November 12, 2006

The pursuit of happiness II

Something Like Life
Nov. 10, 2006

SOMETIME early this year, one of the most astounding news ever to be published about the Philippines was its No. 17 ranking on the Happy Planet Index (HPI).

Here we are, a country where the government’s foremost occupation is corruption, where 80 percent of its population live in abject poverty, and our future economy is about to tip over due to “brain hemorrhage” (a severe form of the “brain drain” that plagued the country in the ’70s), considered the 17th happiest country in the world!

On first reading, the cynic in me thought all those fiestas where we gorge on lechon and drown ourselves in beer have probably made us immune to the realities of our dismal existence. I mean, really, how can we be happy when there is fly-infested garbage reeking in almost every corner and at every intersection, there are traffic cops just waiting for some speed freak try to beat a red light just so they can get their next meal ticket?

On the other hand, despite these stark realities, it’s a considerable achievement that we have not yet sunk into mass depression, and we still manage to somehow smile through it all. We forward text jokes to one another, laugh at ourselves being poked fun at by gay sing-along masters, and just generally party at the drop of a hat. We probably have the most number of holidays on the calendar that allow us to hold fiestas or go on vacations.

The consumption of beer is high whether the economy is up or down. In other words, we still know how to have fun despite our otherwise seemingly desperate situation. (And I suppose without us realizing it, being a prayerful people helps lift our collective spirits.)

Maybe it’s no surprise that along with the Philippines, other countries on the top of the HPI are Latin-American countries and island nations. (Vanuatu, a tiny island in the South Pacific, is considered the happiest country on earth!) What we all have in common is that, economically speaking, we are probably among the poorer nations in the world, and with a per capita income equivalent to what a New Yorker probably spends in a day. Yet most of us are countries still attuned somehow to our natural surroundings and are a people with an earthy sensuality, which probably gives us the spring to our steps. We dance to some inner music that other countries can only envy and cannot duplicate.

When I worked in the Department of Agriculture years ago and had the opportunity to go to the farthest and innermost barrios in the country, I was always fascinated with the farmers and their seemingly simple but happy and contented lives. They would wake up each morning, pour hot coffee over their rice, and go till their tiny farms. Their aim was simple: to harvest enough palay or whatever crop they had planted for that season to ensure their children were able to go to school and, if luck was on their side, finish college.

Some of these were places were not even reached by electricity and bereft of indoor plumbing, two of the most vital conditions for us city folk to consider a place “livable.”

But these hardworking men would return to homes lit by gaseras, and have simple dinners with their families before going to bed. Sometimes before going home they would pass by some neighbor’s home and have a few rounds of Ginebra or some strong coconut-based alcoholic beverage. But whether with their families or their friends, laughter would ring out everywhere. It was always a strange feeling to be among these simple folk who couldn’t care less about how many coups played out in Manila, and yet my fascination with them would never cease.

Perhaps there is some wisdom in the King of Bhutan’s dedication to the pursuit of his nation’s Gross National Happiness growth, instead of the Gross National Product (GNP) expansion most countries are told to achieve. GNP, along with gross domestic product (GDP), measures the economic output of a country. However, both economic measures say very little about the happiness and well-being of a people. (Happy Vanuatu ranked 207th among 233 nations in terms of GDP.)

So finally, after the excesses of the past decades, new economic theorists and social scientists are looking into ways to tie government policy to address what basically accounts for one’s humanity and impact on the environment. Basing their assumption on the theory (or what the more spiritual among us would call a “truth”) that “Money Isn’t Everything,” the London-based think-tank New Economics Foundation (NEF) established the HPI using nonfinancial accounts. It is calculated using a country’s consumption against its worldwide environmental impact, subjective reports on how satisfied the people feel about their lives, and their life expectation at birth. (Out of 178 countries ranked, the UK and the US were 108 and 150, respectively, on the HPI.)

While it is not a perfect measure, it does give policymakers an idea on what’s probably missing in the lives of their citizens. And while authorities may be tempted to hold back programs to improve their country’s economic growth (“We’re happy as we are anyway!”), HPI can help governments reform their policies to address issues that would allow their citizens to be truly happy and content…such as cleaner surroundings, improved access to health-care facilities, or even just more greenery in cities.

And so as Harvard University revolutionizes the education sector by teaching students how to find self-fulfillment, so does NEF and its HPI in helping change government attitudes toward what constitutes real growth. The HPI teaches us that there is no need to sacrifice relationships (to one’s surroundings or with other people) to achieve economic expansion

So, are you happy?

To find out how you rank on the HPI, take the survey at Happy Planet Index.

(My column Something Like Life is published every Friday in the Life Section of the Business Mirror.)

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