HapPinoy: Why Are Filipinos Always Happy?

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You’ve seen us before, always flashing smiles for the camera. While news reporters detail with a calamitous scene, Filipinos — notorious for their exuberance — puzzle people with our ability to smile through just about anything. We grin ear to ear and wave our hands as if nothing bad has happened.

Despite living in a country where a good portion of workers earn USD $8 a day (PhP 350 for National Capital Region; PhP 275 for rural regions), Pinoys are mysteriously happy and no one knows exactly how or when this spirit of lightheartedness began.

Some believe our happiness is due to the abundance in sunlight we absorb every day. Filipinos are loaded with Vitamin D, which gives a natural boost of serotonin or the happiness hormone. Our strategic geographic location close to equator is complemented with a carbohydrate and protein-rich diet that also amps up serotonin. It’s safe to say that Filipinos are biologically and naturally made to exude jubilance.

Some ask: Are they high? On some sort of a happiness potion? Maybe not.  Our happiness is a deeply-rooted trait more like a genetic characteristic than a passing one that fades over time. The Philippine brand of happiness has developed into a cultural trademark that has become commonplace or an expected norm.

Happiness is so common in the Filipino culture that we have grown fond of names that are euphoric in nature. At some point in our week, we will meet or speak with several fellow Pinoys with names such as Joy, Happy, Jolly, Ligaya (Filipino for happy), Bliss or even the double-whammy, Merry Joy. We live in joy too, literally, as there are streets named Masaya, Maligaya, Galak—all pertaining to happiness in vernacular. Behaviorally or culturally speaking, Filipinos do well in living up to the happiness trademark. It’s no wonder that the Philippines fares well in World Happiness Report, a survey that assesses how happy citizens gauge to social progress.

Happiness Index

Out of 155 countries, the Philippines managed to land on the better half of the Happiness Index list. It ranks 72nd on the latest survey conducted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions. Philippines’ position may not appear that impressive but when analyzed, it’s incredible to think that the nation made into the upper half considering its third-world country situation. If you’re still not impressed, Philippines once ranked fifth—topping off privileged countries like United States, Japan, Canada, and even the Baltic states like Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

This is according to a separate report commissioned by the Gallup Positive Experience Index in 2014. Going back to the latest UN survey, the organization analyzed happiness based on several factors: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Noticeably, the last three factors (health, income and good governance) are measures that each Filipino cannot fully control. Health is unpredictable while income and good governance are among the things that our impoverished country needs to work on. Meanwhile, the first four determinants are intangible things that Filipinos may possess. Not that other people aren’t as caring, free, generous or honest but Filipinos possess culturally developed qualities that make them easily caring and generous. Aside from being happy people, Filipinos are known for their resiliency and for having closely-knit family ties.

Filipinos’ spirit of resiliency

The idea of resilience was first explored in 1989 by an American developmental psychologist, Emmy Werner. She described it as an “internal locus of control” or the ability to perceive that actions are what mold their lives and not the circumstances.

In a less-riddled explanation, resiliency is the capability of bouncing back after an adversity. As per her study composed of nearly 700 children, Werner noticed that a portion of them with “risk backgrounds”— those who faced with poverty and family issues — shared the same “bounce back” trait that drove them to move on despite their struggles.

The trait resulted in various positive outcomes like success, as proven by Werner after she followed the children for thirty years. Aside from that, resiliency is also a precursor to happiness because of satisfaction and goals achievement.

The correlation of this quality to happiness is clearly undeniable. In the case of Filipinos, our resiliency has been proven over and over, most notably in the wake of typhoon Yolanda, one of the strongest recorded typhoons of all time.  Yolanda, or internationally known as Haiyan, took approximately 7,000 lives. Yet, its intensity didn’t match the unwavering spirit of Filipinos, even after losing their hard-earned possessions.

Circulating photos of Filipinos in the calamity-stricken province of Tacloban were praised by people of all races. Photographs of Filipinos helping their fellowmen and smiling after the calamity earned respect from nations across the globe. Damages were pegged at $12 billion bu that became nothing but a number. As long as families were safe, all was good and they had reason to be happy.  This is a clear indication that for Filipinos, family is invaluable.

Tight family ties  

Filipino families have an easily identifiable trait that sets us apart from many western nations. In countries such as the United States, when a person reaches the age of 20 or 21 they are expected to go to university or perhaps live independently from their parents. This is more prevalent during excellent economic conditions but it is a popular notion that does not exist in the Philippines.

There may be dependent issues that can be considered as negative, but no one can blame them because Filipinos are accustomed to maintaining tight family ties. Some Filipino young adults start building their separate lives when they marry and begin their own families but in many cases, children still live with their parents even after marrying or having kids. In the Philippines, we have this innate obligation to take care of our parents especially as they age, and the solution to this has never been homes for the aged, but rather, simply living together as an extended family.

This kind of setup may raise eyebrows but it has been a successful recipe that has made Filipino families happier. The more, the merrier, so they say — that’s why it’s common for us to be seen living with our uncles, aunts and other relatives.

Filipinos find so much value in relationships that we call our parents’ friends as “tita” or “tito” (aunt or uncle) even if we’ve only known them for a week. We love to treat everyone as family and that includes strangers. Go to a place you’ve never been before and you’ll hear the elders being called by people they have only just met as “lolo” or “lola” (grandfather or grandmother”).

It’s the human things

In a TED talk, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger asked: “What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?” He answered the question by referencing their Harvard study, the longest one that’s ever been conducted on the life of an adult.

For 75 years, generations of Harvard researchers tracked nearly 2,000 men until the count slimmed down to 60. The men included one-time Harvard college graduates, boys from Boston’s neighborhood’s and others from all walks of life. Lawyers, doctors, bricklayers, factory workers, and a previous president of the United States answered a question that has confounded humans for centuries. After tens and thousands of responses, researchers had their answer.  It’s not the money nor the fame; it’s the relationships that keep people happier and healthier.

So, as it turns out, it’s other people that make us happy and this is indeed the case for Filipinos. Most of us will never be rich and many of us may live in makeshift houses but we have a lot of relationships and we are nothing if not resilient.  For Filipinos, the things that matter the most aren’t things at all — they’re us.

Written by Mikaela Sarthou

Mikaela Sarthou is a journalism degree holder from a university in Espana, Manila. She is a betrothed woman to an American citizen but believes in no other dream but the “Philippine dream,” because it’s where her family is. This twenty-something mom also adores the word boundless and hopes to be boundless someday.

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