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Happiness is a Filipino trademark. Or so many of us wish to believe.
Some might even be proud that Filipinos are named among the happiest people on earth. And for good reason.
We’re camera trigger happy and forever crazy over all kinds of parties. Thus, FOMO is all too real for many Filipinos.
They also say that Pinoys are always ready to smile, even in times of crisis. That, many would argue, is the mark of our resilience.
But are we really a happy people?
Survey data might provide some answers.
One proxy indicator is our collective sense of optimism. The literature shows that a positive relationship exists between one’s subjective happiness and sense of the future.
If this were true, then Filipinos should be a bunch of happy people.
Conducted in the first week of December, Pulse Asia’s survey tells us that 92% of Filipinos are facing the new year with hope. This was exactly the same figure that yielded when Filipinos were asked the same question in 2022.
SWS has shown too that, year after year, Filipinos consistently look forward to better days ahead. According to its most recent run, conducted in October 2023, 48% of Filipinos were “optimistic that their lives will get better” in the next 12 months, as opposed to only 6% who think otherwise.
The only time there were more pessimists than optimists was in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there’s another picture worth considering.
For this we can turn to what the World Happiness Report 2023 refers to as “life evaluation.” Based on a scale of 1-10, respondents around the world were asked to “evaluate their current life as a whole.” For its researchers, life evaluations are a “more stable measure” of people’s quality of life than are positive or negative emotions. The latter, by contrast, tend to be dependent on immediate circumstances.
If life evaluations were the basis, Filipino happiness is somewhere in the middle of the world. With an average score of 5.523, the Philippines ranks 76 out of 137 countries.
Nobody, however, got the perfect score. The happiest is Finland (7.804). At the bottom of the list are Lebanon and Afghanistan (2.392 and 1.859, respectively).
From this vantage point, Filipinos are thus happy, but of the average sort. Perhaps a konsuwelo is that we are in the same league as our peers in Miss Universe: Colombia (5.630), Dominican Republic (5.569), Ecuador (5.559), and Peru (5.526).
Which one then is the more accurate picture of Filipino happiness? How happy are we, really?
No easy answer here, but there are lessons to learn.
The first is that happiness is difficult to define.
It’s often conflated with many other concepts, such as joy, wellbeing, and the good life. And those in faith communities look to joy as a deeper disposition, one that signals overall stability even in the midst of difficulties. Happiness, from their perspective, is shallower, dependent on external circumstances and thus ephemeral.
Because of this complexity, sociologists tend to opt for a simpler route, looking for proxy indicators that are much easier to measure.
The second is the overall pessimism of sociology as a discipline.
At a faculty assembly many moons ago, a sociologist colleague of mine questioned the happy findings presented by the university administration. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it was about, but I do remember what he said in response. I was a junior professor then.
“When all others think of it as happy, the sociologist comes in to ask, ‘what’s wrong?’” He then explained that such is the nature of the beast that is sociology, finding fault in places that others would describe as fully delightful.
My senior colleague is right. And he’s not alone in making this point.
“Most sociologists are killjoys,” according to US-based sociologists Stef Shuster and Laurel Westbrook. Our discipline, after all, has largely paid attention to the world’s wicked problems. Sociologists have kept themselves busy studying social problems, from domestic violence to structural inequality, and unpacking their systemic roots.
Nothing happy with these topics.
And, whenever we talk about happiness, it’s typically from a skeptical perspective. Sociologists tend to approach (or critique?) people’s pursuit of happiness as escapism, if not a form of consumerism. Either way, sociologists argue that such pursuit is inherent to capitalism and the very condition of modernity.
Perhaps the best way to make sense of happiness among Filipinos is to accept its complexity.
A new wave of the sociology of happiness is emerging and it does exactly that – recognizing that happiness includes “fleeting emotional experiences,” but also the “longer-term social and biographical process” that people undergo.
From this vantage point, it does make sense that Filipinos are optimistic about the future, as SWS and Pulse Asia have repeatedly pointed out.
But we are also realistic about where we are. Our collective score for our quality of life is average – ‘sakto lang. This means the room for improvement is big, thus the optimism about the future.
Because happiness is both fleeting and long-term, we can embrace the many factors that account for the good life.
The economy, life expectancy, and corruption are significant factors here, which explains why it’s the rich and transparent countries that have made it to the top of the World Happiness Report.
There’s an insight here. We should be critical whenever we hear others say that happiness is a choice. Insofar as my daily activities are concerned, I agree that it is.
But happiness can’t be a choice for the everyday Filipino at the mercy of a corrupt government and an economy that relies on cheap labor.
Not only is it unfair, but asking ordinary Filipinos to choose happiness deflects the accountability from those in power. On such occasions happiness is mere fantasy.
Finally, the sociology of happiness signals the importance of relationships. Even the World Happiness Report recognizes that.
I do not for a bit wish to romanticize relationships.
At the very least, what research shows is that social support is integral to Filipino happiness. (Years ago I wrote about the pain of being alone to reflect on this reality.)
And, no, social support does not have to come from our own relatives. Not all families are ideal, no matter what we see in the media.
Indeed, one finds happiness in the noche buena, but also during ordinary meals prepared by a friend one hasn’t seen in a while. One finds it too in a close-knit barkada, but also among colleagues who support each other. And, in times of crisis, being surrounded by the right people is sometimes all a person needs.
There is, in other words, so much assurance in being with people who care for us.
Lest we forget, relationality is also about caring for others. In it happiness is to be found too.
For sociologist Dan Brook, “kindness and generosity toward others are more likely to lead to happiness and joy, which is then more likely to lead to more acts of kindness and generosity.”
It’s a virtuous cycle, so to speak.
In the final analysis, what the sociology of happiness signals is that there’s so much more to happiness than meets the eye. If sociology teaches us that society is constructed, we can aim to transform ours by becoming more caring – and responsible – for each other.
And, for us Filipinos, I think it’s one happy trademark worth aiming for. – Rappler.com
Jayeel Cornelio, PhD (TOYM 2021) is a sociologist in the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. He has conducted extensive research on religion and public life. Follow him on X @jayeel_cornelio.