bastions of Aristotelian contemplation, like Britain, France, or Germany.

What might this suggest about the Pinoy’s notion of the good life?  To me, it indicates a preference for sheer sociability – being with others for its own sake – over any form of intellectual or cognitive achievement.  We often say that our notion of happiness is shallow (mababaw ang ating kaligayahan).   So be it.  I think theorists like Seligman or self-help gurus like Rick Warren will have to show how having a “higher” purpose in life deepens one’s happiness, or why this should be the norm for everyone.

When the Pinoy says he feels happiest when he is at home with family and friends, I think he is expressing a wisdom our ancestors have always known.  We are indeed a culture of conviviality.  All our basic values confirm this:  pakikisama, hiya, utang na loob, etc.  They all refer to standards prescribing smooth relations with others.  They stand in contrast to Western values like virtue, wisdom, personal authenticity, freedom, etc.

Sociologists might explain this difference as an aspect of the contrast between pre-modernity and modernity.  They would suggest that the direction of all societal evolution is towards the emergence of the individual from the control of his family, clan, community or nation. To a certain extent this is probably true.  But how do we explain the fact that many overseas Filipino workers and immigrants who have managed to wrench themselves away from the womb of their society nevertheless continue to be emotionally engaged in the affairs of their primordial communities.  Like turtles, they seem to have brought their homes on their backs.

The answer, perhaps, lies in the courage, faith, assurance, and yes, cheerfulness, that we Filipinos effortlessly draw from being in the company of other people we know.  I am sure we will find this as well in other cultures in varying degrees, but not in the exceptional way in which Filipinos seek out each other’s company.

In the 1960s, motivational psychologists like David McClelland were preaching the gospel of the N-Ach (need for achievement).  They measured cultures like ours and pronounced them short in N-Ach. Today, mercifully, they have focused their attention on the economically-advanced societies, measuring them on the happiness index, and pronouncing them severely lacking in happiness.

The modern preoccupation with happiness is amazing.  It has spawned a whole industry in those countries that have solved the basic problems of mass poverty but now must contend with what Seligman calls the “epidemic of depression.” Clearly, there is no direct relationship between wealth and happiness.  Beyond a certain level of wealth, Seligman says, more money buys less happiness. Happiness, just like economic growth, is a worthy goal of the state, Seligman declares.  And many governments are listening.

We Pinoys are still a long way from vanquishing the scourge of mass poverty.  But this seems a lot easier today than the conquest of misery itself.  We may be a failure at governance for now, but it is a great gift that we know how to be happy.  Happy Holidays!


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