Thursday, December 02, 2010

Our gift of happiness

If you’re unhappy, blame the economy. Certainly for the Irish, it’s the economy, stupid. But if you are U.S. President Barack Obama, you may well add the Republicans and the Tea Party movement to your woes.

As the gross domestic product of most nations, big and small, continues to dwindle, governments are now starting to ask if it’s time to rethink the measure of a country’s growth or decline and whether it has anything to do with the level of happiness of the people.

The British (UK) government, for example, is set to include a “happiness index” in gauging the national mood, which would include measuring people’s psychological and environmental well-being. France and Canada are also looking at similar initiatives as the movement to think seriously about being happy goes global. Nobel economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen have urged world leaders to move away from a purely economic concept of gross domestic product to one that includes measures of well-being and sustainability, and the world seems to be listening.

Even a poor country like the Philippines has jumped on the bandwagon. Senator Loren Legarda has suggested measuring whether economic activities make people live in a healthier environment, educated and better acquainted with their cultural roots. Legarda echoes the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) which the Kingdom of Bhutan practises in looking at their economic growth.

Bhutan’s concept of GNH is anchored on its four pillars: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental and cultural conservation, and good governance. So far, however, the Bhutan government has only produced technical papers about its GNH philosophy, and no actual and practical way of measuring it.

This is why the UK government intends to add questions in its household survey which starts as early as next spring about people’s subjective well-being, with the purpose of attaining a more objective sense of how well people are achieving their life goals. There is a pervading air of nervousness in Downing Street with the prospect of testing the national mood amid the government’s deepest budgetary cuts in a long time.

But the problem in measuring national well-being or happiness depends largely on the accuracy of surveys and who are conducting them. Well-being is a multifaceted dimension and cannot be reduced to a simple question of how happy people are or how satisfied they are with their life. People may be satisfied with their basic needs if that is the only thing you may want to find out. They may be happy with their present state of health, their jobs or their income. Yet they may be unsatisfied with their government leaders, the way they make decisions or policies about the environment or solutions for criminality. And if the government is conducting the survey, it may be logical to expect that its questionnaire will include only matters which it may be held responsible, or those which would yield favourable responses about those who run the government and their performance. Public perception could be everything, and no sitting government will allow itself to be damned by a wave of popular discontent and dissatisfaction.

If the government is to be trusted with any type of “happiness” survey, then it should be willing to test its fairness by allowing validation of the results by non-governmental surveys from time to time. A replication of the official surveys will provide transparency and reliability as to their methodology or original or raw data, which in the long run, will make people trust this kind of surveys.

But let us keep ourselves grounded on the earth we are standing on right now. Why this sudden interest in measuring whether we are happy or unhappy? For one, it only shows how much we have become miserable with our lives to dwell on happy or unhappy thoughts, and even for governments to conduct official surveys to find out our state of well-being as a probable excuse for admitting a declining GDP. For instance, there is the perception that the rich are really getting richer, and they may not make for a happy society when you count and stack their numbers against the poor or even the fabled middle class. Is this a fair thing or not?

For us Filipinos, whether here in Toronto or in Manila, happiness is a state of mind that doesn’t need measuring. Our idea of happiness is very shallow, as we commonly attribute this to our nonchalant attitude of mababaw ang kaligayahan natin (our happiness wellspring is hollow). As one Filipino writer suggests, “we are a culture of conviviality.” We all embrace our basic values of pakikisama, hiya, utang na loob (friendship, shame, debt of gratitude) as opposed to Western values such as individual authenticity, freedom, virtue, etc. We favour maintaining smooth relations over being confrontational. We would prefer to suffer in silence rather than push our grievances, no matter how legitimate.

After centuries of colonization, we still remain imprisoned by this culture that values sociability for the sake of preserving harmonious relationships. We welcome foreigners to our land and homes with open arms, even let them exploit our natural wealth. Our culture of happiness springs from our good relations with our family, relatives, friends and neighbours – to be able to engage them in pleasant conversations, story-telling and sharing of jokes.

No wonder the Philippines has outranked the United States in the world’s survey of happiest countries. But the significance of this ranking hides our other more pernicious side, if we are to probe deeper into the culture that allows this generosity. For some of us, we appear to be benevolent only insofar as it will make us look good outside, or being caring only when it pertains our immediate family and relations.

Even as we have been transplanted abroad, our basic cultural orientation still radiates towards home. Away in a foreign land, it is still with our family and friends where we feel happiest. But to a certain limit. We do good and feel good where it puts us way ahead of or held in high esteem by others. Or we do good and feel good when it earns us points.

This weekend, graduates from the University of the Philippines here in Toronto are holding a Christmas shindig with singing and dancing that reminisce the nostalgic early seventies, with features such as Two for the Road with Joey and Elvira and Uncle Bob and Friends for the older ones, and Penthouse Live 1 with Martin and Pops and Friends for the younger set. Although the invitation suggested that attendees could bring Christmas gifts for disadvantaged children, this part was made “optional only.” That the gifts for the disadvantaged children should merit only second mention and a caveat to boot (just in case attendees would not be as well disposed to share at this season of giving as they are with the partying), says a lot on what we believe and value most.

Like the rich Filipinos back home who think giving to the poor is an act of charity that can be disposed of at will, alumni of the Philippines’ premier state university in Toronto have shown real benevolence or caring for the poor: they may or may not give it, depending on their predisposition or mood at the moment. But the partying will go on. We are a happy people, after all.

1 comment:

chinachix said...


came across your blog from Kapisanan website. interesting to read the world views of another pinoy-canadian.

this post reminds me of a book i read not too long ago, "the geography of bliss" by eric weiner.

although he traveled as far as thailand (and bhutan) to chart happiness indices, somehow, he missed manila. sayang.